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Steering clear of pesticides when buying veggies
00:37 - Source: CNN
CNN  — 

Pesticides used in our homes, gardens and lawns and sprayed on foods we eat are contributing to a dramatic decline in sperm count among men worldwide, according to a new analysis of studies over the last 50 years.

“Over the course of 50 years, sperm concentration has fallen about 50% around the world,” said senior study author Melissa Perry, dean of the College of Public Health at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia.

“What is not known is the culprit,” Perry said. “While there are likely many more contributing causes, our study demonstrates a strong association between two common insecticides —organophosphates and N-methyl carbamates — and the decline of sperm concentration.”

Widely used pesticides

One of the most frequently used compounds in the world, organophosphates are the main components of nerve gas, herbicides, pesticides and insecticides and are also used to create plastics and solvents.

“They are widely used in agriculture on the crops we eat,” Perry said. “We use them in structural applications within homes and buildings, apartment buildings, as well as for ornamental lawn upkeep. They’re available for consumer purchase so organophosphate exposures have been demonstrated to be relatively widespread.”

N-methyl carbamates are structurally and operationally similar to organophosphates, killing insects by damaging their brains and nervous systems. They are used to make insecticides that are applied to a “variety of field, fruit, and vegetable crops for control of beetles, borers, nematodes, weevils and similar pests,” according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“As we sort of start to close the net around factors that could negatively impact fertility, these pesticides start to rise to the top,” said Dr. Alexander Pastuszak, an assistant professor of surgery and urology at The University of Utah School of Medicine in Salt Lake City. He was not involved in the new study.

“There’s enough evidence to really start to say yes, these types of compounds can negatively affect fertility in men,” he said. “Ultimately, you don’t know the impact on actual fertility until and unless you start trying to get pregnant.”

A significant impact

The study, published Wednesday in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives, examined 25 studies around the world on the two chemicals and included 20 studies in the meta-analysis. Those studies looked at 42 different levels of impact among 1,774 men in 21 different study populations.

Men who were more highly exposed to the pesticides, such as those who work in agriculture, had significantly less sperm concentration than men who had the least exposure to organophosphates and N-methyl carbamates, the study found.

Sperm concentration is a measure of sperm per milliliter of semen, while sperm count is the millions of sperm in the entire ejaculate. Sperm count, along with the total number sperm swimming progressively in the semen, are the more important measures of future fertility, according to experts.

However, sperm concentration “is an important measure of sperm quality for comparing men across studies because it adjusts for variability in semen volume,” Perry said.

Animal studies have shed light on how these pesticides may impact sperm, according to the study. They appear to directly interfere with sexual hormones, damage cells in the testes, and alter neurotransmitters in the brain that impact sperm production, the study said.

“Sperm is an incredibly sensitive endpoint when it comes to overall health for men,” Perry said. “My best advice is to be aware of insecticides in one’s environment and to recognize that avoiding unnecessary insecticide exposure is a good thing, especially if you’re planning on a family and wanting to conceive children.”

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A ‘public health issue’

It’s not just pesticides. Researchers are exploring the role of obesity, poor diet, chronic disease and exposure to environmental toxins such as pollution, PFAS and other potential toxins. Some are even looking at radiation from mobile phone use as a potential reason for the precipitous drop in sperm count.

A recent study found men between the ages of 18 and 22 who said they used their phones more than 20 times a day had a 21% higher risk for a low overall sperm count. The men also had a 30% higher risk for a low sperm concentration. The study did not specify whether the men called or texted or used their phones to do both.

Exposure to pesticides in food is still a significant issue: An advocacy group recently gave major food manufactures a collective F for their failure to lower the levels of pesticides in the foods they sell as promised.

“This really is a public health issue,” Perry said. “We can take an individual approach, but it is on a population basis that people are being exposed to pesticides and other factors.

“Action to reduce insecticide exposure is needed, so that if men want to father children, they’re going to be able to do so without being concerned about overall reductions in sperm concentration,” she added.

What to do about sperm count

When it comes to pesticide exposure in food, however, there are actions consumers can take. Choosing organic foods is a surefire way to reduce pesticide exposure, experts say. While organic foods are not more nutritious, the majority have little to no pesticide residue, according to Alexis Temkin, a toxicologist at the Environmental Working Group, a research and advocacy nonprofit that focuses on consumer health, toxic chemicals and pollutants.