A 2013 poll conducted for The Associated Press found that 8 of every 10 men said they'd always wanted to be fathers or would like to be one someday. There’s a popular misconception that infertility is a woman’s problem, but according to the American Society for Reproductive Medicine, in about 40% of infertile couples, the male partner is either the sole or a contributing cause.
The causes of male infertility are complex and varied, but avoiding risks that can impair proper development of a man’s hormone and reproductive systems is first and foremost. In order to impregnate a woman, a man has to be able to produce and ejaculate enough healthy sperm to fertilize her egg, and studies show that several types of toxic chemicals that everyone encounters in daily life can alter sperm and semen in ways that may impair fertility.
Here are some of the ways that you can be exposed to potentially fertility-impairing chemicals and what you can do to avoid them:
1. Chemicals in household dust
Research has shown that dust is likely to contain several chemicals that may affect sperm quality, including flame-retardants, long-banned polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and phthalates. These particles come from everyday household products, the construction materials used in older homes and the outdoor environment. In a number of human epidemiological studies, these contaminants have been associated with lowered sperm counts, poorer sperm movement (motility) and abnormally shaped sperm.
What can you do? Dusting may sound like a funny thing to recommend to guys interested in protecting their sperm, but using a vacuum fitted with a HEPA filter, mopping the floors, and dusting with a damp cloth can reduce the amount of dust you’re exposed to and the fertility-impairing chemicals it may carry.
2. Body-care products
Many personal care products contain ingredients that can damage reproductive health. Among them are phthalates, a class of toxic chemicals that aren’t often listed on labels but can lurk under non-specific ingredient “fragrance.” Phthalates are typically used to make plastics more flexible and have been associated with several types of sperm damage, including lower sperm counts, impaired movement and abnormal shape. Lead acetate, an ingredient in some men’s hair dyes, has also been shown to lower sperm quality in animals, even at low to moderate levels.
What can you do? Read the ingredients on your products’ labels. Avoid lead acetate, phthalates and any product with the generic word “fragrance” and find safer alternatives using EWG’s Skin Deep Cosmetics Database.
3. Plastic containers
Food containers, water bottles and the plastic ware you use for storing leftovers can contain chemicals such as phthalates and bisphenol A (BPA), which can leach into food and water. Much like phthalates, BPA has been shown to affect sperm in various ways, including lowering sperm counts, decreasing sperm vitality and impairing sperm movement.
What can you do? Use glass kitchenware instead of plastic. Reuse glass jars for storing food. If you have to use plastic containers, avoid those with recycling codes #3 (may contain BPA) and #7 (may contain phthalates).
4. Canned food
Metal cans are often lined with the endocrine-disrupting chemical BPA, which may contaminate the food inside. In addition to its associations with sperm quality, studies have shown that BPA may also affect a man’s sex drive. Scientists at the Kaiser Permanente Research Institute found that BPA-exposed workers were more likely to have diminished sexual drive, erectile and ejaculation difficulty and decreased satisfaction with their sex lives.
What can you do? Reduce consumption of food packaged in cans and buy and cook fresh ingredients. Instead of canned soup, try making your own with fresh vegetables, meat, broth and spices. Some BPA-free canned food is also available, so look for those labels on store shelves. For more BPA tips, visit our Guide to BPA.
5. Cell phone radiation.
The question of whether cell phone radiation may be harmful remains controversial, but there are now more than 10 studies suggesting that it can affect sperm quality. Both laboratory and real-world tests have shown that cell phone radiation can affect sperm count, movement, structure, appearance and viability, and it may also even damage DNA. With those findings, it’s better to be safe than sorry.
What can you do? You don’t need to stop using your cell phone to protect your sperm. Since radiation levels decline sharply with distance, just keeping your phone out of your front pocket and away from your genitals will reduce your exposure tremendously. Carry your phone in your back pocket or in a bag or briefcase if you carry one. For more tips on reducing your cell phone radiation exposure, visit our Guide to Safer Cell Phone Use.
A number of studies have found elevated rates of infertility among farm workers and agricultural communities exposed to high amounts of pesticides. Other researchers have found associations between pesticides such as atrazine and diazinon and poorer sperm quality, sperm abnormalities and impaired movement.
What can you do? Buy organic food as much as possible. Can’t always find it or afford it? Use EWG’s Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides and Produce to find fruits and vegetables that have the lowest pesticide residues. If you live in an agricultural community, check to see if pesticides have been detected in your water supply and purchase the appropriate water filter by using EWG’s Water Filter Buying Guide.