How do you think the human species will go extinct? Nuclear armageddon? Climate-change-driven environmental catastrophes? Maybe an asteroid or two? Well, according to a new New York Times op-ed, the human species may be facing a very unexpected and very alarming existential threat: our sperm may be too weak to keep the human race alive.
The op-ed, written by Nicholas Kristof, outlines a startling finding that across the world, human sperm is having a kind of protracted emergency. Over the past seventy-five years, sperm counts have been falling. Spermatozoa also have a disturbing tendency to exhibit signs of ill health such as being misshapen and having impaired motility (the name for sperm locomotion). According to Kristof, sperm are now “veering like drunks or paddling crazily in circles.”
Calling it a species-wide threat isn’t hyperbole. According to Niels Erik Skakkebaek, a fertility scholar in Denmark, if the trend continues, we may be in serious trouble. “I think we are at a turning point,” said Skakkebaek in his interview with Kristof. “It is a matter of whether we can sustain ourselves.”
So what is contributing to this problem? Why are our sperm in crisis? Nobody has a definite answer. Most likely, it’s the sum of a number of environmental risk factors that are associated with our increased industrialization.
Kristof spoke with an epidemiologist named Shanna Swan, who had a few ideas about what might be behind the sperm crisis. According to her, the major culprit may be plastic food and drink packaging. Plastic chemicals can leech into food and beverages when the plastic heats up. And plastic contains toxic compounds that can have serious effects on our health.
Swan also speculates that thermal printers may be partially responsible. Thermal printers are used at grocery stores, ATMs and many other places where receipts are given. They contain chemicals that may hurt sperm.
By Kristof’s estimation, the major dragon to be slain is the endocrine-disrupting chemicals that are commonly found in hygienic and cleaning products, as well as some canned food and drinking water supplies. He advocates for increased regulation of these products. Even if they aren’t responsible for harming our sperm, it’s probably not a bad idea anyway.
If you are worried about your own sperm or your partner’s sperm, a healthy diet and exercise are good ways to improve your reproductive health as well as your health in general. You may also consider reducing the amount of food and drink you buy in plastic containers. And if you’re using personal care products that contain long lists of unpronounceable chemicals in the ingredients lists, you may consider doing some research or switching to more “natural” products.