Mystery in Missouri and beyond: low sperm counts and ‘hellhole of toxins’
June 27, 2008
Don’t know if it’s the water, could be pesticides, but one thing’s for certain, men in mid-Missouri have much lower sperm counts. The problem has been going on for years with no definitive answers. And there’s plenty of evidence to show the problem is much broader and more widespread.
Two years ago when fertility specialist Gil Wilshire came to Columbia from his practice in New Jersey, one detail jumped out at him. His male patients in Mid-Missouri were much less fertile than those he treated on the East Coast.
“Nobody I saw had a normal sperm count,” said Wilshire, a reproductive endocrinologist at Mid-Missouri Reproductive Medicine and Surgery Inc. “It took about two or three weeks until a normal semen analysis came through the door. I kept asking myself, ‘Am I in a hellhole of toxins?’ “
Danny Schust, another endocrinologist who arrived here from Harvard University in 2006, had an almost identical experience. He was accustomed to treating men with low sperm counts, but those he saw in Missouri all had low counts.
“I went to” an andrologist at the Missouri Center for Reproductive Medicine and Fertility. “And I said, ‘Are you guys doing something different here because I never see normal sperm counts?’ ” Schust recalled. “And she was like, ‘No, this is Missouri sperm.’ “
Their stories are part of a chorus of local people who work in the field of male fertility asking questions about low sperm counts in Mid-Missouri. Some suspect pesticides have percolated into ground water, but no definitive link is known. They say they are frustrated by the lack of attention to the problem and the lack of funding for further research.
“We don’t see very many normal samples. … It’s completely a mystery,” said Erma Drobnis, the andrologist working at Columbia Regional Hospital with Schust. She said in recent years, she and other researchers have tried repeatedly to get funding from the National Institutes of Health to examine the problem, without success.
The problem is not new.
In 1999, a group of researchers including Drobnis were working on a study comparing semen quality across major metropolitan areas, suspecting that sperm counts were dropping worldwide. They selected New York, Minneapolis and Los Angeles for their study. But reviewers of the grant application recommended adding add another, more rural town. They selected Columbia.
Researchers believed that including Columbia would serve as a baseline by which to judge the other cities. More rural settings, so the theory goes, tend to have fewer toxic pollutants such as smog in the air that impact reproductive health.
So researchers were caught off-guard when the Columbia sperm samples turned out to be significantly lower than samples from three other cities. The sample of Columbia men had average sperm counts of 58.7 million sperm per milliliter, or about 57 percent of those in New York. All cities studied were considered within the normal range, but Columbia pushes at the lower end.
“We were very surprised,” said Shanna Swan, the lead researcher on the study who is now at the University of Rochester in New York.
Because the men in the Missouri study were from different backgrounds, variable ages and occupations, and they had lived in the area for both short and long periods of time, scientists labeled the cause for the low sperm counts “environmental.” They said drinking water was the most likely cause.
After getting the initial results, scientists subjected the sperm samples from 50 men to a battery of new tests to look for pesticides. They found “significant” links between three common pesticides and low sperm counts in the Missouri men and possible associations with two other pesticides.
This summer, Swann will get the results from a follow-up test by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which tested 400 other men for the same pesticides.
“If we see something similar in a larger data set, then people will really have to pay attention to it,” Swann said. “We don’t know if it’s the water. We suspect that, but we really can’t say that until we have more information.”
At the request of the Tribune, Barry Kirchhoff, city water plant superintendent, reviewed the findings. He said pesticides that show up in men’s sperm samples did not come from Columbia drinking water. He said he almost never sees restricted pesticides in Columbia water.
“We’re drawing water from 15 different wells scattered out over areas two miles wide and four miles long,” Kirchhoff said. “So if it turns up in source water, it’s not going to be here one day, gone the next.”
But one of the three pesticides that showed a significant association with low sperm counts also was found in 24 of the samples – an insecticide called diazinon, which is not regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency in drinking water. In 2004, diazinon was banned from residential use, though it is still lawfully used in some agriculture. Another herbicide used for weed control – metolachlor – showed up in 34 of the Missouri semen samples. It also is on the EPA’s list of candidates for designation as a contaminant.
Researchers are not exclusively pointing fingers at water. They said any number of factors such as exposure to pesticides on farms, eating fruits and vegetables or even tobacco use could be the cause.
Drobnis said she trusts Columbia water. She doesn’t know the reason for the low sperm counts; she just knows it’s a problem she has seen ever since she arrived here to practice medicine in 1994.
“Environmentalists have said it’s usually not looking at one chemical, it’s when you combine everything that you get the problems,” Drobnis said. “It’s the whole picture taken together” that “can end up giving you a reduction in health.”
Why this matters:
Sperm counts declining worldwide. There have been a number of studies over the past 15-20 years suggesting that men’s sperm counts are on the decline worldwide. Researchers in Edinburgh, Scotland reported that men born after 1970 had a sperm count 25% lower than those born before l959–an average decline of 2.1% a year. A 1995 study of Parisians also found a 2.1% annual decline over the past 20 years. And in the most comprehensive analysis of all, covering nearly 15,000 men from 21 countries, Danish scientists discovered an alarming plunge of nearly 50% in average sperm counts over the past half-century.
Quality of sperm declining, testicular cancer rising worldwide.Not only do sperm counts seem to be dropping, but the quality of sperm–the percentage of healthy, vigorous cells versus malformed, sluggish ones–appears to be in serious decline as well. Doctors have also noted an increase in the incidence of testicular cancer and undescended testicles.
Male fertility dropping worldwide.Together, these factors add up to a significant drop in male fertility. In the 1960s, says Dr. Masood Khatamee of New York City’s Fertility Research Foundation, only about 8% of the men who came for consultation had a fertility problem. Today that number is more than 40%.
Endocrine disrupting chemicals cause reproductive and health problems. Dozens of studies have linked endocrine disrupting chemicals to a number of reproductive and other health effects. The chemicals closely mimic naturally occurring hormones and can disrupt the functioning of hormone systems in humans and other animals at very low levels of exposure. In the 1950s and 1960s pregnant women were prescribed diethylstilbestrol (DES), a synthetic estrogen, to prevent miscarriages. Not only did DES fail to prevent miscarriages, but it also caused health problems for many of these women’s children. In 1971, doctors began reporting high rates of unusual vaginal cancers in teenage girls. Investigations of the girls’ environmental exposures traced the problem to their mothers’ use of DES. The girls also suffered birth defects of the uterus and ovaries, and immune system suppression.
The cumulative and synergistic effect.Exposure to endocrine disrupting pesticides adds to an individuals ongoing exposure to dozens of other chemicals that also mimic hormones, from by-products of industrial production and incineration (dioxins and furans) to chemicals in widespread use in formulating products for everyday use. Phthalates, for example, are endocrine disrupting chemicals used as softening agents in many plastic products (including medical devices) and in beauty products such as deodorants, lotions and nail polish.
Impact on children. Because endocrine disruptors affect the development of the body’s vital organs and hormonal systems, infants, children and developing fetuses are more vulnerable to exposure. And as was the case with DES, parents’ exposure to certain chemicals may produce unexpected — and tragic — effects in their children, even decades later.
Broader envionmental impact – disrupted endocrine systems in animals, fish and wildlife. A variety of chemicals have been found to disrupt the endocrine systems of animals in laboratory studies, and compelling evidence shows that endocrine systems of certain fish and wildlife have been affected by chemical contaminants, resulting in developmental and reproductive problems. For example, fish in the Great Lakes, which are contaminated with polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and other man-made chemicals, have numerous reproductive problems as well as abnormal swelling of the thyroid glands. Fish-eating birds in the Great Lakes area, such as eagles, terns, and gulls, have shown similar dysfunctions.
Scientists have also pointed to endocrine disruptors as the cause of a declining alligator population in Lake Apopka, Florida. The alligators in this area have diminished reproductive organs that prevent successful reproduction. These problems were connected to a large pesticide spill several years earlier, and the alligators were found to have endocrine disrupting chemicals in their bodies and eggs.
Congress passed the Food Quality Protection Act in 1996, requiring that EPA initiate the Endocrine Disruptor Screening Program (EDSP) to screen pesticide chemicals and environmental contaminants for their potential to affect the endocrine systems of humans and wildlife. Although they readily admit there is a problem, a quick look at their timeline will show you just what’s been accomplished in the past 12 years.
What you can do:
Limit your risk of exposure:
- Educate yourself about endocrine disruptors, and educate your family and friends.
- Buy organic food whenever possible.
- Avoid using pesticides in your home or yard, or on your pet — use baits or traps instead, keep your home especially clean to prevent ant or roach infestations.
- Find out if pesticides are used in your child’s school or day care center and campaign for non-toxic alternatives.
- Avoid fatty foods such as cheese and meat whenever possible.
- If you eat fish from lakes, rivers, or bays, check with your state to see if they are contaminated.
- Avoid heating food in plastic containers, or storing fatty foods in plastic containers or plastic wrap.
- Do not give young children soft plastic teethers or toys, since these leach potential endocrine disrupting chemicals.
- Support efforts to get strong government regulation of and increased research on endocrine disrupting chemicals.