7. "The Specter of Sterility"
The problem first came to light last year when some production workers
at the Occidental Chemical Plant in Lathrop, California, were found
to be sterile as a result of exposure to the pesticide DBCP. Various
government agencies, including the Environmental Protection Agency and
the Food and Drug Administration, swarmed over the case and wound up
restricting domestic use of DBCP, which is applied to the soil to kill
pests that destroy the roots of certain crops.
Next, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (N.I.O.S.H.)
broadened the investigation to include other industrial compounds to
determine their effects on male fertility. What they found was evidence
that other agents might cause a reduction in sperm count. Some scientists
involved in the project found scientific literature suggesting that
the entire male population may have lower sperm counts today than it
did thirty years ago. What gives this issue alarming urgency, is the
mounting evidence that the average sperm count among American men has
dropped by frightening percentages since a landmark study done twenty-seven
The probable causes are chemicals similar to DBCP -- herbicides, fungicides,
and other elements -- which are known to decompose very slowly. Presumably
they have worked their way up through the food chain and are finally
poisoning man. By this logic, the male reproductive process (and most
certainly the female) has been affected by industrial and agricultural
poisons associated with modern America for the past thirty to fifty
"There is no question in my mind," said Dr. Kenneth Bridbord
of the Office of Extramural Coordination and Special Projects at N.I.O.S.H.
in Washington, "but that this is a major problem facing the nation.
I would not be surprised, based on the evidence we have looked at so
far, to find that the declining sperm count represents a potential sterility
threat to the entire male population. We do not know the seriousness
of the threat at this time, but the DBCP findings may be just the beginning
of it. What the government must do is reexamine everything we know about
spermatogenesis and toxicity. If you look at fertility in America, it
shows a decline in the late Fifties and Sixties which we have always
assumed social and economic changes in American life were responsible
for. But if our worst fears about the effects of toxins on male fertility
are true, it isn't too far afield to assume that the birthrate dropped
then because of chemical interference with testicular functioning. Had
we asked the right kind of questions then, we mightn't be in the fix
we're in today."
The potential impact of widespread sterility and the lack of exposure
given this problem in the mass media, qualifies this story for nomination
as one of the "best censored" stories of 1978.
Esquire, April 11, 1978, p.30, "The Spectre of Sterility,"
by Raymond M. Lane.