13. The Specter of Sterility

Sources: British Medical Journal, B.M.A. House, Tavistock Square London WCIH 9JR England, Date: 9/12/92, Title: "Evidence for Decreasing Quality of Semen During Past 50 Years," Author: Niels E. Skakkebaek; New York Times, 229 W. 43rd Street, New York, NY 10036, Date: 1/1/91, Title: "Research on Birth Defects Turns to Flaws in Sperm," Author: Sandra Blakeslee; USA Today, 1000 Wilson Boulevard Arlington, VA 22229 Date: 3/8/92, Title: "Sperm Count Slid"; San Francisco Examiner, 110 Fifth Street, San Francisco, CA 94103, Date: 9/11/92, Title: "Scientists Note Dramatic Decline in Sperm Count," Author: Steve Connor

SSU Censored Researcher: Valerie Quigley

SYNOPSIS: Picture this: Civilization as we know it today, destroyed -- not by nuclear holocaust nor by fouling our environment, but by the inability to produce children.

A new study, published in the British Medical Journal, by a Danish research team, details a drastic decline in the volume of ejaculations and the concentration of sperm within them. This review of available studies shows sperm density halved and semen quantity decreased by nearly 25 percent since 1940.

The Danish team leader, Professor Niels E. Skakkebaek, said he could not give a firm explanation for the decline, but there were signs the results of toxin buildups in the environment were disrupting the function of the testes. The implications of these findings are that more and more Western men are incapable of fathering children.

This issue was first nominated as a Project Censored story in 1978 because of reports of sterility among workers at a chemical plant in Lathrop, CA. After investigating, the EPA suggested that chemicals similar to DBCP "have worked their way up through the food chain and are finally poisoning man." Dr. Kenneth Bridbord surmised the declining birth rates in the Fifties and Sixties may have been caused by the effects of toxins on male fertility. According to the more recent Danish study, a corresponding dramatic increase in male genitourinary abnormalities and testicular cancer supports the theory that environmental factors are to blame for the declines in sperm counts.

Environmental pollution doesn't only affect human fertility. In a study by the International Joint Commission (IJC), animals living in the Great Lakes basin were found to be exhibiting abnormalities in sexual functions-including a blurring of male and female reproductive roles and genitals decreasing in size. The researchers blamed substances such as dioxins, lead and PCBs, which disrupt the animals' endocrine systems that produce hormones governing behavior, growth and sexual development. In one conclusion, the IJC report said contaminant levels in humans are approaching the same levels that have caused adverse effects in wildlife populations. "Most troubling is the experts' conclusions that humans are being affected as well," states the report.

And even if fertility is not affected, the resulting children might be. A study by Dr. Devra Lee Davis, a scholar at the National Academy of Sciences, found that certain genetic mutations or other alterations in sperm can lead to permanent defects in children. Sperm is now known to be vulnerable to toxins, and can produce familiar birth defects like heart abnormalities and mental retardation, as well as lesser known sperm-caused defects.

This was an important story when first cited by Project Censored in 1978; 14 years have passed without major media attention. New studies now confirm that this is not an issue that is going to go away and is one that deserves to be put on the national news agenda.

COMMENTS: Sandra Blakeslee, science writer for the New York Times, says that the issue surrounding sperm is under-funded and ignored. "The problem is not a traditional case of censorship," Blakeslee says, "but rather it appears to be a cultural bias in medicine. Research on reproductive medicine generally focuses on women. There's a stunning ignorance about sperm in our society." Blakeslee, concerned with the limited coverage given an issue as important as this, says she definitely plans to write more on the subject.

Meanwhile, the need for more research and coverage on the issue was clearly evident some time ago, as noted by Dr. Kenneth Bridbord of the Office of Extramural Coordination and Special Projects at the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) in Washington, DC.:

"There is no question in my mind 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 (pesticide) 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 latest 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 a-field to assume that the birth rate 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."

Ironically, Dr. Bridbord, issued that dire warning in an article by Raymond M. Lane that appeared in Esquire Magazine in April 1978. The above statement by Dr. Bridbord was excerpted from the #7 synopsis of Censored stories of 1978, titled "The Specter of Sterility."

His warning was clear and ominous: a major problem faced the nation and we failed to ask the right questions.

But even now, 15 years later, as Sandra Blakeslee confirms, we are still not asking the right questions. The primary source for this Censored nomination of 1992 was a major study by Danish research scientists published in a British medical journal.