May 30, 2024

Does plastic threaten the survival of the human race?

A new book gathers the figures on growing infertility

You might remember the novelist and celebrity Norman Mailer, the crazy uncle of the American literary scene. He had A Thing about plastic. In 1983 he confided to an interviewer: “I sometimes think there is a malign force loose in the universe that is the social equivalent of cancer, and it’s plastic. It infiltrates everything. It’s metastasis. It gets into every single pore of productive life. I mean there won’t be anything that isn’t made of plastic before long. They’ll be paving the roads with plastic before they’re done. Our bodies, our skeletons, will be replaced with plastic.”

Well, by golly, maybe the crazy uncle was right after all.

The existential danger of plastic (and other environmental contaminants) is the theme of a new book, “Count Down: How Our Modern World Is Altering Male and Female Reproductive Development, Threatening Sperm Counts, and Imperiling the Future of the Human Race”.

In 2017 the author, Dr Shanna Swan, of the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York City, published research that claimed that sperm levels among men in Western countries had plummeted by more than 50% over the past 40 years. It turns out that sexual development is also changing broadly, for both men and women, and that the modern world is on pace to become infertile. The scenario she paints is a bit like the novel and movie Children of Men, in which no babies have born around the globe for about 20 years.

“If you look at the curve on sperm count and project it forward — which is always risky — it reaches zero in 2045,” says Swan. This dismal statistic implies that an average male would have no viable sperm in 25 years’ time. “That's a little concerning, to say the least.”

Even more dramatically she claims that homo sapiens already fits the US Fish and Wildlife Service’s standard to be considered an endangered species.

It’s not just sperm counts which concern her. She also notes that while sperm counts drop by 1% a year, miscarriages are also rising by 1% a year. In some parts of the world a 20-something woman today is less fertile than her grandmother was at 35. Other species are struggling with fertility as well. Dr Swan attributes this to endocrine-disrupting chemicals in plastics and other man-made materials.

If these trends persist, she contends, IVF and other and other artificial reproductive technologies will become a widely needed tool for conceiving children. As the New York Times notes in a book review, this book is: “a wake-up call that increases understanding of fertility, its challenges and the recognition that both partners play a role.”

Michael Cook is editor of BioEdge

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