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August 5, 2022

How endocrine disruptors affect male fertility

You likely encounter endocrine-disrupting chemicals (EDCs) every day — in your diet, products you use, and even the water you drink and the air you breathe. Unfortunately, exposure to endocrine disruptors may have negative effects on your fertility. We’ll look into common endocrine disruptors, EDCs and male fertility, and ways you can reduce your exposure to endocrine-disrupting chemicals.

Key takeaways

  • Endocrine disruptors are chemicals that interfere with the system of hormones in the human body. As a result, they can affect male fertility.
  • We're commonly exposed to endocrine-disrupting chemicals through our diet (including drinking water), environment, and the products we purchase and use.
  • We can reduce, but not completely eliminate our exposure to EDCs by making better choices at home.

What is an endocrine-disrupting chemical (EDC)?

Endocrine disrupting chemicals, also simply called endocrine disruptors, are chemicals that negatively impact the endocrine, or hormone, system in your body. This system is made up of glands that regulate all the hormones that control bodily processes, including brain development, metabolism, and reproduction.

Some endocrine disruptors are “hormone mimics,” meaning that they can trick the human body into thinking they’re natural hormones. Other EDCs block natural hormones from doing their jobs, or change the body’s reaction to hormones. Still others can affect hormone levels in the blood by affecting how hormones are made, stored, or broken down.

We can be exposed to multiple endocrine disruptors at once, through diet, products, and environmental sources, potentially harming our health. Research indicates that endocrine disruptors may negatively affect:

  • Female and male fertility
  • Cancer
  • Metabolism and obesity

Common endocrine-disrupting chemicals

Endocrine disruptors can be natural or man-made. You may be exposed to them through everything from your diet to the air to products you use. See this common endocrine disruptors list for places you may encounter each chemical in your everyday life.

Endocrine disruptors in everyday products 

  • Bisphenol A (BPA): This compound, which is used to make plastic, is present in water bottles, food storage containers, and even dental sealants. Over 90% of people in Western countries, such as the US, have BPA in their urine.
  • Bisphenol S (BPS): This chemical was intended to provide a safer alternative to BPA. However, research suggests that it may be equally or possibly even more harmful. Like BPA, BPS is often used in food containers and packaging.
  • Phthalates: Phthalates are used to make plastics soft and malleable. You’ll find these chemicals in food containers, plastic wraps, and children’s toys.
  • Perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS): These chemicals repel oil, water, and grease. They were historically used in nonstick pans and paper coatings for food products, as well as in firefighting foams.
  • Brominated flame retardants (BFRs): These chemicals are added to clothing, furniture, and other items to make them less flammable.
  • Triclosan: This is an antibacterial and antifungal chemical. You might find triclosan in body wash and other personal care products, along with plastic kitchenware. The FDA prohibited manufacturers from adding triclosan to most personal care products in 2016.

Endocrine disruptors in your diet

  • Perchlorate: This is a byproduct of pharmaceutical and food manufacturing, as well as the production of rocket fuel, missiles, fireworks, flares, and explosives. You may be exposed to perchlorate in drinking water.
  • Phytoestrogens: Phytoestrogens are plant estrogens. They’re a natural substance found in flax seeds, soy foods, and most foods made from fruits, vegetables, and legumes. Phytoestrogens aren’t necessarily harmful, but they may have an impact on the endocrine system.

Endocrine disruptors in the environment 

  • Chlorpyrifos: This insecticide, which was recently banned for use on food in the US, has been used in commercial agriculture and can still be found in water, soil, the air, and food.
  • Glyphosate: Used in products like Roundup to control weeds, this herbicide can be found in soil dust, food, and water. A 2019 research review indicated that the chemical may be found in the urine of people exposed to it both through their occupation and through the environment, but that more studies need to be done.
  • DDT: This pesticide was banned in the US in 1972, but it’s extremely persistent, and can still be detected in the environment as well as in animals.
  • Lead: Though being banned in many products in the US, lead can still be found in some paint — especially in older buildings — and plastics.
  • Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs): While these chemicals were banned in the US, they’re still found in some paint, insulation, electrical equipment, and other items.

How EDCs affect male fertility

Since sperm production is driven by male fertility hormones and is directly connected to the endocrine system, you may be wondering: How do endocrine disruptors affect men, and male fertility?

We have strong evidence to suggest that there’s been a global drop in average sperm count — over 50% since the 1970s — along with changes to sperm health and testosterone levels. Many experts believe that EDC exposure is the primary cause of lower sperm counts and reduced male fertility over the past 50 years.

Since many EDCs are typically present in our environments, it’s sometimes difficult to narrow down which may be causing adverse effects, and studies are ongoing. So far, research suggests that specific endocrine disruptors may affect male fertility in several ways.

Bisphenol A (BPA) and male fertility

A 2015 study found that high concentrations of BPA in the body were associated with reduced sperm motility and altered sperm function, and impaired fertilization and development of the embryo. Research from 2020 indicated that people with occupational exposure to BPA — such as people who work in plastics manufacturing — had worse sperm counts, viability, and motility compared to those who weren’t exposed to BPA through their work. More studies are needed.

Bisphenol S (BPS) and male fertility

BPS is often marketed as being safer than BPA, and can be included in some “BPA free” plastics. However, a study by Legacy CMO Dr. Ramy Abou Ghayda linked higher urinary BPS concentrations to lower semen parameters, particularly among overweight and obese men. This may be because endocrine-disrupting chemicals can be stored in fat cells long-term.

Phthalates and male fertility

One common phthalate, diethyl phthalate (DEHP), may lead to higher levels of sperm DNA damage and sperm death. It’s also been tied to reduced sperm motility and lower levels of the reproductive hormones testosterone and estradiol. According to one review, the “majority of human data showed the connection of increased level of phthalates in urine and [decreased] sperm quality.”

PFAS and male fertility

According to the EPA, despite no longer being used in many applications, PFAS are still found in the blood of people and animals all over the world and are present at low levels in a variety of food products and in the environment. Because they break down so slowly, some experts call them “forever chemicals.”

A review of research indicated that these substances may be linked to abnormal sperm morphology and lower testosterone levels, but more research with consistent results is needed. As PFAS used to be used in firefighting foam, they may contribute to the poorer semen parameters found among firefighters.

Triclosan and male fertility

A 2017 study found triclosan in 84.13% of urine samples from men at a reproductive health clinic, compared to about 75% of the general population (according to the CDC). While the participants had normal sperm concentrations, this study found that higher levels of triclosan in urine were associated with increased abnormal sperm morphology.

Perchlorate and male fertility

Unlike some more common endocrine disruptors, perchlorate’s effect on sperm health has not been widely studied. A study in rats found that perchlorate exposure increased sperm abnormalities and sperm death during sperm production. More studies in humans are needed.

Phytoestrogens and male fertility

The effect of the phytoestrogens in soy, specifically, on male health has been the subject of lots of discussion. But research is fairly inconclusive, and most doesn’t find that soy consumption has a significant impact on male fertility. Remember, phytoestrogens are highly concentrated in soy, but they’re actually found in most fruits, vegetables, and legumes.

One study that examined phytoestrogen concentrations in urine found that the phytoestrogens genistein and daidzein were associated with abnormal sperm morphology. However, there appeared to be no impact on the fertility of couples in the study. And in many studies of nutrition and male fertility, those who follow a vegetarian diet — which generally tends to be higher in soy — have healthier sperm, overall, than those who eat a meat-heavy diet.

Learn more about soy and male fertility.

Chlorpyrifos and male fertility

Exposure to chlorpyrifos, a pesticide, is less common unless you work in the agricultural industry. However, you may also be exposed if you live near farmlands or eat unwashed produce that was treated with chlorpyrifos.

Research in mice found that exposure to the pesticide chlorpyrifos reduced sperm motility and density and lowered fertility. More research in people needs to be done.

Glyphosate and male fertility

One study that investigated glyphosate’s effect on sperm in vitro found that semen samples treated with glyphosate (at an amount above normal environmental exposure) had lower motility compared to the control group. However, sperm DNA was not affected after one hour of exposure. More research is needed in this area.

Lead and male fertility

Research indicates that exposure to lead may lower sperm counts and motility while increasing abnormal morphology and harming sperm DNA. It may lead to reduced fertility and higher chances of miscarriage and preterm birth. One study found that even low-level lead exposure was associated with reduced semen quality.

How to reduce exposure to endocrine disrupting chemicals

With EDCs present in so many products, it may feel unfeasible to keep endocrine disruptors from affecting your sperm count. And to some extent, that’s true — it’s nearly impossible, in the modern world, to completely eliminate EDCs from your life.

Still, it is possible to reduce your exposure. A research review from 2022 found that 11 of the 13 intervention studies it examined showed large changes in EDC concentrations as a result of the interventions — which were actions as simple as changing their diets or swapping out personal or household products. In one of the studies, just three days of eating fresh foods that used limited packaging was linked to lower BPA and phthalate exposure.

Here are some steps you can take to lower your exposure to EDCs: 

  • Drink filtered tap water. Use a stainless steel or glass reusable bottle, instead of plastic bottles. (The earth will also thank you.)
  • If you have to use a plastic bottle, look for a #1, #2, or #4 as part of the recycling symbol, indicating that it’s BPA-free. Recycling codes 3, 6, and 7 indicate plastics that contain possibly harmful chemicals.
  • Whenever possible, eat fresh food instead of food packaged in plastic or cans. If you’re buying canned food, look for cans labeled BPA-free.
  • Store food in glass instead of plastic containers. Don’t heat food in plastic containers, as this can cause the chemicals to leach from the plastic in your food (whether you’re microwaving it or just leaving it in a hot car).
  • Avoid using plastic dishware and nonstick pans.
  • Wash fruit and vegetables thoroughly to help remove chemicals and pesticides. When possible, buy organic produce (although some studies have shown that even organic produce may be cross-contaminated by pesticides).
  • Don’t use pesticides like Round-up in your own yard or garden.
  • Avoid buying cleaning supplies or personal care products that contain EDCs. The Environmental Working Group has created a site where you can look up many common products to identify possible harmful chemicals in their ingredients.
  • Don't buy furniture, mattresses, or carpets that contain flame retardants, stain repellents, or waterproofing agents. Look for natural materials like jute, wool, and cotton. (You could even opt for wood or tile floors over carpet.)
  • Same with clothes — avoid flame retardant, stain repellent, and waterproof chemicals. When possible, opt for fabric that doesn't contain plastic.
  • Vacuum and dust frequently. Indoor dust contains high levels of EDCs from our household products, making them easy to inhale. You might also invest in a HEPA filter for your vacuum or an air purifier for your home.

It's not possible for most people to do everything on this list. However, taking action in a few areas may significantly reduce your exposure to EDCs.

How to improve your sperm health

There are many lifestyle changes you can make to improve your sperm health, but here we’ll focus on specific ways to help counteract the effects of EDCs on your fertility.

EDCs like BPA appear to increase oxidative stress, which can cause testicular damage and reduced semen parameters. Antioxidants may help improve fertility by counteracting free radicals and preventing oxidative stress.

Supplements that may help reduce EDC damage to sperm health include:

  • Melatonin. Melatonin is known for its effects on sleep, but it has antioxidant activity that may help protect fertility. Research in animals exposed to BPA has found that melatonin may help normalize sperm production and help prevent sperm DNA damage. One study in rats also found that while BPA exposure worsened sperm quality and damaged tissue in the epididymis (the coiled tube behind each testicle where sperm matures), melatonin helped reduce the damage.
  • Selenium. This mineral, which has antioxidant properties, can be found in foods such as nuts, meat, fish, beans, and eggs, or taken as a supplement. A 2018 study found that when selenium was given to mice alongside BPA, it reduced oxidative stress and improved sperm parameters.
  • Resveratrol. This micronutrient has antioxidant properties and is found in berries, red wine, peanuts, and as a supplement. While exposure to glyphosate was found to decrease sperm motility and increase sperm DNA damage in rats, resveratrol appeared to help preserve sperm parameters and protect against DNA damage.
  • Taurine. This amino acid is present in meat, eggs, and fish, and is also available as a supplement. It may have antioxidant activity. In a mouse study, adding BPA to sperm and testicular mitochondria in a test tube reduced sperm viability and motility, but also adding TAU reduced oxidative stress and improved sperm parameters.
  • Folate (vitamin B9). Also known as folic acid, this vitamin is found in foods including leafy green vegetables and kidney beans. It can also be taken as a supplement. A study in rats found that administering folic acid alongside BPA appeared to reduce BPA’s negative effects on sperm viability and morphology.

Much of this research has been done in animals, so studies in humans are still needed to confirm these supplements’ effects. Remember to ask your doctor before starting a new supplement.

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If you’re looking to improve your fertility, start with an at-home semen analysis to understand your baseline sperm health. Then consider reducing your exposure to EDCs, trying supplements, and making other positive lifestyle changes to improve and preserve your fertility.

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