Chemical residues – IBFAN calls for a balanced approach
Frequent reports alert us to the presence of a cocktail of persistent, bioaccumulative and toxic chemicals in human bodies. And every time the headlines seem to zoom straight in on women, especially pregnant and breastfeeding women.
Yet all living things, wildlife as well as men and women, carry what is called a ‘body burden’ of chemicals, many of which have negative effects on health – especially on our reproductive health. Every one of us, male and female, is exposed to the harmful chemicals used all around us, in consumer products, in the home, in industry, in agriculture. Indeed, men may have higher exposures due to the nature of their work handling pesticides and chemicals in agriculture and factories.
We need a more balanced approach to avoid senationalisation, because whenever environnmental toxins are detected in human bodies, the focus is always on a woman’s body in relation to her baby – either the mother’s womb and her unborn baby, or her breastmilk and her newborn baby.
The need for a wider perspective: evidence from France
At last the focus is shifting towards the body burden shared by both men and women and the negative impacts of chemical exposures on the health of all humans. These impacts include decreased fertility, increased occurrence of hormonally-related cancers and suppression of the immune system. Scientific studies on impacts on male fertility are not new : research published in 2012 in France examined sperm quality between 1989 and 2005 and noted « a severe and general decrease in sperm concentration and morphology at the scale of a whole country over a substantial period. This constitutes a serious public health warning. The link with the environment particularly needs to be detemined. » The research paper provides references to studies of sperm/semen quality decline and male infertility in Finland, India, New Zealand and Tunisia. Read the study at : http://ehp.niehs.nih.gov/121-a46/
Scandinavian analysis – primarily economic impact but also psychological effects
The 2014 study by the Nordic Council (link of the full study ) examines the impact of hormone disrupting chemicals on male health in the EU – and the economic implications. Hormone disrupting chemicals are also called Endocrine Disrupting Chemicals, EDCs, because these environmental chemicals disrupt the development of the endocrine system which secretes our hormones. EDCs can also interfere with the functions of hormones : they mimic or impersonate the hormones estrogen, testosterone, insulin and thyroxine because of their structural similarity. They can thus disrupt the correct balance of hormone levels needed for normal bodily development; they work at very small doses in the same way as hormones – and their effects can be permanent.
« The study only looks at the costs of a small number of disorders of male reproductive health – testicular cancer, infertility (due to low semen quality), hypospadias (malformation of the penis) and cryptorchidism (undescended testicles). The authors state that “the strength of the evidence between exposure to endocrine disruptors and effects on male reproductive health seems convincing », but that it is hard to estimate what percentage of the disorders are caused by hormone disrupting chemicals. See : http://www.chemtrust.org.uk/impact-of-hormone-disrupting-chemicals-on-male-health-costs-hundreds-of-millions-of-e-in-the-eu
Why has it taken so long to alert us all ?
Mothers and fathers, and especially mothers-to-be and fathers-to-be, should therefore be informed of the risks of chemicals and the best way to avoid exposures. However, it is important to avoid the ‘blame game’, and give the mistaken impression that breastfeeding advocates are shifting the blame to men to counter the focus on women. Yet it is important to alert males because glyphosate, the main chemical in the weedkiller Roundup, has been found in the urine of both men and women ; glyphosate may disrupt male reproductive functions because it has negative effects on sperm cell production and hence on male fertility. Several studies have been published but are hotly contested by the manufacturers. See http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23820267
In the 1990s, the tobacco companies paid millions of dollars in funding for media campaigns and research to dilute the risks of smoking, claiming that environmental pollution and other factors than smoking were the real causes of lung cancer. In the same way, the agro-chemical companies support strategies to divert attention from the risks of their weedkillers and pesticides on male reproductive health and fertility. They know that if men are made aware, then policy-makers will be swift to take action to ban or restrict these toxic chemicals – and their profits will fall.
They also know that if attention is diverted from men to breastfeeding women, then the alternative to breastfeeding can be promoted – infant formula and baby food. Of course the same food and pharmaceutical companies which make formula are closely linked to the agrochemicals companies: Monsanto and Nestlé are working together in several US States to lobby against proposed bans on labelling of GMO food.” See http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/govbeat/wp/2014/11/21/oregons-gmo-labeling-measure-may-be-headed-for-a-recount/
Perception of shared responsibility for action
The willingness of 39 male and female members of the European Parliament to have their blood tested influenced the debate leading up to the adoption of the European REACH Directive on Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation and Restriction of Chemical substances. In December 2003, the World-Wide Fund for Nature, WWF, analysed blood samples from the MEPs and other Europeans for 101 chemicals from five groups. “Results from the widest ranging European survey of human toxic contamination show that 76 persistent, bioaccumulative and toxic industrial chemicals were present in the blood of those tested.” See http://wwf.panda.org/wwf_news/press_releases/?12622/European-parliamentarians-contaminated-by-76-chemicals
The REACH directive was finally adopted by the European Union in 2006, after an aggressive and well-funded campaign against it by the mighty chemicals and plastics industry. The fact that Members of the European Parliament, male and female alike, had their blood samples tested certainly contributed to action – and restriction.
For all these reasons, IBFAN’s website now includes a special section on chemical residues, providing articles and research studies on residue levels in fathers and fathers-to-be – as well as mothers and mothers-to-be.