A study published in the journal Environment International last June points towards mixtures of harmful chemicals found in people’s bodies as drivers of deteriorating semen quality.
ATHLETE researchers behind the study analysed levels of mixtures of bisphenols, dioxins, phthalates and paracetamol in urine from Danish men aged between 18 and 30. They found every single man tested had levels up to 100 times higher than those considered safe.
Semen quality in men continues to decline in alarming levels in Western countries, with sperm counts more than halved in the last 40 years. One culprit is daily exposure to a mix of hormone disrupting chemicals – with the cocktail effect way more dangerous. Because key steps in male sexual development start in pregnancy, developing male babies are most at risk.
Until now, studies into male infertility and chemical exposures have focused on phthalates. This new research reveals that bisphenols, polychlorinated dioxins and paracetamol affect infertility more to an even greater extent than phthalates.
“Most of the chemicals we considered together reach us via food,” said Professor Andreas Kortenkamp, Professor at Brunel University London – one of the partner organisations involved in the ATHLETE research project. “A lot of bisphenol A intake is via milk. The linings of milk cartons and canned food, for example the tomato tins, leach BPA into the product”.
“Some of the chemicals we looked at only stay in the body for a few hours, but because exposure is continuous, the internal concentrations are always topped up. This applies to bisphenols A, F, S and to the phthalates, as well as paracetamol. When they meet in the body, they each exert their toxicity, so the effect adds up.”
But “apart from being careful with paracetamol, people can do relatively little to reduce exposures,” Professor Kortemkamp says. “The problem can only be tackled through better policy.”
Under the EU Chemicals Strategy for Sustainability (CSS), the European Commission has committed to address our daily exposure to mixtures – which is unfortunately not taken into account adequately in the current chemical legislative framework. To do so, the European Commission is considering the possibility of introducing a mixture assessment factor (MAF) to account for our combined exposures as part of the reform of EU flagship regulation REACH.
NGO proposals for how this MAF could be developed and introduced in the regulation were brought forward during several policy workshops . At the time of writing, in the context of the recently announced delays for the REACH reform process, it is unclear what the state of play is on this important aspect.
Andreas Kortenkamp, Martin Scholze, Sibylle Ermler, Laerke Priskorn, Niels Jørgensen, Anna-Maria Andersson, Hanne Frederiksen. Combined exposures to bisphenols, polychlorinated dioxins, paracetamol, and phthalates as drivers of deteriorating semen quality. Environment International. 2022, 107322, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.envint.2022.107322
June 2022, Press release from the Brunel University London: Paracetamol and plastics fertility risks https://www.brunel.ac.uk/news-and-events/news/articles/Paracetamol-and-plastics-fertility-risk
Interview with Professor Kortenkamp on the paper https://chemtrust.org/interview-kortenkamp/
 January 2021, NGO Comments on CA/MS/91/2020: 2nd Workshop on a pragmatic approach to address the risk from combined exposure to non-intentional mixtures of chemicals – REACH as an example https://www.env-health.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/01/Final-NGO-comments-combination-effects-CARACAL-CA_MS_91_2020.pdf
August 2020, Comments on CA/MS/47/2020 Synthesis paper for CARACAL provided by
KEMI and the Netherlands “Comments on a pragmatic procedure to regulate
the risks of exposure to coincidental combinations of chemicals, in the EU”, https://www.env-health.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/09/Final-NGO-comments-combination-effects-CARACAL-CA_MS_47_2020.pdf
May 2020, NGO Comments on CA/MS/34/2020 ́Towards a pragmatic procedure to regulate
the risks of exposure to unintended combinations of chemicals in the EU, https://www.env-health.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/06/Final-NGO-comments-mixtures-CARACAL-CA_MS_34_2020.pdf
A CHEM Trust NGO report, Chemical Cocktails – The neglected threat of toxic mixtures and how to fix it, sets out policy recommendations https://chemtrust.org/chemicalcocktails/
Other resources on fertility decline
August 2021, Book review: “Count Down – How our modern world is threatening sperm counts, altering male and female reproductive health, and imperiling the future of the human race” by Dr. Shanna Swan, https://www.env-health.org/book-review-count-down-how-our-modern-world-is-threatening-sperm-counts-altering-male-and-female-reproductive-health-and-imperiling-the-future-of-the-human-race-by-dr-s/