Prenatal exposure to plasticizer may harm future male fertility

Scientists have noted a substantial drop in male fertility in recent decades. A new study in mice suggests a possible cause. Chemicals found in a variety of routinely used consumer products may be contributing to the drop in sperm counts and sperm quality among men recently.

The study found the effect of chemicals that disrupt the body’s hormones, called endocrine-disrupting chemicals, may extend beyond more than one generation. The research results were presented March 19, at ENDO 2018, the 100th annual meeting of the Endocrine Society, in Chicago.

“These results suggest that when a mother is exposed to an endocrine disruptor during pregnancy, her son and the son’s future generations may suffer from decreased fertility or hormone insufficiency,” said lead author Radwa Barakat, of the College of Veterinary Medicine, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

The researchers studied the effect of a phthalate known as DEHP, which is among the most widely used endocrine-disrupting chemicals. It is found in a wide array of industrial and consumer products, including polyvinyl chloride (PVC) piping and tubing, cosmetics, medical devices and plastic toys. The study found that male mice exposed to DEHP prenatally had significantly less testosterone in their blood and fewer sperm in their semen. Consequently, they lost fertility at an age when they normally would have been fertile.

“Most surprisingly, the male mice born to male mice that were exposed to DEHP also exhibited similar reproductive abnormalities—indicating prenatal exposure to DEHP can affect the fertility and reproductive capacity of more than one generation of offspring,” Barakat said. “Therefore, DEHP may be a contributing factor to the decreased sperm counts and qualities in modern men compared to previous generations.”

The study underscores the importance of educating the public to try to reduce their exposure to this chemical and also the need to substitute this chemical with a safer one, he said.

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