11 Surprising Sperm Killers

From food packaging to the food itself, men are inundated with sperm-slaying chemicals.

January 5, 2011
Photograph by Thinkstock

Sperm killers are everywhere. They saturate you in the shower, seep into your skin in the checkout line, and even ooze into the convenience food you grab on the run. No matter the point of entry, many everyday chemicals are zapping their sperm counts and even silently scrambling DNA sperm data for men all over the world. Some cause sperm mobility problems, leaving your swimmers not swimming so well. And since the last time we wrote about this, a few more sperm busters have crossed our radar screen. You might already know that narrow bikes seats have been linked to erectile dysfunction, and maybe you've heard about the study connecting antidepressants to sperm DNA damage. But other everyday habits are acting as sperm slayers, too. Once you understand the scope of harmful products on the market, it's easy to see why fertility clinics are packed with customers, both male and female. Though we've found eight more culprits to add to our list, the good news is these everyday toxins are easier to sidestep than you may think.


Cash-register receipts
Think how many times a day someone slips a cash-register receipt into your hand: Your morning coffee, your gas fill-up, your stock-up trip to the grocery store, your dinner and a movie. The transactions are endless. The problem is, about 40 percent of receipts today are coated with the hormone-disrupting chemical bisphenol A (BPA), which has been linked to fertility problems and heart disease. A new study published in the journal Fertility and Sterility just discovered that men with higher BPA levels in their urine experienced low sperm counts and lower sperm quality than men with lower levels.
Protect yourself: While there's no direct evidence linking receipt handling to infertility, why take chances? Until electronic receipts become commonplace, say you don't want a receipt at the point of purchase. If you do need one, store it in an envelope or folder, not in a pocket or in the wallet you're constantly breaking open. Keep receipts out of the recycling bin, too; their BPA can contaminate water and recycled-paper products.

Canned food
Many researchers believe the biggest source of BPA contamination comes through food packaging. Sure, canned food is convenient, but almost all of those metal cans are coated with a BPA resin, which migrates into the food. Acidic canned products, such as tomato paste or sauces, are particularly saturated with BPA.
Protect yourself: Choose fresh or frozen food instead of canned whenever possible, and buy foods like pasta sauce in glass jars rather than in cans.

Sex toys
We're not telling you to send your entire adult toy box to the landfill, but to protect yourself and your partner, avoid dildos, vibrators, and male pleasure devices made of vinyl. This type of plastic unleashes phthalates, plastic-softening chemicals linked to cancer, allergies, birth defects, and infertility.
Protect yourself: Safely spice up your sex life by investing in green foreplay products made of high-quality medical silicone, such as the We-Vibe. For nonplastic pleasure, try a glass dildo.

Your toxic shower
Phthalates don't just linger in your sex toys, but also in scented soaps, shampoos, and cleaners, and in vinyl shower curtains. (Ever noticed those things can give you a headache when you first hang them up?) And the heat from your shower makes it easier for the chemicals to be released.
Protect yourself: Choose a simple soap-and-shampoo-in-one, such as plant-based, unscented Dr. Bronner's Baby Mild. Even though it's a kid's soap, it does the job. Plus, it's free of harmful phthalate-containing products. Avoid personal-care products that have a fragrance or scent. And invest in a long-lasting hemp shower curtain instead of buying vinyl curtains every month or two.

Chemical-laced produce
Pesticides are designed to kill pests. Unfortunately, chemical pesticides don't see much difference between your precious seed and a hornworm.
Protect yourself: It's helpful to always wash your produce, but pesticides aren't just on food, they're in the food, too. So eat organic whenever possible, and start planning your 2011 organic garden.

Heated car seats
For a man enduring sub-par temperatures, there may be no greater luxury than a heated car seat. But that between-the-legs toastiness may come at a price: damaged sperm quality. Heated car seats, heating pads, and even prolonged time in a hot tub heat up testicular temperatures just enough to decrease sperm production.
Protect yourself: Direct heat is the problem here, so if you're cold in the car, just boost the heater and let the air circulate around the vehicle.

Contaminated fish
PCBs, or polychlorinated biphenyls, a group of toxic compounds used extensively in the electricity industry, are banned, but the ones that are already out there will remain in the environment indefinitely, where they especially accumulate in fish. If you're a fisherman, that doesn't mean you have to give up eating your catch altogether, but you should look for cleaner waters and follow consumption guidelines to make sure you don't ingest too many sperm-destroying PCBs.
Protect yourself: If you're craving fish, opt for wild Alaskan salmon or consult your locale's fish-consumption advisories.

Nonstick chemicals
Nonstick chemicals used in pots and pans and in raingear often contain perfluoroalkyl acids, known as PFAAs; common types include PFOA or PFOS. But all of those acronyms could be making it harder for couples to conceive. A 2009 Danish study published Environmental Health Perspectives found that men with the highest levels of PFOS (3M stopped making PFOS in 2005) and PFOA had half the number or normal sperm cells compared to men with smaller amounts of the chemicals in their bodies.
Protect yourself: Once your nonstick cookware wears out, replace it with untreated stainless steel or American-made cast iron. Avoid store-bought microwavable popcorn, too. The bags are often coated with nonstick chemicals. Instead, pop your own using a microwave trick.

Cosmetics/food preservatives
Parabens are used in many cosmetics, cleaners, and even some processed foods as preservatives due to their cheap chemical antimicrobial activity. But lab and rodent studies have linked parabens to not only breast cancer, but also abnormal genetic changes in the sperm of male mice fed parabens.
Protect yourself: Visit Environmental Working Group's Skin Deep Cosmetic Safety Database to judge the safety of your personal-care products; eat organic, unprocessed foods as much as possible; and learn to make your own green cleaners.

"Safer" flame retardants
As once-popular flame retardants polybrominated diphenylethers (PBDEs) are phased out due to health concerns surrounding them, their replacements may cause their own issues. According to a study published in Environmental Health Perspectives in 2010 of the "safer" flame retardant and plasticizer replacements—chemicals known as TDCPP and TPP—men living in higher household-dust concentrations of the chemicals displayed lower sperm counts and declining thyroid hormone levels.
Protect yourself: Avoid furniture that meets California's TB117 flammability law (usually found on a tag; you can also call the manufacturer) because the stuff is doused in flame-retardant chemicals. When buying furniture, request untreated foam, or, if you can afford it, purchase naturally flame-resistant furniture made of an organic cotton/wool combination. Further reduce your in-home exposure by cleaning with a high-rated vacuum cleaner.

Natural Gas Drilling
The industrial solvent benzene isn't just a cancer causer, it's also a sperm mutator. A study published in 2010 in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives found that at benzene exposure levels allowed in the workplace, benzene-exposed men exhibited significantly higher genetically damaged sperm compared to unexposed workers, increasing the risk for birth defects in their children.
Even if you don't work around benzene, your fertility could still be at risk, particularly if you live near natural gas drilling hotspots. Previously hailed as a clean energy source, researchers are finding that natural gas hydraulic fracturing compressor stations are emitting toxic air pollution, including high levels of benzene.
Protect yourself: Ask your elected representatives to remove the natural gas industry's exemption from federal laws designed to protect public health. To protect yourself from other sources of carcinogenic benzene pollution, avoid scented candles and benzene-laced home cleaners.

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