The disappearing male
Studies show rise in birth defects, infertility among men
Thursday, November 06, 2008
Are males becoming an endangered species?
That’s the question scientists and researchers have been pondering since alarming trends in male fertility rates, birth defects and disorders began emerging around the world.
More and more boys are being born with genital defects and are suffering from learning disabilities, autism and Tourette’s syndrome, among other disorders.
Male infertility rates are on the rise and the quality of an average man’s sperm is declining, according to some studies.
But perhaps the most disconcerting of all trends is the growing gender imbalance in many parts of heavily industrialized nations, where the births of baby boys have been declining for many years.
What many scientists are calling the most important — and least publicized — issue surrounding the future of the human race will be highlighted in a CBC documentary that features two Windsor researchers who’ve studied the phenomenon.
Titled The Disappearing Male and premiering tonight at 9 on CBC-TV, the documentary includes interviews with Jim Brophy and Margaret Keith, adjunct sociology professors at the University of Windsor.
They have been studying the decline in the birth of male children in the Aamjiwnaang First Nation community located next to the infamous Chemical Valley, Canada’s largest concentration of petrochemical plants, near Sarnia.
A paper co-authored by Keith and published three years ago in the U.S. journal Environmental Health Perspectives suggests that exposure to various chemicals produced by industrial plants surrounding the Aamjiwnaang reserve land may be skewing the community’s sex ratio.
The researchers looked at the community’s birth records since 1984 and saw “a dramatic drop in the number of boys being born in the last 10 years, particularly in the five-year period between 1998 and 2003,” Brophy said.
Of 132 Aamjiwnaang babies born between 1999 and 2003, only 46 were boys. Typically, about 105 boys are born for every 100 girls in Canada.
High miscarriage rates and a unusually high number of children suffering from asthma were also noted by researchers.
Although the link between pollutants and human reproduction has not been firmly established, there is growing evidence that the birth sex ratio can be altered by exposure to certain chemicals, such as dioxin, PCBs and pesticides. Brophy said studies done in the United States, Japan and Europe seem to support the theory that the so-called endocrine disrupting chemicals have a particular effect on males.
Some of these chemicals are found in commonly used products such as baby bottles and cosmetics. They can also cause miscarriages and a “whole host” of disorders in a male child, Brophy said.
Brophy said soil and water contamination in and around the Aamjiwnaang reserve had been documented before, including in a University of Windsor study that found high levels of PCBs, lead, mercury and various chemicals in the area in the late 1990s. Accidental chemical spills in the area have not been uncommon.
But it wasn’t until the Aamjiwnaang birth ratio study was published that the global science community really took notice.
“It triggered … calls from scientists and researchers from around the world who had been looking at this issue in Europe and the United States,” Brophy said. “Aamjiwnaang became almost the poster child.”
While Brophy has not seen The Disappearing Male documentary yet, he believes the story of the Aamjiwnaang community will be “the focal point.”
He said the documentary also includes interviews with “some of the foremost experts in the world” on environmental effects on reproductive health.
Brophy and Keith have also studied other occupational and environmental exposures to pollutants, including the link between breast cancer and certain types of jobs in the Windsor-Essex region.
© The Windsor Star 2008