The Case of the Disappearing Gender

I’ve been doing a lot of research lately on the effects of xenoestrogens, so the headline from the Globe and Mail wasn’t that shocking.

Humanity at Risk, it shouts: Are the Males Going First? The answer, like a bizarre take on the movie Children of Men (where the human race stops having children), is a cautious but disturbing affirmative.

The culprits, say researchers, are hormone disrupting chemicals called xenoestrogens, a group of man-made chemicals which can cause sex-related birth defects, infertility and cancer, particularly of the male testes.

There are hundreds of xenoestrogens in the environment now, but the ones of greatest reproductive concern are Bisphenol A (BPA), phthalates, polybrominated diphenylethers (PBDEs), and polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs.

Bisphenol A is a plastic often found in baby bottles, among other things. California moved to ban BPA baby bottles based on research that shows it can cause prostate abnormalities and other sex-organ abnormalities in laboratory animals, even at levels below the currently accepted U.S. safety standard. Lobbying defeated the effort.

Phthalates (pronounced by ignoring the initial ‘ph’) are plastic softeners found in shower curtains, vinyl flooring and lubricants, for example. The industrial processes for incorporating them into products aren’t sufficiently advanced to prevent phthalates from “leaking” into the environment. Manufacturing releases also contribute to phthalates in water and soil. According to a 2005 report by the U.S. Center for Disease Control, or CDC, phthalates in test animals have caused reduced sperm counts, testicular atrophy and other reproductive system structural abnormalities.

Polybrominated diphenylethers, or PBDEs, are flame retardants and also show up in the foam cushions of furniture and the plastic shells of computers, computer monitors and televisions. They are thyroid disruptors, and a properly functioning thyroid is essential for testicular development. Polybrominated diphenylethers also play a role in brain development and have been linked to Attention Deficit Disorder and similar hyperactive behavioral manifestations in children and adults.

Polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, are now banned, but they persist in the environment and have about the same effect as PBDEs on thyroid function and male testicles. The most recent study found that a one-part-per-billion increase in PCB concentrations in the placenta which provides nourishment to unborn babies resulted in a three-point drop in IQ assessments nine years later.

Researchers have discovered that, not only are fewer males being born in highly industrialized nations like the U.S., Canada and Japan, but those males are reproductively inferior to their predecessors. They have lower sperm counts, 20 percent less testosterone than their 1980’s counterparts, defective reproductive equipment like hypospadias (a penile abnormality which has risen 60 percent in Canada over the last three decades), and higher rates of reproductive cancers than females, with testicular cancer in Canada up more than 50 percent since 1983. The studies from Canada reflect similar statistics across the industrialized world, and males – historically and sociologically defined as the stronger of the two sexes – are in fact proving weaker and more vulnerable, at least to environmental toxins.

According to Dr. Devra Davis, the University of Pittsburgh’s Centre for Environmental Oncology director, this increase in what scientists call “testicular dysgenesis syndrome” (a blanket diagnosis for a host of male reproductive-system disorders) is profoundly disturbing, suggesting that humanity’s demise may come not from nuclear war or global warming but something as small as a sperm – or its absence.

The defects aren’t confined to humans. Birds, fish, amphibians, reptiles and non-human mammals are all experiencing a decline in reproductive power and an increase in male sexual deformities. Male alligators and frogs becoming female, sterile panthers in Florida, male birds unable to display (or lacking) mating plumage – it’s all part of a greater ecological disaster, and it’s been coming on for several decades, but we chose to ignore the signs.

Perhaps the next apocalyptic book on the future of the human species should be called The Children of Women. In the absence of fertile males, women will have to resort to modern science to conceive. Of course, only those who can afford the services of a sperm bank and in vitro fertilization will be able to have children, but isn’t that the direction politics is taking anyway?

Dr. Dimitra Takos is a Newport Beach Psychologist specializing in the treatment of adolescents and adults suffering from depression, anxiety, and trauma-and stressor-related disorders.