In a scene of my near-future eco-thriller A Diary in the Age of Water (Inanna Publications, 2020) the diarist’s young colleague Daniel rather too enthusiastically proclaims the impending extinction of males.
“Scientists all agree that environmental factors are the main triggers for male and female infertility through epigenetics…Epigenetics rules climate change-related adaptations. And everything appears stacked heavily for females and intersex humans. Males might go extinct with climate change!”
–A Diary in the Age of Water
Lynna Dresden, the diarist in A Diary in the Age of Water, thinks Daniel is rather buffoonish and a traitor to his male kind. Then again, here is how another Daniel starts his article in a 2018 issue of GQ Magazine entitled “Sperm Count Zero“:
Men are doomed. Everybody knows this. We’re obviously all doomed, the women too, everybody in general, just a waiting game until one or another of the stupid things our stupid species is up to finally gets us. But as it turns out, no surprise: men first. Second instance of no surprise: We’re going to take the women down with us.
There has always been evidence that men, throughout life, are at higher risk of early death—from the beginning, a higher male incidence of Death by Mastodon Stomping, a higher incidence of Spiked Club to the Brainpan, a statistically significant disparity between how many men and how many women die of Accidentally Shooting Themselves in the Face or Getting Really Fat and Having a Heart Attack. The male of the species dies younger than the female—about five years on average. Divide a population into groups by birth year, and by the time each cohort reaches 85, there are two women left for every man alive. In fact, the male wins every age class: Baby boys die more often than baby girls; little boys die more often than little girls; teenage boys; young men; middle-aged men. Death champions across the board.
Now it seems that early death isn’t enough for us—we’re on track instead to void the species entirely.
–Daniel Noah Halpern, GQ Magazine
Both Daniels are talking about the alarming rate at which sperm counts worldwide are falling. They’ve dropped by half in the last fifty years in North America, Europe, Australia and New Zealand—according to a 2017 paper by researchers at Hebrew University and Mount Sinai medical school and more recent studies in 2018.
While an unhealthy lifestyle (being overweight or obese, smoking, stress and alcohol or recreational drug use) is most often implicated, more insidious causes exist.
Research shows that consumption and/or exposure to many common constituents of urban living can decrease fertility, increase miscarriage, spontaneous abortion, and lower auto-immune systems. Examples include car exhaust, pesticides, common detergents, hair dyes, cleaning solvents, oil based paints, adhesives, gasoline; and consumption of MSG, coffee, alcohol.
A 2019 study by scientists at Nottingham University identified two chemicals common in home environments that damage sperm in men and dogs. GQ Daniel goes on to explain: “Phthalates and BPA [used to make plastic soft and flexible or harder and stronger] for example, mimic estrogen in the bloodstream. If you’re a man with a lot of phthalates in his system, you’ll produce less testosterone and fewer sperm. If exposed to phthalates in utero, a male fetus’s reproductive system itself will be altered: He will develop to be less male.”
This leads Age of Water Daniel to bring up the rise in intersex mammals (individuals born with any of several variations in sex characteristics including chromosomes, gonads, sex hormones or genitals that do not fit the “strict definitions for ‘male’ or ‘female’ bodies”). A 2016 article in Environmental Health Insights by Rich et al. attribute an increasing number of human children born with intersex variation to an increase in hormone disrupting chemicals in our environment.
Leaning on his microscope, Daniel went on, “Wherever there’s a sewage treatment plant, pulp and paper mill, or herbicides and pesticides in a stream, you get endocrine disruption, which causes more female or intersex fish populations…[Degradation products of surfactants used in commercial and household detergents] inhibit breeding in male fish. And herbicides like atrazine—”
“—Create feminized males with female eggs, along with reduced immunity to disease,” I finished for him.
I knew all this. Hormonal disruption is global. Environmental toxicologists have been finding it in many aquatic animals like fish, turtles, alligators and frogs. And some terrestrial animals…Even humans…Was it also causing the steep rise in ambiguous sex in humans? Is Daniel an intersex human? Apparently 1 in 30 now have bodies that differ notably from standard male or female. Klinefelter, androgen insensitivity syndrome, presence of ovotestes, mixed gonadal dysgenesis, and mosaic genetics are all on the rise. Which was he?
As if he knew what I was thinking, Daniel said dramatically, “The environment is changing us faster than most think and it’s doing it through epigenetics and HGT.”
–A Diary in the Age of Water
Phthalates and BPA can be found everywhere. GQ Daniel lists them: “BPA can be found in water bottles and food containers and sales receipts. Phthalates are even more common: They are in the coatings of pills and nutritional supplements; they’re used in gelling agents, lubricants, binders, emulsifying agents, and suspending agents. Not to mention medical devices, detergents and packaging, paint and modeling clay, pharmaceuticals and textiles and sex toys and nail polish and liquid soap and hair spray. They are used in tubing that processes food, so you’ll find them in milk, yogurt, sauces, soups, and even, in small amounts, in eggs, fruits, vegetables, pasta, noodles, rice, and water. The CDC determined that just about everyone in the United States has measurable levels of phthalates in his or her body—they’re unavoidable.”
These chemicals affect sperm’s ability to swim, navigate and fertilize an egg. DNA fragmentation in the sperm head also occurs, which is basically equivalent to a sperm having a brain hemorrhage. Recent studies suggest that 20-30% of young men today have sperm counts in a range that is associated with reduced fertility. Sarbjit Kaur at the Punjab Agricultural University found that men who live in industrial cities had six times more abnormal sperm than men living in a relatively clean rural town (Bulletin of Environmental Contamination Toxicology 40:102-104).
Dr. Marilyn F. Vine at the University of North Carolina demonstrated that smoking men had lower sperm counts by 13-17%. Smokers also had more abnormal sperm. Likewise, women who smoked experienced more spontaneous abortions, early menopause and abnormal oocytes. Follicular fluid also contained high levels of cadmium, a heavy metal present in cigarettes, and cotininie, a metabolite of nicotine.
A growing concern for infertility has entered our general mindset, reflected in the theme of infertility in literature and motion pictures. Notable examples include Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (1985), Raising Arizona (1987), Aeon Flux (2005), The Children of Men (2006), Private Life (2018) and my own A Diary in the Age of Water (2020).
Although we are not close to experiencing the global infertility pandemic portrayed in the barren 2027 world of The Children of Men, this cautionary tale of a world gone mad with grief should linger like the whispered truth of a fairy tale.
In the end, it is Age of Water Daniel who has the last word: “The environment is changing us faster than most think…”
Carr, Teresa. 2019. “Sperm counts are on the decline—could plastics be to blame?” The Guardian.
Belluz, Julia. 2019. “Sperm counts are falling. This isn’t the reproductive apocalypse—yet” Vox.
Halpern, Daniel Noah. 2018. “Sperm Count Zero.” GQ Magazine.
Fetters, Ashley. 2018. “Sperm Counts Continue to Fall.” The Atlantic.
Stein, Rob. 2017. “Sperm Counts Plummet in Western Men, Study Finds.” NPR.
Nina Munteanu is a Canadian ecologist / limnologist and novelist. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books. Nina’s bilingual “La natura dell’acqua / The Way of Water” was published by Mincione Edizioni in Rome. Her non-fiction book “Water Is…” by Pixl Press (Vancouver) was selected by Margaret Atwood in the New York Times ‘Year in Reading’ and was chosen as the 2017 Summer Read by Water Canada. Her novel “A Diary in the Age of Water” will be released by Inanna Publications (Toronto) in May 2020.