Special Report: The New Boys' Health Scare
Male infertility appears to be on the rise, and studies suggest that more boys are being born with genital malformations. Could chemicals in our air, our homes, and even our kitchens be the cause?
By Brian Alexander
You wouldn't know it to speak to her, because she's cheerfully chatty, with a pronounced Chicago-land accent, but Brandie Langer is worried. She's also a little worried about being worried. "Do you think I might be paranoid?" she asks. She has three children. The youngest, a son, is 5 years old, and Brandie has read a lot online about endocrine-disrupting chemicals (EDCs), which some scientists say can scramble male hormones. EDCs are commonly found in plastics, bug- and weed-killers, the linings of food and drink cans, fragrances, and other household products. "Sometimes I do a Google search about a chemical and half the sites say, 'It's fine, you're paranoid, and you need a hobby,'" says Brandie, 31. "Others say, 'There's no hope! We cannot turn back! Humankind is going to die.' And I feel like, Am I crazy?" But instead of freaking out about it, she and her husband made a plan: They avoid buying food packaged in plastic containers and cans whenever possible. They switched from their heavily scented laundry detergent. They stopped treating their lawn, ignoring typical suburban neighborhood gossip about their weedy yard. Yet she's not positive they absolutely need to do any of these things.
Same with Karly Field, a Birmingham, AL, mother of two boys, 5 and 2. She was pregnant with her younger son when she first saw news reports about the possible negative effects of bisphenol A (BPA), a chemical often used in hard plastics and in the lining of cans. She reluctantly threw out all the BPA-containing baby bottles she used for her older son and spent about $250 buying a new set. "I didn't know if he would be affected," she says, but she acted anyway, just in case.
But it's not just moms like Brandie and Karly: Scientists, regulatory organizations, and government groups are concerned that chemicals in everyday products may have launched an unintentional war on our health. Children may be most seriously affected because their developing brains and bodies are especially vulnerable to chemicals. Over the last few years, there has been a glut of new research about the possible effects on baby boys, in particular. Some research has suggested that EDCs can change the way male fetuses' brains form in the womb. Other studies have linked EDCs to a rise in genital birth defects such as hypospadias (in which the opening of the urethra develops on the shaft, not at the tip, of the penis) and cryptorchidism (undescended testicles, a risk factor for poor semen quality and testicular cancer). And although data from the United States is inconclusive, studies from across the globe suggest that adult male sperm quality and fertility are dropping. European scientists even coined a term — testicular dysgenesis syndrome — to describe the increasing rates of testicular cancer and low sperm count. "Across Europe, sperm counts in young men are remarkably low on average, and 20 percent or more fall into the subfertile/infertile range," says Richard Sharpe, Ph.D., of the MRC/University of Edinburgh Centre for Reproductive Health. "It appears to be more prevalent now than 50 years ago."
EDCs are emerging as a prime suspect in these troubling trends. That's why REDBOOK asked more than a dozen of the country's top researchers in the field to explain the issue, and help women like Brandie, Karly, and you make informed decisions for your families.