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Sperm crisis and endocrine disrupters: a disinformation campaign in Germany?

On July 25, 2017 Levine (et al.) published an international meta-analysis, summarizing the results of 185 scientific papers on sperm counts since 1973. The results of this study are alarming. The researchers highlight a decline of 1, 4% per year in the count of the number of spermatozoa per ml. This concentration dropped from 99 per ml in 1973 to 47.1 / ml in 2011 in Western men. If the decline continues like described and if nothing is done in the next few years, most of the Western men could be infertile within 30 years.

sperm count, Levine et al. 2017, trend, plot

A sperm crisis related to endocrine disrupters?

The authors strongly suspect the effect of endocrine disruptors:

“While the current study is not designed to provide direct information on the causes of the observed declines, sperm count has been plausibly associated with both environmental and lifestyle influences, both prenatally and in adult life. In particular, endocrine disruption from chemical exposures or maternal smoking during a reproductive development may play a role in prenatal life, while lifestyle changes and exposure to pesticides may play a role in adult life. “

These endocrine disruptors are present in many of our everyday products: fruits and vegetables sprayed with pesticides, diapers for babies, cosmetics. They could cause not only disturbances in fertility but also cancer, obesity and behavioral disorders in children (hyperactivity, autism).

A disinformation campaign in Germany?

The economic stakes around endocrine disrupters are colossal, particularly in Germany, where Bayer and BASF have their headquarters. The issue of regulation divides Europe because Germany has chosen to protect the financial health of its chemical companies at the expense of the health of Europeans citizens. A final agreement, ending 8 years of debate, is expected to be voted in the European Parliament on 28 September 2017. This agreement should be very disappointing for European citizens because it gives prominence to proposals from chemical companies.

This debate has been making headlines in France for several years. In Germany, the public is not aware, although the Germans are generally rather well informed, involved and responsible on most environmental issues.

Methodology

In reading the German newspapers, I was rather shocked by the nonchalance and the irresponsibility of German journalists commenting on this scientific article. So I have compared articles in the German press with what can be found in the French and English media. In order to be comparable, I did not take all the articles, but only those that were published in the 10 most important newspapers in each country, available on the Internet. You can find my bibliography at the bottom of the page. I found 9 articles in Germany on this subject, 10 in the United Kingdom and only 2 in France.

In the United Kingdom, there is total panic. They talk about extinction of the human species and give advice to men to maintain a good level of fertility. In France, the tone is more moderate. Scientists report these alarming results, and comment the study while making the connection to endocrine disrupters.

In Germany, the atmosphere is completely different. Three researchers monopolize all the expertise on the subject:

  • The most quoted is Professor Stefan Schlatt, specialist in human reproduction at the University of Münster.
  • Professor Artur Mayerhofer of the Biomedicine Center of the University of Munich
  • and the German Society of Urology.

All three share the same discourse: there is no reason to panic … Seriously? How do they come to such conclusions?

1: Minimizing the amount of damage

The scientific community considers this study to be a wake-up call, and invites the international community to examine more intensively the link between infertility and endocrine disrupters. This is what is found in the conclusion of the study, and also in a report of the WHO of 2013.

With the same figures, German researchers believe that there is nothing to worry about and advise the population not to panic. The reasons not to worry? The rate of spermatozoa still allows us to reproduce ourselves. Stefan Schlatt says in the Süddeutsche Zeitung that: “when you look at the numbers, you realize that you are still far from the limit defined by the WHO for infertility“. This same message is repeated in all the newspaper articles and makes the headlines of the German newspapers: “sperm crisis: no panic! “, while in the United Kingdom titles are made on the extinction of the human species.

When I look at the numbers, that’s right: today we have no problem. But if we look at the slope of the curve for Western men, we see a decline of 1.4% per year. And 1.4% per year, this means that most Western men could be infertile by 2034. If one takes into account the statistical bias, there is a 95% chance that this happens in between 2027 and 2051. Now we don’t have no problem. But do we really want to send our children to reproduce themselves in laboratories?

2: Confusing the issue

While the causes of this decline are rather clear for scientists and public opinion in France and the United Kingdom, in Germany one wonders … To highlight this, I had a lot of fun to identify the suspected causes of the decline in fertility, and to count the number of occurrences in the articles. Here are the results :

france, suspected causes, endocrine disroptors, sperm count

UK, sperm count, causes, endocrine disruptors, Levine and al., uk media

Germany, sperm count, endocrine disruptors, endokrine disruptoren, causes

The 3 most commonly cited causes in Germany are aspirin, cell phone in the pocket, and warm nappies of babies. Note that these causes do not appear at all in France or in the United Kingdom. Why is there a blackout in France and in the UK about the potential danger of aspirin and mobile phone? In both countries, there is little doubt about the suspected effect of endocrine disrupters on fertility. It is also this hypothesis of a decrease in fertility due to endocrine disrupters that the scientists suggest as the most likely one in the study… When one takes the trouble to read it.

3: Discrediting softly the results of the study

While in France and in the UK we mostly talk about a consensus of the scientific community, German scientists believe this study has not gone far enough. The arguments of the German scientists are:

  • The authors of the study did not take into account the mobility of spermatozoa, which plays a large role in fertility. That’s right, but why consider sperm mobility when the purpose of this meta-analysis is to count spermatozoa? The aim of this meta-analysis what to show the decline of the sperm-count and only that.
  • Stefan Schlatt also refers to a 2011 study of which neither the source, the sample nor the method are cited in the article. For this reason, we can not verify whether it has been considered by Levine’s meta-analysis. The concentration in this study is 137.5 million / ml for fertile European men, that is super high compared to the results of the meta-anlysis.
  • The methods are questioned: German researchers regret that they did not use the latest methods, that are more effective ones to observe the number of spermatozoa. They propose to do the study again with these new methods, in order to have more solid results. How could researchers have focused on studies that use these latest techniques when they have been looking for comparable results since 40 years?

4: Diverting: the real problem is …

The real problem is …. The women ! They study long and do not want to reproduce at the age of 20: http://www.zeit.de/wissen/gesundheit/2017-07/fruchtbarkeit-mann-spermium-ejakulat

First of all, it is completely irrelevant because the question is not about female fertility. And then it is partly false. Journalists found a fertility study published in the 1990’s, based on a French database dating back to the 18th century: a time when women (even French ones) were ugly, old and agonizing at the age of 30 and died at the age of 40. This study has been largely criticized since then.

Of course, women will have more difficulty having babies at age 40, but let their eggs in peace. They are not responsible for the male infertility.

The real problem

The real problem in this story is not that the Western human species could extinct in a century or two, because German companies have decided to sterilize them with endocrine disrupters.

The real problem is disinformation. It is the laxity of scientific journalists in the face of this very explicit scientific study. It is also to have enabled a team of German scientists monopolizing the media debate with rather dubious arguments.

The result in Germany is a media blackout on endocrine disrupters. This is a subject that should be addressed today, not in 10 or 20 years when our children will face a real public health problem. The European Union must decide on endocrine disrupters on 28. September 2017. German public opinion is still in a vegetative state. This is serious because it is the proposals of the chemical companies (supported by Germany), which have spent millions in lobbying in recent years, which should probably be favored.

Bibliographie