The world as we know it is facing an exponential rise in the generation of plastic waste. On average, an individual consumes 11kgs of plastic in a year. And then came coronavirus. With the increased consumption of masks, PPE kits and other biomedical waste, the amount of plastic generated (around the world) is on a high rise. According to an IUNC report, the world produces over 300 million tonnes of plastic every year.
We know that this plastic waste often finds its way into the lakes, rivers and seas. With the boom of consumerism, the plastic waste explosion has reached the skies, and sadly the phrase "the sky is the limit" stands true. Moving on from our landfills, we have now begun disposing of the waste generated by our planet into space. And because of this, like it or not, plastic strains are present in the food we eat and the water we drink.
This overload of plastic waste has severely affected the planet, and we see the ill-effect through changing climate, floods etc. However, a recent study analysed the relation between the world's plastic waste and its effect on human fertility.
Professor Shanna Swan, from Mount Sinai Hospital in New York, spent the last twenty years understanding how chemicals such as phthalates (a component of plastic) are affecting sperm count in men. Swan, who is also an author, found that these chemicals are also causing smaller penises.
Similar research published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health looked into the connection between microplastics and male fertility. The study suggested that as the contact between microplastics and humans increases, the accumulation in the system causes a change in sperm quality.
Additionally, according to a study sperm counts among men have more than halved in the last 40 years.
Both the studies bring us to one conclusion! The plastic waste crisis that has been building since industrialisation is now affecting our fertility. Dr Swan also warned that by 2045, most people would have to switch to assistive facilities such as in vitro fertilisation (IVF), to be able to conceive a child.
It reminds me of multiple episodes from Love Death And Robots or even Black Mirror, where humans have lost their ability to reproduce. Either in a trade for longer life or in the process of modernisation.
So let us understand how are these chemicals affecting us?
While investigating a class of chemicals in plastic called phthalates — used to make plastics soft and flexible — Dr Swan realised its effect on male fertility. This realisation, was based on several studies in rats that affected fertility.
"Phthalates are particularly risky because they have the ability to lower testosterone, and anything that can lower testosterone is going to interfere with reproductive health," Dr Swan told Vogue. "When the [male rats] were born, they had a lot of changes in their genitals, which has been called the phthalate syndrome—this goes on to predict problems with fertility and sperm count." There are shreds of evidence that also suggest chemicals in plastic that can cause infertility in women too.
"Studies indicate that infertile women have higher […] BPA levels compared to fertile women," writes Dr Jodi Flaws. Flaws, who is a professor of comparative biosciences at the University of Illinois explains, "Studies conducted in women undergoing IVF treatments also show that […] increased levels of BPA may decrease the success rate of IVF treatments."
Think moisturiser bottles, shampoo bottles, or even soap packages. These packaging and sometimes even the products contain the chemical, which are in regular contact with our skin (an excellent absorber). But, using chemical-free products is an effective way to change that.
However, the man problem lies with the consumption of these chemicals.
As sighted by the study, one of the ways we are exposed to these phthalates is through our food. The remains of plastic are often in the water or buried deep into the soil where vegetables are grown. Apart from that, phthalates are especially found in packaging material or food containers.
Think: black microwave-friendly containers with transparent tops. That we often preserve for future use.
"An easy way to get exposed is to take a soft plastic bag or pouch and put it in the microwave," Dr Swan says. "It's been shown very clearly that phthalates leave that container wrapping and go into the food when it’s microwaved."
The solution, you ask?
Going back to our roots. Heating food in steel containers, avoiding plastic containers as far as possible. Shifting to eco-friendly home products made out of cloth, bamboo, coconut, ceramic etc.
Thought the advancement of technology has introduced us to a more comfortable lifestyle. What we fail to realise is that it is affecting our health in the worst ways. It is also adversely affecting our planet and causing irrevocable damage.