Martha and her husband Chris searched for young women online twice a week. After a day of work, they would pour a glass of wine and –for thirty minutes– would scan profiles of attractive and interesting women in their twenties.
The red wine made the whole thing more carefree. Because although that little routine might have seemed like a perverse trend, in reality, it was just one couple’s desperate attempt to conceive their first child.
For Martha, getting pregnant had only ever been a matter of time. But at 36, the more time passed and the more medical advice she received, the more unexplained her infertility remained.
The more time passed, the more her infertility became the elephant in every room. Sense of emptiness, anger, sadness, too much pain to even touch the subject –the feeling was exactly the same as for anyone like her who had faced that situation.
Because whether it’s a man or a woman, the feeling is always the same: suffocating.
Of similar stories, the web tells more and more every year. Worldwide, there are more than 48 million couples with infertility problems. And their number, from here on out, is set to multiply.
The global fertility rate has been dropping by 1% every year for the past 60 years, and to this day, it shows no sign of slowing down.
At this rate, more and more people will have to deal with infertility; more and more couples will be unable to conceive naturally. And within a few decades, the only way to have a child –for many– will be to rely on assisted reproduction.
In perspective, infertility is growing at a faster rate than global warming. Yet the attention it receives is not even close.
We perceive it as a distant problem until it becomes a personal issue. But the reality is that declining reproductive health is just a wake-up call for everyone’s overall health.
The exact same causes behind infertility lie behind many of today’s other ills. And their consequences may affect us more closely than we ever thought possible.
The Infertility Machine
For years, declining birth rates have been linked to career opportunities, planned parenthood, increased access to contraceptives, and abortion. But in recent times, more and more scientific research seems to support quite another reason.
In fifty years, fertility rates have more than halved. Sperm and egg quality have declined sharply. Males have developed more congenital anomalies and testicular cancer; females, more miscarriages.
Behind all this are the same human activities responsible for climate change.
Industrialization has produced and dispersed environmental pollutants of all kinds. Heavy metals, pharmaceuticals, additives, and hormones have been spilled into the environment and become part of our food chain.
Plastic has polluted the soil, air, and oceans to the same extent that it has contaminated our bodies.
Every day, we eat, breathe, and assimilate industrial pollutants without even realizing it. For years, we accumulate them in our bodies, and over time they end up posing a serious risk to our health, especially reproductive one.
What we eat, touch, and breath.
When it comes to infertility, few substances have garnered more attention than phthalates.
From food to personal care products to water bottles, these substances are everywhere: detergents, shampoos, nail polish, makeup, deodorants, lotions, soaps, and toys are just a few of the everyday products where we can find them.
On an industrial level, phthalates are added to make plastics soft and flexible. And that makes them so present in our everyday lives that we can’t dispose of them without other phthalates having already replaced them.
In almost every American, phthalates have been found in sweat, urine, blood, and sexual fluids. And their presence is well known to exert an unhealthy influence on both hormonal activity and the reproductive system.
In males, phthalates destroy testosterone levels. In females, they reduce egg quality. In children and fetuses –even in small amounts– they can alter development, alter brain function, and compromise the immune system.
Over the years, research has also linked them to a wide range of other conditions: neurodevelopmental problems, autism spectrum disorders, breast cancer, low IQ, asthma, hyperactivity, attention deficit, even obesity, and diabetes.
What people can control
Phthalates have become so ubiquitous that, even wanting to, eliminating them entirely from our lives would prove impossible.
Anyway, reducing their exposure –even by a small amount– can have a significant, positive effect on our health.
Personal care. Choose “phthalate-free” or “fragrance-free” personal care products and avoid scented soaps and detergents, fabric softeners, or air fresheners. Instead, choose products made with essential oils, “with no synthetic fragrance,” and natural air fresheners. Finally, if you have a vinyl or plastic shower curtain, replace it with a fabric one.
Diet. Limit high-fat meats and dairy products and prefer fresh meals to packaged and processed ones. Whenever possible, choose to purchase only foods and beverages stored in glass containers.
Preparations. In the microwave, use only “microwave-safe” containers. And utilize only glass, porcelain, or stainless steel containers for meal preparation, especially if food is liquid and hot.
Purchasing behaviors. Labels do not always mention “phthalates,” especially with toys or personal care products. So avoid plastic products labeled with recycling codes 3, 6, and 7 and instead opt for products with codes 2, 4, or 5.
An urgent call to action
Reproductive problems in males are growing by 1% annually, and on the female side, miscarriage rates are increasing at the same rate.
With these numbers, infertility will become the heaviest socio-economic problem on the shoulders of future generations.
Only a study of more than twenty years would allow understanding the phenomenon in its complexity. But projects of that caliber only get funding as long as the issue is vital.
And at least for the moment, infertility is not –according to experts.
The perception is that assisted reproduction is the answer to the problem. But in reality, assisted reproduction does not solve any problem: it simply ignores it.
For sure, whatever the reasons may have been, underestimating the problem of infertility has led us to our current circumstances. And for sure, continuing to do so will only further burden one of the biggest problems facing future generations.
After years in which governments have largely ignored the well-known consequences of industrialization and plastic derivatives, it is time to impose more restrictive measures.
Measures that prohibit endocrine disruptors such as phthalates from entering the marketplace.
Measures that allow only safe and tested substances to enter our lives.
“So many people –including smart people– think that there are too many people in the world and think that the population is growing out of control. It’s completely the opposite. Please look at the numbers.” –Elon Musk.