Plastic Harms Men’s Fertility: How to Protect Your Health

Plastic harms men’s fertility and is invading their reproductive systems. Here we shed light on the health risks of plastics and what you can do to protect yourself, to help keep yourself and future generations healthier.

Plastic poisons people. While unborn babies, infants, children, and pregnant people are among those most vulnerable to the toxic impacts of plastic, evidence of plastic harming men’s health is also growing. Specifically, with plastic particles found throughout men’s reproductive systems, concerns are growing around the threats of plastic to men’s fertility and overall reproductive health. 

It’s concerning to learn of plastic’s harmful impacts on our bodies. Yet, there are things you can do to better protect your health.

Microplastics Found in Men’s Reproductive Systems

It appears that the amount of microplastics accumulating in men’s testicles is among the highest found in any human body part: higher than what has been found in mothers’ placentas, and second only to the human brain, the organ which appears to be harboring the highest levels of plastic particles.

This year, scientists published the results of a small study assessing 23 human and 47 dog testicles for plastic particles. Unfortunately, the researchers found microplastic in all of testes analyzed. The most common type of microplastic found was polyethylene (PE), a plastic commonly used to make single-use bags and bottles. The next most common type was polyvinyl chloride (PVC), which is used for many purposes, from food packaging, to car interiors to building materials such as water pipes. The human testicles contained almost three times as many microplastics as those of the dogs, suggesting a higher level of exposure.

Human sperm samples are also testing positive for microplastics. In another small study published this year, scientists found plastic particles in all 40 of the sperm samples they collected from men undergoing routine sexual health assessments in China. They detected eight types of plastics in these samples, with polystyrene (PS)—from expanded polystyrene (EPS) foam items, like takeout clamshells, PE, and PVC being the most common. Other researchers have also found high levels of PS microplastics in sperm samples.

Once they enter the human body through inhalation, ingestion, or contact with skin, plastic particles seem capable of traveling through our internal systems—much like the way plastic particles polluting the environment are known to travel through Earth’s atmosphere and air, oceans, freshwaters, and soils. Plastic particles have also been found in people’s bloodstreams, breast milk, feces, hearts, lungs, and veins, with more worrying research now on the way.

Plastic and Its Chemicals Harm Men’s Fertility

Plastic production and pollution is on the rise, and, unfortunately, so is male infertility. While the exact mechanisms of how microplastics and plastic chemicals harm reproductive health are still being fully understood, scientists have already learned a few key facts:

Microplastics decrease testes weight, and reduce and harm sperm

The presence of microplastics in men’s reproductive systems appears to decrease testes weight and sperm count. Scientists have found that the higher the levels of polyethylene and PVC plastic particles found in human and dog testicles, the lower the weight of the testicles. In dogs, the scientists linked the presence of PVC particles to lower sperm counts. Smaller testicles tend to produce less sperm, which can cause fertility issues. Experts estimate sperm levels globally could trend towards zero by 2045. This makes the issue of plastics, chemicals, and fertility a matter of human survival

Other studies have linked microplastic exposure, especially exposure to polystyrene, to infertility issues including increased sperm abnormalities and death, reduced sperm count and viability, and reproductive system damage in male mice and rats. Researchers have noticed that sperm found in samples with PVC move abnormally, and all sperm samples containing microplastic tend to have sperm with harmful mutations that impair their survival.

Plastic chemicals are linked to infertility and erectile dysfunction

PVC is considered one of the most toxic types of plastics because it contains dangerous ingredients plus harmful additive chemicals, including phthalates, which are known to interfere with normal hormone functions in the human body. Exposure to PVC plastic and the endocrine- (hormone-) disrupting chemicals it contains has been linked to serious health problems, including numerous reproductive issues in males, including undescended testes, premature puberty, and low sperm count.

There is ample and growing evidence that the hormone-disrupting chemicals in plastics‚ which are numerous and include bisphenols (like bisphenol A, or BPA), dioxins, flame retardants, PFAS “forever chemicals,” phthalates, toxic metals, and many others, have serious effects on the human body, and especially the reproductive system. In men, hormone-disrupting chemicals found in plastics have been linked to erectile dysfunction, reduced sperm counts and health, and many other reproductive abnormalities linked to infertility.

Environmental injustice and industrial air pollution linked to fertility issues

According to some estimates, about 70 percent of people employed by the plastic industry identify as men. Worldwide, about 20 million people work in the informal waste sector, picking through plastic pollution to make a meager living while facing the dangers of plastic pollution often without any form of health-protecting equipment. Many waste pickers are men. 

In the workplace, whether in a plastic factory or at a plastic dump site, workers face exposure to plastic particles and chemicals through inhalation, ingestion, and skin contact. Those working in close proximity to plastic often risk their lives, with accidents such as fires and explosions occurring frequently.

Similarly, people living in low-income, rural, and Black, Indigenous, and/or People of Color (BIPOC) communities are most likely to find themselves on the industrial fencelines of plastic and fossil fuel pollution. Such proximity to plastic pollution, transportation, and disposal exposes communities to an array of toxic air, water, soil, and bodily pollutants—including microplastics and the chemicals they contain. Exposure to plastic pollution has been linked to all manner of health serious issues, including autoimmune disorders, cancers, heart disease, infertility, reproductive issues, respiratory problems, and much more.

Take Action

While it is concerning to learn about the ways plastic is harming our health, the good news is steps can be taken to avoid plastic as much as possible. Learn more by using our guides and reading our blogs, which include actionable steps for eliminating plastic from your everyday life, from home cleaning supplies, to your wardrobe, and much more.

Besides taking individual actions to reduce the risks of plastic pollution exposure, we need wider systemic change to better protect our health. Plastic poisons people, and the only way we can halt the harm is to significantly reduce plastic production. With the UN Plastics Treaty set to be finalized by the end of this year, world leaders now have the opportunity to agree to cap plastic production. Join the call for an ambitious treaty during the final negotiating session in November 2024 that will allow us to end plastic pollution. If you’re in the U.S., sign the petition here. If you’re outside the U.S., sign the petition here.

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June 10 , 9:30 am June 11 , 5:30 pm EDT

The National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH) is partnering with the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) to hold a 2-day workshop to stimulate discussion about and interest in researching ways to reduce and mitigate the effects of endocrine-disrupting chemicals (EDCs) in people who have been exposed. “Complementary and Integrative Interventions To Prevent and Mitigate the Effects of Endocrine-Disrupting Chemicals” will take place June 10–11, 2024. Spanish-language interpretation will be provided for those who indicate the need. 

Register now to join virtually.

  • Members of the public may join by livestream and ask questions in advance of the meeting. 

July 2 , 1:00 pm 2:00 pm EDT

One in six children in the U.S. has a developmental disability and the prevalence of those disabilities has increased over the past decade. Families with low incomes and families of color have long faced disproportionate exposures to toxic chemicals and pollutants known to hinder brain development. These inequities stem from histories of discriminatory policies. 

A recently published literature review, initiated by Project TENDR (Targeting Environmental Neuro-Development Risks), sheds light on the disparities in neurodevelopmental outcomes in children in low-income families and communities of color in the United States. The scoping review, which analyzes more than 200 studies conducted between 1974 and 2022, maps existing literature on seven neurotoxicants, including combustion-related air pollution, lead, mercury, pesticides, phthalates, PBDEs, and PCBs. 

“As a result of discriminatory practices and policies, families with low incomes and families of color are currently and historically disproportionately exposed to chemicals without their knowledge or consent where they live, work, play, pray, and learn,” says co-lead author Dr. Devon Payne-Sturges.

As part of the review process, Project TENDR Health Disparities Workgroup members met with community and environmental justice leaders to identify possible areas of collaboration and opportunities for the research to support the work of the environmental justice organizations.

The review underscores the need for action at all levels of government to limit, lower, and eliminate existing pollutants and toxic chemicals in our environments in order to achieve environmental justice and health equity. It calls for stronger workplace protections and an end to siting chemical and plastics manufacturing facilities in/near communities of color and low-income communities.

In this 1.5 hour discussion hosted by CHE Alaska, Dr. Payne-Sturges and Dr. Tanya Khemet Taiwo, the lead authors of the report, will present their findings and recommendations. Dr. Kristie Ellickson will demonstrate a searchable database of studies on disparities in exposures and impacts. ACAT’s Environmental Health and Justice Director Vi Waghiyi will talk about neurodevelopmental disparities and health inequities specifically in Alaska Native children.

December 12, 2023 , 1:00 pm 2:00 pm EST

Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) are acutely toxic at high concentrations. At lower concentrations they are endocrine-disrupting chemicals (EDCs), with multiple effects on human health. In this webinar, Dr. Tom Zoeller will discuss how the endocrine disrupting effects of PCBs can affect human brain development. Lessons from PCBs can also help us to understand the effects of other EDCs on the developing brain and nervous system. 

There are 209 theoretical PCB “congeners,” although just over 100 of them occur in industrial systems. These chemicals were used in a wide variety of products from electrical, heat transfer and hydraulic systems, to paints and dyes and other construction applications. 

Dr. Zoeller will present findings from a recent review of the evidence on how PCBs cause neuroendocrine effects. PCB congeners can be very roughly divided into “dioxin-like” and “non-dioxin-like” PCBs. But among the non-dioxin-like PCBs, health effects can vary widely. For example, at very low concentrations, PCB 95 (2,2’,3,5’,6-Pentachlorobiphenyl) can activate the ryanodine receptor. This receptor is critical in brain development and brain function. Other PCB congeners, such as PCBs 105 and 118 among others, can affect the thyroid hormone system. Thyroid hormone is essential for normal brain development.

An important observation in this field is that dioxin-like PCBs can induce the expression of an enzyme that modifies (hydroxylates) two specific non-dioxin-like PCBs that then activate thyroid hormone receptors. This work explains why a chemical exposure can have tissue-specific, or even cell-specific, effects on hormone signaling. It is also a warning about how in vitro assays — so-called New Approach Methodologies (NAMs) — are interpreted.

The story of PCBs also provides lessons about chemical regulations to protect human health and the environment. Commercial production of PCBs was banned in the 1970s, but humans are still contaminated with PCBs — including those that are residual as well as those that are inadvertently produced. PCBs were banned as a class, yet PFAS are still being examined in a one-by-one manner. 

This webinar will be moderated by Sharyle Patton, Director of the Biomonitoring Resource Center.

November 16, 2023 , 1:00 pm 2:00 pm EST

The US military has used firefighting foams containing per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) for several decades. (PFAS are also commonly added to plastics.) The Department of Defense (DoD) has designated PFAS as emerging contaminants due to their long environmental persistence, contamination of drinking water supplies and potential associations with several health outcomes (including cancer). 

In this half-hour EDC Strategies Partnership webinar, Dr. Mark Purdue will present findings from a recent study investigating serum PFAS concentrations and their associations with testicular cancer risk among Air Force servicemen, using samples from the DoD Serum Repository.

The study found an association between military firefighting work and elevated serum levels of certain PFAS. The study also found a relationship between PFOS serum levels and risk of testicular germ cell tumors. 

October 19, 2023 , 2:00 pm 3:00 pm EDT

A number of cancers are hormone-mediated. These include prostate, breast, ovarian, endometrial, testicular, and thyroid cancer, as well as melanoma. Many industrial chemicals found in consumer products and in the environment are endocrine disruptors, and could influence risk of hormone-mediated cancers. 

Dr. Max Aung will present the results of a recent study that examined the relationship between certain chemicals and risk of hormone-mediated cancers. Specifically, the study examined current levels of phenols, parabens, and PFAS chemicals in blood and urine of study participants, and examined the relationship between those exposure levels and past diagnosis of a hormone-mediated cancer. The study used data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) for the period 2005 to 2018. 

The study found a relationship between exposure to these chemicals and increased likelihood of a past diagnosis of one of the cancers. For example, for women, the study found a positive association between several biomarkers of PFAS exposure and melanoma. The study also found positive associations between certain PFAS and phenols and ovarian cancer. The study highlights racial disparities in exposures to certain toxicants, and points to the need for greater surveillance of certain chemical exposures and regulatory action to reduce or eliminate these exposures. 

The webinar will be moderated by Génon Jensen, Founder and Executive Director of the Health and Environment Alliance (HEAL).