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, sexual function, 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.

What’s more, scientists have also recently discovered microplastics in human penises for the first time. In a small study, four out of five men being treated for erectile dysfunction were found to have microplastics in their penis tissue. Of seven different plastics detected, the most common types of plastics included polyethylene terepthalate (PET) and polypropylene (PP).

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.

Additionally, experts say the presence of microplastics in the penis and body may potentially be linked to erectile dysfunction in men, and that more research is needed.

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.