Infertility and Chemical Substances (Endocrine Disruptors)

A historical event that caught the media’s attention took place this week: based on the research made by Institut Marquès, a judge from Tarragona initiated proceedings to investigate the chemical substances emitted by the chemical plants in the province of Tarragona.

As mentioned in previous posts –Why is male fertility decreasing? and Toxics in Maternal Milk– we are very aware of this fact.

In 2002, we did our first study on this subject in males from the province of Tarragona and the results were a big concern. It was discovered that more than half of the men do not meet the parameters set by the World Health Organization. According to WHO, e.g., more than 25% of the sperm has to move properly, but the results show that the average in this province is 6.8%. In the following study of 2004, we compared this data to the males from the province of La Coruña –where there are barely any chemical plants– and the semen results were normal –i.e. 28.7% of the sperm moved properly.

Finally, in 2011, we analysed the toxic endocrine disruptors in the maternal milk from both provinces. In Tarragona we found DDT in all the samples, and none was found in La Coruña samples.

In 2010, an environmental organization from Tarragona filed a complaint in court, which was based on the data from our study, to investigate the causes of the poor quality of semen. The purpose was to know if the chemical plants in the region were the main factor of the sperm quality and, if that was the case, report the companies responsible for the pollution. It was a legal process similar to the one in the US against the tobacco industry, in which people affected could make collective claims.

In 2011, the judge decided to dismiss the complaint, but the Provincial Court of Tarragona gave support to the public prosecutor in the appeal and I was called to testify. It seems that our study –and me as the main researcher– are the only things that the prosecutor presented. So far, I have been called twice. They still drop their jaws in awe when I tell them that the chemical substances emitted and the abundant waste in this region, full of chemical plants, are the responsible for many of their medical problems: infertility, children born with genital anomalies, miscarriages, etc.

In 2013, the case was closed again. But now, by request of the environment public prosecutor, the judge has reopened it and started the investigation. He asked the Spanish Police to “identify all the companies from the province of Tarragona that emit –as a base or waste product– the substances mentioned in the Institut Marquès study”.

In the last decades, many chemical substances and man-made materials made our life much easier: pesticides, plastics, paints, varnishes, carpets, detergents… but nature cannot break them down and, on top of that, they behave as female hormones in animals and humans. A piece of plastic in the sea will never disappear, and its components will accumulate in the fish that we will consume after.

In my opinion, these substances have been created to improve our quality of life. Sofas, e.g., have been made with flame retardants to reduce the risk of fire –its effects were not known and therefore nobody was guilty. But a change was imposed since the moment its harmful effects on health were known. This change has to be part of the environmental politics worldwide and within us all. It serves no purpose of the EU prohibiting a substance if then we buy products from the countries who allow the substance. In a globalized trade environment, if a particular pesticide is prohibited and then we eat fruit from another country, it does not solve the issue.

We also need information about the products that we consume. We have the duty and the right to know what our food, cosmetics or baby bottles are made of. We have the right to know that baby bottles contain Bisphenol-A, a synthetic compound that leaves traces when heated. You only want the best for your baby, and without realizing it, you are doing something harmful to her/him. We need the truth in order to start considering the alternatives.

People like me, who have more information related to this subject because of the type of job that we are in, need to spread the word. In 2010, Institut Marquès sponsored the Spanish participation in the North Pole Marathon. The athlete Lluís Pallarés took part in the marathon dressed as a spermatozoid to protest against the fact that even in the Arctic, a place that seems unspoiled and unexploited, you can notice the effects of pollution –the ocean currents have transformed it into the landfill of the planet. I would have loved taking part in the marathon myself, dressed as an oocyte, but when I saw the intense training of Lluís, running inside a walk-in cooler at the High Performance Sport Centre, I changed my mind. Besides, I have not even run a hundred meters!

I am a member of the Team of Experts in Endocrine Disruptors initiated by Vivo Sano Foundation, and with them I take part in different initiatives, e.g. a documentary called Small Print (La letra pequeña). Unfortunately, we get less support since the start of the recession as it is not considered a problem that has to be solved right away.

In this post, I have focused on the effects of the disruptors in male fertility –cause of miscarriages, genital deformities and testicular cancer– but they also affect female fertility –can lead to precocious puberty and some types of cancer, especially thyroid and breast cancer. As time goes by, we keep on finding more harmful effects.

This investigation is good news, at least to make the authorities and entrepreneurs aware of the problem. I will make my best to keep you up to date.

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