Feature Archive

Is the Environment Male-Friendly?

Environmental endocrine disrupters might contribute to defects.

WebMD Feature Rapidly falling sperm counts in the United States. Rising rates of genital defects in male infants. Unprecedented numbers of cases of testicular cancer among young American males.

Scientists are increasingly worried that these problems are being caused by environmental estrogens -- man-made chemicals capable of interfering with the hormones that regulate the male reproductive system.

Exposure to these chemicals -- also known as endocrine disruptors -- may have such potentially serious consequences that the federal government has begun studying their effects even before scientific confirmation that they may cause health problems in men.

The Environmental Protection Agency began a screening and testing program this year (1999) to identify how some 87,000 chemicals now in commercial use affect the endocrine system. The Centers for Disease Control and the National Institutes of Health have launched a study of blood and urine samples to determine to what extent Americans have been exposed to about 50 environmental estrogens.

No one expects that the answers will come quickly, easily, or without controversy. Endocrine disruptors are used for a variety of purposes in such common products as compact discs, baby bottles, tin cans, pesticides, plastic bottles -- even dental sealants. Depending on their source, they are sometimes ingested or inhaled. Before they can document a link between environmental estrogens and health problems in men, scientists will have to identify which chemicals affect the male reproductive system and what health problems can result.