Reproductive Consequences On The Shelves Of Your Local Grocery Store:
The ability to sexually reproduce, viewed historically as a natural phenomenon, is not always easy for individuals in the modern world. An estimated one in six American couples struggle with infertility, and as infertility rises globally, practices such as in vitro fertilization and the use of surrogates have become more commonplace (Mercola). Such a drastic change has shaped the lives of individuals as well as their cultural norms. Nutrition, a major factor in this change, is not a surprising one because the manufacturing and consumption of products and foodstuffs alike play a major role in the lives of humans cross-culturally. The presence of endocrine disruptors both in consumables and in the environment are leading causes of infertility as well as many other ailments which plague society.
Over forty chemicals, prevalent in many societies including the United States, have proven effects upon an individual’s endocrine system. Chemicals such as pesticides, food additives, and Bisphenol A, as well as genetically modified foods, act upon the body in a manner similar to steroid hormones and in the process disrupt sexual development and gene expression, leading to severe consequences including infertility, brain lesions, emotional problems, erectile dysfunction, cancer, and even death (Amadasi). While these chemicals are consumed on a regular basis by many individuals, their greatest impact can be felt in utero, as a developing fetus’ is exposed to toxins through his mother.
Bisphenol A, also known as BPA, is a chemical commonly found in plastics and many other everyday objects including cash register receipts, canned foods, and dental sealants. Its prevalence has been contested and some companies have sought to find alternative compounds, but as of yet it is still widely used. The effects of this chemical are detrimental in men and women alike and can play a significant role in the fertility potential of individuals of both genders.
As a disruptor of gene expression, BPA is influential upon the process of mitosis, cell cycle functioning, and DNA replication in the human body, especially in the developing fetus (Hunt). Its distinct likeness to naturally occurring estrogen means that in the presence of BPA hormonal signals and responses can be either blocked or exaggerated in the developing fetus. This results in a series of health concerns including a predisposition for obesity and reproductive cancers, a hindrance in brain development resulting in the formation of lesions and possible developmental or emotional disorders, as well as reproductive ailments (Koshuta, Brown). The Unites States Centers For Disease Control and Prevention has collectively issued studies claiming that the average human intake of Bisphenol A is approximately 50 nanograms per kilogram of body weight and that this level is below the daily intake level recommended by the United States government, ninety percent of the cord blood taken from newborns in the United States tested positive for BPA as did an estimated ninety-two percent of American adults. Infertility, reproductive disorders, and developmental problems continue to be on the rise (Koshuta, Huff, Cabaton). There have already been over two hundred studies that have identified BPA as harmful even in dosages well below the limit of suggested daily intake.
BPA disrupts gene expression in the developing fetus, which leads to many fertility complications in females. The genes that influence the development of the uterus are often heavily affected and the formation of the female reproductive system can therefore be hindered. In this way, the fertility potential of a female can be diminished even when she is still a developing fetus. In a 2010 study, it was determined that the integrity of egg production was severely diminished in as little as twelve hours of exposure to BPA and that these effects were subsequently passed to future generations, meaning that the descendants reproductive integrity would be challenged as well (Hunt). Such a problem would likely exacerbate over time and effect future generations more severely due to the additional accumulations of BPA gained in each successive line, assuming the chemical is not eliminated from production.
According to a study from the Journal, Environmental Health Perspectives, fertility declined sharply in mice exposed to BPA in utero and as nursing newborns. These mice had fewer successful pregnancies and delivered smaller litters than those who were not exposed. Only sixty percent of the mice exposed to doses of BPA proportionally lower than the human environmental exposure level successfully delivered four or more litters in a thirty-two-week period compared to ninety-five percent of unexposed mice (Cabaton). This research mimics common infertility patterns seen in humans and is a clear indication of the negative effects of BPA upon the reproductive integrity of an individual.
The failure of the uterus to form correctly can result in the failure of an embryo to attach, making it impossible for a normal pregnancy to occur (Brown). If this is the case, and the woman turns to in vitro fertilization as a method of conceiving and maintaining a pregnancy, her chances of the procedure being successful are also diminished by BPA. BPA interferes with the quality of oocytes, or immature eggs. Women with higher levels of BPA in their system have been found to possess fewer healthy oocytes that can be harvested for fertilization. It should be noted that the majority of the women seeking in vitro fertilization treatment had significant levels of BPA detected in their urine as well (Mercola). The uterine damage caused by BPA also increases a woman’s likelihood of suffering from many chronic reproductive ailments including fibroids, endometriosis, and polycystic ovarian syndrome (Hunt). The effects of Bisphenol A upon cell division and DNA replication can shorten the reproductive lifespan of a woman (Hunt). Such a phenomenon decreases a woman’s fertility potential even more by shortening her window for reproduction and enhances her risk for reproductive cancers as well.
Another interesting effect of BPA upon the female system is its effects upon brain development and the correlation that exists between high levels of in utero BPA exposure and aggressive behavior in toddler girls. In a 2009 study it was discovered that female children exposed to high levels of Bisphenol A before the sixteenth week of gestation scored higher on standardized aggression tests than those with less exposure, a result which is consistent with similar studies performed upon animals (Braun). Brain development is a critical process especially during the eleventh and twelfth weeks of gestation and due to BPA’s hormonal nature, some scientists believe the chemical is “masculinizing” the female brain. Estrogen is particularly important in the development of the male brain and its presence, enhanced by BPA, may alter the developing female brain in ways that it may not have otherwise been. In all, the effects of Bisphenol A upon the female body are severe and shocking. They should not be taken lightly.
BPA also plays a crucial role in the development of males. Higher levels of the chemical have been observed in male fetuses than in females with grave results. In a 2011 study in the journal, Fertility and Sterility, 218 workers at a Chinese epoxy resin factory, who were regularly exposed to high levels of Bisphenol A, were shadowed for five years. The men with detectable levels of BPA in their urine were at four times the risk for having a low sperm count, three times more likely to have sperm with a low vitality, and twice as likely to have sperm with a low motility (Li). These factors can greatly diminish a male’s reproductive success because sperm must be strong, fast, and in good overall health to reach and fertilize an egg. The levels of BPA observed in this research were no higher than those commonly found in members of the general population, indicating the severity of the effects of even small amounts of BPA upon the reproductive integrity of individuals. In fact, the men with observable levels of BPA were also seven times more likely to have ejaculation problems and four times more likely to suffer from erectile dysfunction. In all, the men with higher levels of Bisphenol A in their system were less satisfied with their sexual experiences than those with untraceable levels of BPA and their fertility potential and levels of reproductive success were lower as well (Li).
The sexual difficulties observed in males due to BPA exposure could also be indications of other BPA induced effects upon the body, including certain metabolic disorders and cancers. A 2006 study in the medical journal, Cancer Research indicated that early exposure to BPA in utero permanently altered the way in which the DNA of certain portions of a fetus’s prostate cells were tagged. In this manner, epigenetic reprogramming altered the expression of certain genes, while the DNA sequences remained unchanged. Many of these epigenetically altered sites were genes important in the regulation of various cellular functions. These alterations promoted certain diseases with aging, including prostate cancer (Ho).
Considering its prevalence in many consumer products, the effects of Bisphenol A are devastating. The compound’s ability to diminish health and reproductive success across multiple generations as well as its involvement in the development of serious chronic medical conditions and cancers are reason enough for its immediate removal from the market.
Another alarming presence in the standard American diet is that of genetically modified crops. Popular due to their genetically reprogrammed resistance, crops including corn, soy, cotton, and rapeseed threaten fertility as well as the overall health of individuals. The genes added to these foods have been found to transfer into human cells and create a variety of potentially serious medical conditions including allergies, gastrointestinal problems, asthma, infertility, cancer, and death. Awareness off the harm caused by these products, many of which are staples in the American diet, must be addressed and spread to salvage the integrity of foodstuffs and health alike.
Genetically modified crops have additional inserted genes which act upon the plant in a beneficial way, making it more resistant. Genetically modified corn and cotton for example, contain genes that produce pesticides in every cell of the plant. When these plants are ingested by insects, the secreted toxin splits open their stomachs and kills them. This synthetic version of a pesticide is a much stronger version of a naturally occurring Bt pesticide spray, but unlike the spray-on pesticide, the internally produced toxins cannot be washed off of the product and therefore must be consumed (American Academy Of Environmental Medicine). Genes found in genetically modified soy can be detrimental as well. These plants produce a protein that contains two known allergens which are largely responsible for the 50% increase in soy allergies that was reported after the genetically altered product was introduced. These proteins are not only harmful when initially consumed, but may have lasting effect upon the body as well.
The only trial of genetically modified products performed upon humans showed that the inserted genes in genetically modified soy have the propensity to be transferred into the DNA of human intestinal bacteria (Smith). This means that even long after an individual stops consuming a genetically modified product, its effects can persist in his system, continually replicated in bacteria, causing a variety of health concerns. Migrating genes also pose a threat to the offspring of individuals who have consumed genetically modified foods. A study conducted by scientists in Germany found fragments of DNA from genetically modified foods fed to mothers in their offspring’s brains and similar trials have found genetically modified DNA in the spleens, blood, liver, and kidneys of organisms fed genetically modified foods (Doerfler, Mazza).
Additional studies have confirmed the adverse affects that genetically modified foods have upon fertility and reproduction and the American Academy of Environmental Medicine has called for a moratorium on genetically modified foods due to the findings of these investigations (AAEM). A highly publicized study by Russian scientist Irina Ermakova is sending shockwaves throughout the scientific community and is threatening the multi-billion dollar industry responsible for genetically modified crops. In 2005, Ermakova tested the affects of genetically modified soy in rats. Beginning two weeks before conception, female rats were fed 5-7 grams of the genetically modified soy daily in addition to their regular diet. The offspring of these rats were significantly smaller than those of mothers not fed the genetically modified soy. After two weeks, 36% of the genetically modified- fed rats were less than twenty grams compared to 6% of rats on a non-genetically modified diet and by week three, 55.6% of these rats were dead, compared to the 6.8% death rate of the control group (Smith, Regnum). This study, in conjunction with many other documented reports of infertility, is a solid premise upon which the anti-genetically modified foods argument is crafted.
The surviving babies in the genetically modified group had trouble conceiving in the future and the males’ testicles changed in color from pink to dark blue when they were fed the modified soy. A similar study in mice showed that DNA was altered in individuals consuming genetically modified foods as well as in their offspring and the alteration of young sperm in these mice made conception more difficult. Enlargements were found in the smooth endoplasmic reticulum of the mice’s Sertoli cells. Sertoli cells play an important role in sperm maturation and because of their impaired function, the mice had significantly lower sperm counts and higher proportions of abnormally functioning sperm (Vecchio). When these mice were able to conceive successfully, their litters were small and their offspring were below average in size (Velimirov). Similarly, buffalo in India who consumed modified cottonseed suffered from many reproductive complications including general infertility, premature births, miscarriages, and prolapsed uteruses. The mortality rate was very high for their offspring. The same trend was seen in American cows and bulls who became infertile after consuming a diet of genetically modified corn. Pigs fed this same corn had serious problems reproducing including false pregnancies and birthing large bags of water (Rosman).
The effects of genetically modified foods are difficult to gauge due to the constant changes in DNA and gene presentation in the modified organisms, however their negative attributes have been largely analyzed. In the nine years following the introduction of genetically modified foods on the market, the number of people living with three or more chronic diseases has nearly doubled and rates of infertility as well as many other life-altering medical conditions have increased sharply (Paez). The United States, a nation with continually increasing rates of infertility, miscarriage, and infant mortality, should closely examine the quality of the genetically modified foodstuffs available to the general public and eliminate them from the market. The sustainability of these crops is nothing compared to the detrimental effects they have upon consumers. Pregnant women and babies are at an especially high risk.
A survey of the macro ecology of pregnancy and birth illustrates striking trends in patterns of reproduction, which can often be understood with scientific data. Since the Industrial Revolution, the global population has increased to 7 billion after a long period of exponential growth. While the global population is still generally increasing, a recent decline in fertility has been observed. Industrial nations such as the United States, where the average sperm count of 20 million is far below the ideal of 100 million, have relatively low fertility rates as well as the general problem of infertility. Many factors are to blame for such a phenomenon, however scientific research has indicated that pollutants and chemicals commonly marketed in food products play a large role in overall health including fertility.
As an anthropologist, it is important to be aware of global trends in regards to fertility as well as the cultural and scientific reasoning behind them. The knowledge and basic understanding of the decline in health and fertility due to the presence of endocrine disruptors in commonly marketed food products is imperative. Awareness is also a key aspect of initiating change. A great deal of ignorance currently surrounds the safety of products such as Bisphenol A and genetically modified foods as it did in regards to DDT and other chemicals like PCB in the past. If the scientific findings of the effects of these products were more readily available, perhaps individuals would be more inclined to avoid them.
When one surveys this situation from an evolutionary point of view, the severe hormone fluctuations that cause conditions such as infertility, erectile dysfunction, and other reproductive maladies seem unnatural. Our ancestors did not experience the high rates of reproductive cancers, common today in health-rich nations. While the average American woman undergoes menarche around the age of 12.5 and ovulates approximately 450 times throughout her life, the average woman in a foraging society, which is more like that of our ancestors, begins ovulating around the age of 16 and ovulates only about 160 times throughout her life (Trevathan, 42). The diet of our ancestors was purer. They were not continually exposed to hormonal steroids such as xenoestrogens in their foods and this, coupled with higher instances of pregnancy and longer periods of lactation kept both ovulation and the resulting reproductive cancers in check.
Additionally, changes must be made in both the food and medical industries. Physicians should provide patients with information about the aspects of their diet negatively affecting health and fertility potential in greater depth. If instead of simply receiving treatment for infertility with medication for example, a women is educated about the chemicals potentially affecting her fertility as well as the wellbeing of herself and her future offspring, she and her children will both benefit more so than if she was simply treated with a medication while continuing her harmful dietary practices.
A great shift must also occur in the food industry. Monsanto, a large biotechnology corporation dominates the farming industry. As producers of the majority of genetically modified crops, the corporation has been able to bankrupt small farmers and ensure the continual marketing of genetically modified foods. Genetically modified foods are profitable due to their resistance and Monsanto has been able to allow for their continual production even in the light of shocking revelations about the true nature of such foods. The corporation’s wealth has given it a great deal of government influence which has enabled it to continually produce modified crops and to get away with vague and misleading scientific publications (Smith). BPA is still prevalent in mainstream consumer products for the same reason. Corporations such as Kraft, with political sway and market power comparable to that of Monsanto dominate the market and therefore their products, including those packaged with BPA as well as other endocrine disruptors, remain on store shelves. Developing alternatives to BPA is costly and scandalous because it is unknown if alternative substances used as can liners are truly safer at this time. However, alternative packaging methods and materials could be utilized. If there is a continued push from the people for healthier alternatives, they will be found.
In Europe, consumer demand has lead to laws that demand that genetically modified products are labeled. Such practices are slowly happening in the United States as well. Commonly modified foods such as tofu and corn products are often labeled if they are not genetically modified, but the presence of genetically modified foods in unmarked, often less expensive products is still nebulous. Bisphenol A regulation is slowly changing as well. Recently, there has been a push to purchase stainless steel or BPA-free water bottles and a select few manufacturers have begun to create BPA-free canned goods. As in the case of genetically modified foods however, a great deal of progress still has to be made.
The reproductive success of individuals as well as that of their offspring is on the decline due to the presence of endocrine and genetic disruptors in commonly available foods. These substances, including Bisphenol A and genetically modified organisms are responsible for much of the infertility and illness that plagues society today. It is up to consumers to redirect their culture towards a natural system of nutrition, free of chemicals and toxins. Future generations depend upon it.
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Zoe has integrated her background as social worker, event organizer, and scientist into the news and media lifestyle brand, Audio Kush, which she co-founded in 2018. An expat and travel enthusiast, she enjoys telling stories which explore society and delve into the mind. A major proponent of cannabis culture and the medicinal potential of marijuana, Zoe works to educate and normalize cannabis as a healing plant.