Trouble for Sperm

Are chemicals putting your sperm in trouble?

By Nicholas Kristof MARCH 11, 2017   – New York Times

The New York Times/Donnelly

Let’s begin with sex.

As a couple finishes its business, millions of sperm begin theirs: rushing toward an egg to fertilize it. But these days, scientists say, an increasing proportion of sperm — now about 90 percent in a typical young man — are misshapen, sometimes with two heads or two tails.

Even when properly shaped, today’s sperm are often pathetic swimmers, veering like drunks or paddling crazily in circles. Sperm counts also appear to have dropped sharply in the last 75 years, in ways that affect our ability to reproduce.

“There’s been a decrease not only in sperm numbers, but also in their quality and swimming capacity, their ability to deliver the goods,” said Shanna Swan, an epidemiologist at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, who notes that researchers have also linked semen problems to shorter life expectancy.

Perhaps you were expecting another column about political
missteps in Washington, and instead you’ve been walloped with
talk of bad swimmers. Yet this isn’t just a puzzling curiosity,
but is rather an urgent concern that affects reproduction,
possibly even our species’ future.

Andrea Gore, a professor of pharmacology at the University of Texas at Austin and editor of the journal Endocrinology, put it to me this way: “Semen quality and fertility in men have decreased. Not everyone who wants to reproduce will be able to. And the costs of male disorders to quality of life, and the economic burden to society, are inestimable.”

Human and animal studies suggest that a crucial culprit is a common class of chemical called endocrine disruptors, found in plastics, cosmetics, couches, pesticides and countless other products. Because of the environmental links, The New Yorker once elegantly referred to the crisis as “silent sperm,” and innumerable studies over 25 years add to the concern that the world’s sperm are in trouble.

And so are men and boys. Apparently related to the problem of declining semen quality is an increase in testicular cancer in many countries; in undescended testicles; and in a congenital malformation of the penis called hypospadias (in which the urethra exits the side or base of the penis instead of the tip). These problems are often found together and are labeled testicular dysgenesis syndrome.

There is still disagreement about the scale of the problem, and the data aren’t always reliable. But some scientists are beginning to ask, At some point, will we face a crisis in human reproduction? Might we do to ourselves what we did to bald eagles in the 1950s and 1960s?

“I think we are at a turning point,” Niels Erik Skakkebaek, a Danish fertility scholar and pioneer in this field, told me. “It is a matter of whether we can sustain ourselves.”

One recent study found that of sperm donor applicants in Hunan province, China, 56 percent qualified in 2001 because their sperm met standards of healthiness. By 2015, only 18 percent qualified.

“The semen quality among young Chinese men has declined over a period of 15 years,” concluded the study, which involved more than 30,000 men.

Perhaps even more alarmingly, Canadian scientists conducted a seven-year experiment on a lake in Ontario, adding endocrine disrupting chemicals and then observing the impact on fathead minnows. The chemicals had a devastating impact on males, often turning them into intersex fish, with characteristics of both sexes but incapable of reproducing.

The crisis for male reproductive health seems to begin in utero. Male and female fetuses start pretty much the same, and then hormones drive differentiate of males from females. The problem seems to be that endocrine disrupting chemicals mimic hormones and confuse this process, interfering with the biological process of becoming male.

How should we protect ourselves? Swan said she avoids plastics as much as possible, including food or drinks that have touched plastic or been heated in plastic. She recommends eating organic to avoid pesticide residues, and avoiding Tylenol and other painkillers during pregnancy. When in doubt, she consults guides at

Yet this isn’t just a matter of individual action, but is also a public policy issue that affects tens of millions of people, their capacity to reproduce and their health and life expectancy.

What’s needed above all is more aggressive regulation of endocrine disrupting chemicals. The United States has been much slower than Europe to regulate toxic chemicals, and most chemicals sold in the U.S. have never been tested for safety.

The larger question is why we allow the chemical industry — by spending $100,000 on lobbying per member of Congress — to buy its way out of effective regulation of endocrine disruptors. The industry’s deceit marks a replay of Big Tobacco’s battle against regulation of smoking.

If you doubt the stakes, look at the images with the online version of this column of a hapless sperm swimming in circles, and remember this: Our human future will only be as healthy as our sperm.

‘Sacred Sperm’, Religion & Taboos

‘Sacred Sperm’ Film Explores Ultra-Orthodox Jewish Taboos

AP By Tia Goldenberg  Published by the Huffington Post

Mirror, mirror, on the wall, Who's the cutest of them all?

Mirror, mirror, on the wall, Who’s the cutest of them all?

JERUSALEM (AP) – Like so many parents, Ori Gruder was grappling with how to talk to his 10-year-old son about sex. Being a member of Israel’s ultra-Orthodox religious community, which tends to keep discussions of sexuality to a whisper, made the task even more difficult.

So Gruder created “Sacred Sperm,” an hour-long documentary in which he tries to tackle the hard questions he can expect from his son. The film presents an intimate, informative and at times awkward look at the insular religious community and its approach to sexuality, fleshing out deeply entrenched taboos in the conservative society.

“What is it about that little sperm that looks like a tadpole and has everyone so hot and bothered?” Gruder ponders in his narration of the film.

Gruder, a 44-year-old father of six who once worked for MTV Europe and didn’t become religious until age 30, gives the viewer a rare peek into private ultra-Orthodox lives, taking the camera into his own home, into ritual baths and circumcision ceremonies, to the religious school system and more.

"Sacred Sperm"  (AP Photo/Gliad Kavalerchik)

“Sacred Sperm” (AP Photo/Gliad Kavalerchik)

The film already has been shown in Jerusalem, London and California and is touring the U.S. festival circuit, including Atlanta on Feb. 15.

It begins with a visit to a rabbi, who grants Gruder his blessing to create the movie but implores him to do so “modestly.” Gruder’s wife expresses reservations about the project because it could elicit unwanted attention from the community.

“Maybe that’s why I should do it, because people don’t talk about it,” Gruder responds.

Under Orthodox Judaism, masturbation is forbidden, seen as a violation of an age-old covenant with God that promotes and encourages procreation. Sex is viewed as a sacred act and intercourse is permissible only after marriage.

“One who spills his seed literally kills his sons,” Prosper Malka, one rabbi interviewed in the film, tells Gruder.

Gruder explains the theological reasoning behind the Jewish ban on spilling sperm: “The reproductive organ is called the ‘covenant.’ Spilling one’s seed is called ‘damaging the covenant.’ And abstaining from masturbation is called ‘guarding the covenant.'”

While other world religions such as Roman Catholicism take a similarly dim view of masturbation and premarital sex, the film makes clear how much more ultra-rigorous the ultra-Orthodox Jews are. They live strictly regulated lives according to Jewish law that governs everything from diet to dress. Procreation is seen as a “mitzvah,” or commandment from God. For this reason, large families are common in Orthodox communities.

But talking freely and openly about sex is taboo. Many Orthodox Jews do not touch members of the opposite sex except their spouses, and the sexes are usually separated in school and prayer. Sex education is largely not taught in schools, although young brides and grooms are given counseling before they wed.

Gruder brings viewers into an education session for a soon-to-be-married young man, in which the perplexed bridegroom is told that “all positions are permitted, but our sages tend to say that the best way is for the husband to be on top of the wife.”

The film details the precautions that many ultra-Orthodox men take to prevent themselves from becoming aroused. It’s not merely a matter of averting their eyes from women.

One rabbi, longtime friend Yisrael Aharon Itzkovitz, holds up his baggy white underpants – and explains he buys them a few sizes too big, because snug-fitting undies might stimulate the wearer by accident. Many ultra-Orthodox men do not touch themselves when they urinate, Itzkovitz explains, even if that means they misfire.

Gruder describes his own journey from secular to Orthodox Jew, recounting the guilt he felt knowing that he previously had sinned. To repent, he said he has taken seemingly countless ritual baths, fasted, given to charity and rolled around naked in snow at a ski resort in northern Israel. He said that was a purifying experience.

Judaism expert Menachem Friedman said the movie, which was shot in Israel and Ukraine, offered a unique “anthropological window” into the ultra-Orthodox world. “It is about a very intimate subject which nobody talks about,” he said.
Gruder expressed hope that the film would help ultra-Orthodox Jews to become better understood by outsiders.

“It’s a first look into a keyhole that needs to be opened more,” he said.

10 Interesting Facts About Sperm

10 Interesting Facts About Sperm

Mr.spermCan you name another cell that’s been played in a movie by Woody Allen? 

Liz Langley, Alternet

Sperm may be sort of funny looking —  like tadpoles in a panic — but it’s a lot more complex and interesting than one might imagine. No other cell (to my knowledge) has been  played by Woody Allen, ridden  by Zoidberg on a Fantastic Voyage-type episode of Futurama or honored in a memorable movie musical by Monty Python. But how much do you know about these little wigglers on which the survival of your species depends? Well, you’re about to learn a little more.

1. Of course he did

Sperm was first discovered in 1677 by a Dutch microscope maker who used one thing of his own making to examine something else of his own making. LiveScience writes that Antony van Leeuwenhoek reported looking under a microscope and seeing tiny “animalcules” (an archaic term for tiny animals) in a sample of his own semen…semen, he made sure to note, which was an excess from actual sex and not just masturbation.

2. How sweet it isn’t

In a piece called Semen Physiology Anaya Mandal on News-Medical Net says that due to fructose that gets in the mix, semen “tastes slightly sweet.” Far be it for me to argue with a doctor but lemme just say there is a reason a company called Sweet Release went to the trouble of creating a product meant to make semen taste like apple pie: because it doesn’t already taste a thing like apple pie or anything else you’ll find for sale in a bakery. Dr. Mandal does say that the taste of semen can change according to a man’s diet and here you can see a BBC video of a taste test the esteemed news outlet did wherein men switched their diets to see if their wives could taste a difference.

This would come in handy for the female of a species of Ulidid fly,  Euxesta bilimeki, which not only expels sperm after mating: they eat it. Science Daily reports on a study from the Instituto de Ecologia in Mexico reported on in the journal Behavior Ecology and Social Biology: 100% of the female flies expelled ejaculate after mating and 25% of those had no sperm left after this expulsion. The theory is that this allows females to choose which males they actually want to father their progeny since it seems they’re able to choose how much sperm to expel, all or just some. (Interestingly, the longer courtship the more likely she is to give all his sperm the heave-ho, leading researchers to think the females in these cases just give in to his advances rather than having to keep rejecting him and then just making sure he’s not the father of her fly babies.)

After experiments in which female flies were given varying diets to see if there was some nutritional reason they were eating the ejaculate, researchers think the reason might be because it provides fluids, since this breed of flies live in very arid areas. Maybe it just tastes like apple pie.

3. Little sneakers

Another way of taste-testing sperm, as a Korean diner discovered to the world’s horror, is by eating squid that is parboiled and undercooked. The squid sperm that tried to inseminate a woman’s mouth was an Internet sensation not long ago. How such a thing could happen is explained by squid expert Danna Staaf on the above link to io9, but it starts with the fact that the sperm delivery system of the squid is very different from that of humans. In several species, including squid, butterflies, scorpions, octopi and others, sperm doesn’t travel in semen but in spermatophores or sperm packets; kind of needle-like vessels that are deposited in the female reproductive tract. Staaf calls this squiddy structure “definitely the world’s most complicated sperm,”in this video explaining exactly how spermatophores work.

On io9 Staaf described the process, starting with the spermatophore cap popping off and the ejaculatory apparatus (every spermatophore has one) popping out and everting itself — turning itself inside out — pulling the sperm mass with it. But the peculiarity of squid insemination doesn’t end there. In the species known as Bleeker’s squid there are two types of male squid — sneakers and consorts, which are kind of the Goofus and Gallant of the cephalopod world. Consorts, reports io9’s Joseph Bennington Castro, are larger, more attention-getting of the two, attracting females by “flashing bright colors across their bodies,” depositing the spermatophores in the female oviduct and then guarding her until the eggs are deposited.

Sneakers are not so, well…gallant. They sneak in between a mating pair and chuck a spermatophore in the female’s external sperm storage unit so that when the eggs come forward “through her oviduct to a spot near her mouth,” the eggs that don’t get fertilized by the spermatophores of the consort — who has put in all this courtship time — will be fertilized by the spermatophores of the sneaker who didn’t do jack. Castro reports that Japanese researchers have found that sneaker sperm are bigger and travel in swarms; they will cluster not only with other sneaker sperm but but with consort sperm and even sperm from a breed of starfish. Figuring they might be attracted to a chemical being released by the other sperm, like CO2, the researchers did experiments in which they released C02 bubble into a tube and found that sneaker sperm “swarmed around it,” while consort sperm did not. Why C02 attracts the sneaker sperm is uncertain but one theory is that eggs may release C02.

Bottom line: squids should probably have their own soap opera, Tentacle Hospital or something. I’d watch it.

4. Animal Adaptations

So squid sperm is pretty fascinating but lots of other animals have intriguing sperm and insemination habits as well.

Jennifer Welsh of LiveScience reports that the mallard duck has sperm that can kill bacteria and the brighter the bill the stronger the antibacterial effect, thus enabling females to avoid a sexually transmitted pathogen and identify males with better sperm,”

says Melissah Rowe of the University of Oslo.

*  Science Magazine reports that moss shoots attract insects — springtails and mites — which then carry moss sperm and help fertilization like insects pollinating flowers.

Christine Dell’Amore of National Geographic reports that some sea creatures like jellyfish, barnacles and sponges do what is known as “spermcasting,” sending their sperm out into the water for females to take, in other words, when it’s time, they just go out and pick up some fertilizer.

* The barnacle, Dell’Amore writes, is a special case: it has the biggest penis in the animal kingdom relative to its size and because it can’t move once it’s glued itself somewhere it uses its super-long wiener and “random penis movements” to seek out partners and deposit sperm in their mantle cavity (don’t we all know a guy like that?). If you think that’s nasty and wish to tell a barnacle to go fertilize itself, well, they already do. “Most barnacles are hermaphrodites though they tend to lean toward one gender,” Dell’Amore writes, but they are capable of self-fertilization.

* The grossest animal kingdom sperm transfer has to be the province of bed bugs. The male of the species has a saber-like penis which he uses to stab the female in the abdomen, releasing sperm into her bloodstream — her reproductive system is used exclusively for egg-laying says this PBS Gross Science Video. It’s known as “traumatic” insemination, writes Alasdair Wilkins of io9 and all seems slightly less horrid when Isabella Rossellini puts on a bed bug costume and acts it out for you.

5. Glow-in-the-dark sperm

Back in the ’80s glow-in-the-dark condoms, as in this scene from Skin Deep, were revolutionary. Now it’s the sperm that glow-in-the-dark and help provide researchers with a whole new way to research what the little swimmers are up to. In 2010 Christine Dell’Amore of National Geographic reported on a study in which germline stem cells of mice were “genetically engineered to be fluorescent” and tagged certain cells within those cells with color to watch their development. The quick process scientist once thought sperm development to be was just not the case: sometimes the stem cells go through several cell divisions, sometimes not, sometimes they start to become a sperm cell and then revert back to being a stem cell.

I would: too much competition to potentially just end up in a Kleenex. That’s not entirely a joke. Even if you were a sperm who got to go on the grand quest for fertilization, study co-author Robert Braun called the fertilization process “surprisingly inefficient,” and says the reason for the enormous amount of sperm is that there has to be a “large initial payload [for those] few cells to make it to the final destination.” And yet the process is efficient enough to make contraception an  important factor in our lives. Studying sperm on this level could lead to advances in male birth control, like thwarting germline from becoming sperm in the first place.

6. Build a better swimmer

If you’re trying to facilitate pregnancy rather than prevent it, here are a few things you should know about giving your boys a boost:

* The Pharmacy Times reports that a study published in the Journal of Human Reproduction says that spending time in a sauna can lower a man’s sperm count and keep it down for as long as six months. It’s called “scrotal hyperthermia.” In the study 10 Finnish men had two 15-minute sauna treatments a week for three months which raised their scrotal temperature by 3 degrees Celsius and impaired both sperm count and motility. Temperature clearly affects sperm health with slightly cooler being better, hence the scrotum being on the outside the body.  So it’s not surprising that in a study reported on by Stefan Sirucek of NatGeo on a report from Israel’s Ben-Gurion University of the Negev that sperm motility and structure is strongest in the winter (though that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try in all the other months….again and again and again).

* Exercise is better for sperm than TV marathons are: Drew Armstrong of Bloomberg reported on a study by Harvard researchers saying that young men who exercised frequently had 73% more sperm than non-exercisers and the sperm counts of those who watched 20 or more hours of TV per week were “almost halved.”

* Nuts are good for your nuts. Shawn Radcliffe of Men’s Fitness reports on a study from the University of California saying that men who ate about two and a half servings of walnuts a day saw an increase in sperm health — motility, shape and size — after 12 weeks. Sperm benefit from the omega-3 fatty acids (let’s call ‘em daddy acids) also found in fish oil and other foods.

7. Because what a man really wants is to stick his penis into a huge machine….

Never having had to produce a sperm sample for any medical or commercial purpose I have no idea what it’s like. Maybe, if I had a choice between masturbating the boring old organic way and leaving the job to a torso-high, pulsating machine I would choose the latter.

Bella Battle of the UK Sun reports that a hospital in China is using just such a machine to collect sperm samples from infertile men for testing. At the time of the story (September 2012) about 10 men a day had been using the machine for about six months (presumably not the same 10 men, coming back in disguise to give it another shot because they dug it) according to Doctor Zhu Guoxin, director of the urology department at Zhengzhou Central Hospital. Users can “adjust the machine’s frequency, speed, force and temperature,” Battle writes, and they have to wear condoms.

Still…new awful job: cleaning out the Sperm Extractor. And now, because you’ve been very good, here’s a video. Maybe they’ll get one at your gym.

8. Spermallergic?

Having a bad reaction to the semen of the one you love can’t be a fun experience, but there is such a thing as being allergic to semen and to the semen of a specific person. ABC News’ Susan Donaldson James describes a North Carolina couple’s quandary with seminal plasma hypersensitivity. Some symptoms described in the story include itching, redness, burning, swelling, hives plus a pain like “a needle-like sticking in the vagina,” according to the University of Cincinnati’s Jonathan Bernstein, who treated the couple and who believes there are as many as 40,000 such cases in the U.S. Sometime the symptoms are confused with yeast and vaginal infections, James writes.

The treatment to desensitize the wife to the allergy included her undergoing “an intravaginal graded challenge using serial dilutions of her husband’s seminal fluid, which were injected via syringe every 15-20 minutes over the course of two to three hours.” It helped and continued to improve and eventually their sex life got back to normal. A lot of people would have just gotten a new spouse…but that’s love for you.

9. It’s on the street

We’ve talked about some interesting sperm delivery systems but the most eye-catching, bar none, is the Sperm Bullitt bicycle, a sperm-shaped bike built for Nordisk Cryobank a leading European sperm bank, used in Copenhagen, as reported — with pics — on The company was looking for an eco-friendly way to get its cargo around and yes, just like sperm need, it has a cooling system: “Inside the head of the giant sperm cell is a cooler compartment designed so that the metal containers with sperm donations can fit snugly inside and be kept cold.”

It would be the worst getaway vehicle in the world, wouldn’t it? But then…who steals sperm?

10. Love roller-coaster

Most of us have seen those amazing animalcules and the semen they swim in make their grand entrance out of the body, but what you don’t see is the remarkably circuitous route it takes to get to that point. No kidding: men rather fantastically have what amounts to a Krazy Straw in there.

It all starts in the testes which are made up of seminiferous tubules in which sperm are manufactured.’s Craig Freudenrichand Molly Edmonds put the rate of production at about 4 million per hour.

Once formed, sperm travels to the epididymus, a coiled tube outside the teste (here’s a picture) where they mature and stay. After the penis is erect if there is “sufficient stimulation,” says Medicine Plus (where you can see it all via animation) the sperm travel up, up, up, through the vas defrens which propel them with muscle contractions, then down again to the ampula and the seminal vesicles where they’re mixed with the first of the fluids that make up semen. That fluid contains numerous substances including fructose, potassium, citric acid and the hormone-like substance prostaglandins. This mix goes downward through the ejaculatory ducts past the prostate gland where another milky fluid is added to the mix which helps neutralize the PH of the vagina, and the semen is finally semen.

At this point it goes back up, up, up again through the urethra and zing! Out into the world. Then, who knows? After all that mixology it could end up on the shower floor…or in a sperm bank…or in the aforementioned vagina…or other places on the body (for which you’ll have to look at another kind of website).

Liz Langley is a freelance writer in Orlando, FL.