A general trend in declining sperm count was observed a couple of years ago. Now, researchers in Switzerland wanted to look at what the situation was for their own country and how they compared. Switzerland did not come out in good shape.
Researchers from the University of Geneva (UNIGE), Switzerland, recently completed the first nationwide assessment for semen quality and published its findings in Andrology. The results were markedly low according to the benchmarks set by the World Health Organization (WHO). This is a matter of concern not just for fertility but because of the correlation of poor semen quality with testicular cancer.
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Obviously sperm counts vary by region, though there are ranges set for them. For young European men that is 41 to 67 million per ml for young European men. Swiss men with 47 million per ml at the bottom of the scale, along with those from Denmark, Norway, and Germany.
The assessment identified three key indicators: the number of spermatozoa (number of sperm per ml), their motility and morphology. The results were well below the reference values issued by the World Health Organisation (WHO) in 2010 for 60 percent of the men who fell short on at least one of the three key indicators, and 5 percent had a problem with all three.
That means that only 38 percent come up to the numbers in line with the WHO’s values. To break it down to specifics, the sperm concentration was below 15 million per ml for 17 percent, and one-quarter of the men evinced less than 40 percent mobile spermatozoa. Morphological rates dropped below 4 percent for 40 percent of the men.
That’s certainly not good news, though Dr. Alfred Senn, an andrologist and co-author of the study, warns not to jump to too many conclusions on the basis of only a single study, which “isn’t entirely predictive of a person’s fertility.”
However, he also says there is cause for concern, given that, “in overall terms, the results suggest that the sperm quality of young men in Switzerland is in a critical state and that their future fertility will in all likelihood be affected.”
Going all the way back to the gestation
The study was based on 2,523 men aged 18 through 22. The researchers did not only get the young men to answer questions about their diets and lifestyles but went back a generation to get the answers to the same questions plus one of the pregnancy’s progression from their parents.
The answers from parents did reveal an important environmental factor, which bears out the findings of a study from 2013. Those whose mothers smoked while they pregnant were more likely to have lower sperm quality.
As Serge Nef, a professor in the Department of Genetic Medicine and Development in UNIGE’s Faculty of Medicine, observed, “Subfertility was found to be more common among men who were exposed to maternal smoking during embryonic development.”
So the eternal question of nature versus nurture scores a point on the nurture side according to this study. Accordingly, the Andrology report takes this position, “The observed decrease in semen quality is more likely to be related to environmental factors rather than genetics.”
Those environmental factors could also include certain products associated with a lower sperm count that may be widely used in Switzerland. The EWG identified some toxic ingredients in popular cleaning products. One common culprit is detergent for dishes and laundry:
Borax and boric acid. These compounds are used to stabilize enzymes in laundry or dishwashing detergents and borax is a common ingredient in homemade cleaners as well. Sodium perborate, a form of oxygen bleach found in some cleaners, releases sodium borate during the bleach process. The European Union considers them toxic to human reproductive systems (ECHA 2011). Men working in boric acid-producing factories have a greater risk of decreased sperm count and libido. Chronic exposure to high doses of borax or boric acid causes testicular atrophy in male mice, rats, and dogs (EPA 2006).
The link between sperm quality and testicular cancer
The news is not just alarming for the future fertility of Switzerland but for the possible ramifications to the health of the male population. The Andrology article references several earlier studies on male fertility and points out the correlation found between testicular cancer and “low semen quality trends.”
American researchers have noted the same trend. A 2005 press release declared, “Male Infertility Patients Are 20 Times More Likely to Have Testicular Cancer, According to New NewYork-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Study” Though the causative link was not established, the correlation was strong enough for the study’s lead author, Dr. Marc Goldstein, to declare," Screening for testicular cancer could now become a standard part of all male infertility treatment."
In Switzerland, researchers have noted with alarm that their rate of testicular cancer is higher than that of their European counterparts.
“For 35 years, testicular cancer has grown steadily to over 10 cases per 100,000 men, which is very high compared to other European countries,” observed Professor Nef.
Following up on the research
Given the strong correlation between male infertility and testicular cancer, the identification of the low sperm quality certainly warrants following up on, and the researchers intend to do that.
“We would also like to go back to the 2,523 men who took part in the study in about 10 years so we can follow up their reproductive health and find out whether they have had children or have suffered from testicular cancer, for example,” said Rita Rahban a researcher in the Department of Genetic Medicine and Development and the study’s first author.
They are also concerned about the potential impact on the population, which will have a significant effect on the socio-economic dynamics in Switzerland.
According, Dr. Alfred Senn observed, “With the current trend for couples to have children later in life, the low sperm count among young men in Switzerland – combined with the declining fertility of older women – will have an impact on conception rates and future generations.”