Today’s Solutions: April 24, 2024
“Hormones get no respect. We think of them as the elusive chemicals that make us a bit moody, but these magical little molecules do so much more.” – Susannah Cahalan, Author, Brain on Fire

Most of us know to wash our produce before eating it and not to microwave plastic, but what about storing peanut butter in plastic containers or the ingredients in that new lipstick you just picked up from the drug store? Many products that we take for granted as safe can actually have quite detrimental health effects and these can manifest in an unexpected place: human fertility. 

The chemical-filled reality of our modern world has led to a 59 percent drop in the total sperm count of men in Western countries since 1973.

Environmental and reproductive epidemiologist Shanna Swan, Ph.D has studied the link between modern chemicals and human fertility for decades. Her work has found links between lowered female and male fertility and exposure to plastics, pesticides, and other chemicals in the everyday goods we use. To increase awareness of this issue and the steps you can take in your own life to protect yourself and your family from chemical exposure, Dr. Swan teamed up with award-winning journalist and health coach Stacey Colino to create a guide for those looking to understand and address the problem. 

In their book Count Down: How Our Modern World Is Threatening Sperm Counts, Altering Male and Female Reproductive Development, and Imperiling the Future of the Human Race, the authors sound a wake-up call about the lifestyle factors and chemicals in the modern environment that are changing human sexuality and endangering fertility on a vast scale. Today we share an excerpt from the book with six strategies consumers can take to protect themselves (and their children) from this health threat. 

Count Down: How Our Modern World Is Threatening Sperm Counts, Altering Male and Female Reproductive Development, and Imperiling the Future of the Human Race

Right now, the onus is on us as individuals and consumers to take steps to protect our reproductive function and the reproductive health of our future children. The worst offenders: endocrine-disrupting chemicals (EDCs) that interfere with our body’s natural hormones and are playing havoc with the building blocks of sexual and reproductive development. By taking key steps to improve your lifestyle habits (as recommended in the book) and reduce your body’s burden of chemical exposures, you’ll enhance your ability to preserve sperm counts and integrity and your fertility whether you’re a man or a woman.

Here are six vital ways to protect yourself at home:

Choose fresh, unprocessed foods

Sticking with fresh foods—particularly fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds, and fish—will, besides being more nutritious than packaged foods, help you reduce your exposure to chemicals. During processing, packaged foods come in contact with phthalates, such as DEHP and DBP—or BPA in the plastic or lining of cans—and because these chemicals aren’t bound to the packaging material, they can leach into the food. Even if the label says BPA-free or phthalate-free, it may contain substitutes such as BPS and BPF for BPA or phthalate substitutes that may be as toxic as the chemicals they’re replacing. It’s best to try to use fewer canned and packaged foods, in general.

Reconsider your food-storage containers

Phthalates and BPA are used in the manufacture of many food and beverage containers; you’re exposed to these endocrine-disrupting chemicals (EDCs) when they seep into your foods or drinks or they’re released when these containers are heated in the microwave. Plastic containers that contain phthalates have the number 3 and V or PVC in the recycling symbol. BPA is still used in many water bottles and plastic containers and in the epoxy resins that protect canned foods from contamination. For food storage, your best bet is to use glass, metal, or ceramic containers with tops or aluminum foil. If you do opt for plastic containers, use this rhyme to help you remember which recycling codes are safer and which aren’t: 4, 5, 1, and 2, all the rest are bad for you. 

Pay attention to the labels on personal-care products

Sometimes what you’ll see is pure marketing-speak, but some phrases can be meaningful. Products that carry the USDA organic seal, for example, must contain at least 95 percent organically produced ingredients—meaning, they’ve been grown without conventional pesticides, herbicides, petroleum-based fertilizers, or genetically modified organisms; the 100 percent organic label indicates that a product only contains organically produced ingredients. Sometimes what a product doesn’t contain is trumpeted just as loudly—and this can be worth noting. Some examples: Fragrance-free means no perfumes or fragrances have been added to the cosmetic or toiletry; instead, essential oils or botanical extracts that have scents may have been used to mask the smell of the basic ingredients. Similarly, paraben-free and phthalate-free indicate that these chemicals aren’t in the product. Avoid cleansers and skin-care products that are labeled antibacterial; regular soap and water are all you need to get clean. Remember, too, a personal-care product that’s supposedly free of these bad actors can lose its integrity—its phthalate-free and BPA-free status—if it’s in a plastic jar or bottle, so choose products in glass whenever possible.

Scan product ingredients lists

Admittedly, it may feel as though you need a chemistry degree to decipher what’s in the products you’re slathering on your skin, hair, or body. But you can make a modicum of sense of their ingredients lists. In particular, avoid products that contain the following EDCs or other harmful chemicals: triclosan (often in liquid soap and toothpaste), dibutyl phthalate or DBP (in hair spray and nail products), and parabens such as methyl-, ethyl-, propyl-, isopropyl-, butyl- and isobutyl- paraben (preservatives found in shampoos, conditioners, facial and skin cleansers, moisturizers, deodorants, sunscreens, tooth- pastes, and makeup). To closely vet the personal-care products you like, check out the Environmental Working Group’s “Skin Deep” database for details. Taking these selective steps can make a difference: a study found that when teenage girls switched to using personal-care products that were labeled as free of phthalates, parabens, triclosan, and benzophenone-3 (an organic compound often found in sunscreens), their urinary concentrations of these potentially endocrine-disrupting chemicals decreased by 27 to 44 percent—in just three days!

Banish air fresheners

Whether you’ve been using a plug-in product, a wick, or a spray air freshener, stop. All of these contain phthalates and other potentially harmful chemicals. To improve air aroma in the bathroom, use an exhaust fan, open a window, or leave an open box of baking soda in the room to absorb bad odors. Also, stick with nontoxic cleaning products for the bathroom.

Prevent dust buildup

Besides being an allergen and an unsightly nuisance, household dust can absorb and become a repository for toxic chemicals. There’s no need to become an obsessive neat freak, but it’s wise to elevate your dusting efforts, in particular, because household dust contains toxic chemicals from products in your home. A 2017 study found that forty-five potentially harmful chemicals—including phthalates, phenols, replacement flame retardants, and perfluoroalkyl substances (PFASs)—were found in dust in 90 percent of households sampled throughout the United States. So use a damp mop on wood or ceramic floors. Wipe furniture, windowsills, doorway moldings, and ceiling fans with a microfiber or damp cotton cloth because they hold dust particles better than others (or dry ones) do. Dust electronic equipment, including TVs, frequently because they’re a common source of flame retardants. Open the windows and doors while you’re cleaning, and wash your hands thoroughly after dusting and cleaning.


In 2017, author Shanna Swan PhD and her team of researchers completed a major study. They found that over the past four decades, sperm levels among men in Western countries have dropped by more than 50 percent. They came to this conclusion after examining 185 studies involving close to 45,000 healthy men. The result sent shockwaves around the globe—but the story didn’t end there. It turns out our sexual development is changing in broader ways, for both men and women and even other species, and that the modern world is on pace to become an infertile one.

How and why could this happen? What is hijacking our fertility and our health? Count Down unpacks these questions, revealing what Swan and other researchers have learned about how both lifestyle and chemical exposures are affecting our fertility, sexual development—potentially including the increase in gender fluidity—and general health as a species. Engagingly explaining the science and repercussions of these worldwide threats and providing simple and practical guidelines for effectively avoiding chemical goods (from water bottles to shaving cream) both as individuals and societies, Count Down is at once an urgent wake-up call, an illuminating read, and a vital tool for the protection of our future.

Dr. Shanna Swan

Shanna H. Swan, Ph.D., is one of the world’s leading environmental and reproductive epidemiologists and a professor of environmental medicine and public health at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York City. An award-winning scientist, her work examines the impact of environmental exposures, including chemicals such as phthalates and Bisphenol A, on men’s and women’s reproductive health and the neurodevelopment of children. Dr. Swan has published more than 200 scientific papers and has been featured in extensive media coverage around the world.

Stacey Colino

Stacey Colino is an award-winning writer, specializing in health, fitness, and psychological issues, and an ACE-certified health coach. Her work has appeared in dozens of national magazines, and she is the co-author of the books Disease-Proof: The Remarkable Truth About What Makes Us Well, Strong Is the New Skinny, Good Food Fast!, Taking Back the Month, and Emotional Inflammation: Discover Your Triggers and Reclaim Your Equilibrium During Anxious Times.

Want to learn more? Check out our podcast interview with Shanna H. Swan, Ph.D and Stacey Colino.

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