Pollution Is Causing Penises To Shrink: What Does This Mean for Fertility?

Some lifestyle and environment-based changes may be in order to reduce issues with fertility.

Environmental scientists have warned for years that pollution can impact all aspects of health and one important impact is on fertility. The 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, discusses pollution's relationship to fertility, including the following warning: Industrial chemicals are making penises shrink—and impacting fertility.

Shanna H. Swan, MD, author of the book and professor of environmental medicine and public health at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York City, has worked for more than 25 years to try to understand the impact chemicals have on our environment and our health.

"I have been speaking to scientists and scientific organizations and publishing research about these environmental- and reproductive-health effects for many years," Dr. Swan told Health. "My goal with this book is to reach as many people as possible and bring their attention to the current crises in reproductive health as well as the chemicals in our environment and lifestyle factors that are driving these changes."

Here's what the science says, and why it matters.

What Is the Link Between Penis Size and Pollution?

The occurrence of penis shrinkage starts in the womb. "When a pregnant woman has higher body concentrations of chemicals like phthalates, which lower testosterone levels, the development of her baby boy's genitals is disturbed," Dr. Swam explained. "This results in what has been named the 'phthalate syndrome,' which includes smaller penis size."

Are Penises Really Shrinking? Here's What the Science Says
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Dr. Swan published data on this back in 2005. Her work, which appeared in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives, linked phthalates—man-made chemicals widely used in toys, detergents, nail polish, soaps, and more—to physical changes in young boys. Another Journal of Developmental Origins of Health and Disease study published in December 2013 also found similar results. Essentially, those born to mothers with higher concentrations of phthalates in their bodies were more likely to have a smaller penis size at their 12-month checkup and testicles that hadn't fully descended.

How Does Exposure to Phthalates Affect Fertility?

According to a May 2019 F1000 Research article, 50% of infertility cases are due to male factors. Male infertility may arise from several factors such as physical testicular problems, genetic disorders, hormone issues, sperm duct blockages, high fever or mumps history, and lifestyle or environmental factors per MedlinePlus. However, penis size is not included in the list. Furthermore, there is a lack of strong evidence to indicate that penis size is directly connected to fertility.

Still, other outcomes of phthalate exposure have been connected to an individual's level of fertility. Researchers of an Environmental Sciences Europe article published in January 2022 noted that exposure to phthalates has been associated with the reduction of semen quality concerning semen volume, sperm concentration, and total sperm counts—all of which can lead to infertility in male individuals.

Dr. Swan calls the change in sperm counts and other negative measures of reproductive health "alarming," adding, "these changes are driven by a combination of poor lifestyle choices and the hundreds of chemicals that people are exposed to on a daily basis throughout the world."

"There is certainly a growing body of medical literature suggesting that there may be a decline in sperm counts over time," Joshua A. Halpern, MD, assistant professor of urology at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine in Illinois, told Health. But the research isn't perfect, Dr. Halpern said, noting that it's "very difficult to look back and compare different groups of men over time."

"The studies certainly raise significant concern, but we need better research to determine what is really going on and why," Dr. Halpern explained.

Women's health specialist Jennifer Wider, MD, told Health that this information is important to pay attention to. "This is a well-researched book written by a respected expert in the field—shedding light on the fact that chemicals in our environment can have a detrimental effect on reproduction and our hormones," Dr. Wider said.

How To Minimize Fertility Issues

Count Down specifically breaks down things you can personally do to reduce your exposure to hormone-altering chemicals and make lifestyle changes that will support healthy reproductive development.

"One easy strategy is to swap out plastic food-storage containers and bottles in your kitchen for glass, ceramics, or metal ones," Dr. Swan said. "This will help reduce exposure to hormone-altering chemicals, which is not only important for pregnant women and couples planning a pregnancy, but for everyone because these chemical exposures can have long-term ripple effects on your health."

Dr. Wider recommended that you "pay attention" to what you're exposed to. "Phthalates, chemicals used in plastic production, and other endocrine-disrupting chemicals should be limited in everyday products, and we should all demand change from governing bodies and stronger policies to protect children, and men and women," Dr. Wider said.

If you're planning to have kids, you can also do other things to try to boost your fertility. "Most things that are good for overall health are also good for fertility," Dr. Halpern said. "Healthy diet, regular exercise, and stress reduction are key. And while it may be difficult to avoid some of the toxins found in the products we use every day, people should try to stay away from clearly harmful exposures, such as cigarette smoking and noxious chemicals."

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