Millard County, UT. Sperm counts are down, miscarriages are up, and Dr. Shanna Swan has the lab results to show that it’s our fault. We have poured tens of thousands of chemicals into our world, slathered them all over our bodies, built our dwellings from them, clothed ourselves with them, grown our food with them, raised our children on them, even worshipped the Almighty with them, and somehow, no one thought to stop and ask first if they might interfere with human reproduction. As it turns out, many of them do.
In her book Count Down, Swan outlines decades of her own and others’ research tracing how certain commonly used chemicals impact our ability to reproduce. Broadly known as endocrine-disrupting chemicals, or EDCs, these ubiquitous chemicals interact with and interfere with the endocrine system, that finely-tuned language of hormones the body uses to communicate among its members. EDCs garble this language—they replace, inhibit, or increase hormones such as testosterone, estrogen, and thyroid hormone. The result is reproductive mayhem: poor sperm quality, miscarriages, premature births, sexual dysfunction, premature puberty and menopause, and reproductive organ disorders. EDCs even alter sex differences in children, contributing to masculinized girls and feminized boys.
EDCs have been incorporated into a vast number of consumer products that we use daily. They fall into several broad categories: phthalates, BPA and friends, flame retardants, pesticides, perfluoroalkyl compounds (PFCs), polychlorinated diphenyls (PCBs), and dioxins. Some, like flame retardants, build up in our bodies; others, like phthalates, break down quickly but are so common that we constantly renew our exposure to them. You will find EDCs everywhere: medical devices, personal care products, household cleaners, adhesives, nonstick coatings, electronics, food packaging, carpets, furniture, and on and on. They’re pretty much inescapable.
We are “living in an alphabet soup of toxic chemicals” with little idea how they interact with our bodies (123). Since testing protocols are limited to food and drug applications, the modus operandi for everything else has been to release the product and enjoy the profits. To make matters worse, what limited testing protocols do exist are completely useless for determining a chemical’s endocrine-disrupting potential because testing is focused on cancer-causing harm. Chemicals are tested on animals, starting with a lethal dose that is lowered until no evidence of toxicity can be detected. It is assumed that the chemical has no toxic effect at any lower dose. Since EDCs are most powerful at low concentrations, they’ve been off the toxicity radar.
It’s not just EDCs that are depressing our capacity to physiologically reproduce. Count Down is very thorough in walking through the various factors known to affect fertility: stress, being over or underweight, smoking, marijuana, heavy drinking, pornography, sugary and caffeinated drinks, binge watching TV, bicycling (for men), and intense exercise (for women). Additionally, fertility is hampered by hormone-laced meat and dairy products and many pharmaceuticals—including Tylenol, antidepressants, and that most holy drug, birth control. It’s clear that “modern life is having a chilling effect on people’s reproductive health and well-being” (106).
Swan has decades of research to back up her concerns about EDCs. What she and other scientists have documented is sobering: “sperm counts have plummeted by 50 percent in the last forty years” (13). Between 1990 and 2011, miscarriages in the United States increased by 1 percent each year, regardless of the woman’s age (48). It’s not just human reproduction that’s in trouble: reproduction in many species of animals have been totally derailed by EDCs. Insect populations are crashing. And it’s all happening because of human choices.
The sperm decline research isn’t without its critics. In 2021 a paper was published by GenderSci, a feminist science group at Harvard, criticizing Swan’s landmark 2017 metadata study about sperm counts. Without better data, they say, we don’t actually know if sperm counts are declining or if the data just shows a natural variability among men, and they cite enough papers and statistical models and raise enough specters of white nationalists and misogynists to make the non-expert conclude that this must be a fringe issue of concern only to internet extremists.
Swan herself agrees that more research should be done, but she is convinced that “the current state of reproductive affairs can’t continue much longer without threatening human survival” (2). In the book, she outlines things each of us can do to protect ourselves, walking us through each room in the house and pointing out areas of concern. For example, in the kitchen, she counsels us to “use fewer canned or packaged foods” and “prepare meals at home as often as possible.” Don’t store food in plastic containers and don’t use plastic in the microwave. Filter your drinking water, and buy organic produce and products from animals that have not been fed on a pesticide-laced, hormone-enhanced diet. Ditch the Teflon and other non-stick cookware, and throw out any cleaning products that say danger, warning, poison, or fatal.
The implications of an EDC-free kitchen are titanic: take-out, frozen dinners, single-serving yogurts and plastic wrap, they’re all laced with EDCs, as are paper plates, dishwashing detergents, and those pads under your raw hamburger that absorb all the juice. Goodbye grocery stores and restaurants. Goodbye Nestle and Mondelez.
And goodbye Monsanto. If pesticides hamper human reproduction the way Count Down asserts, then the Green Revolution, that poster child of Progress, ends up being a colossal oops—a boom, and then a bust. All those techno-futurists who pat the Wendell Berrys of the world on the head and say, “Organic, local agriculture sure is a nice idea . . .” then pause and add, (as if they’re the first person to ever think of it) “but you’ve got to feed the world”—well, it looks like they need a better accountant.
Taking EDCs seriously requires a fundamental transformation of how we’ve organized our lives. Let’s leave aside the question of how not to commit social suicide if you take EDCs seriously. (But really, how do you tell Grandma that the chicken alfredo she made you for dinner is contaminated and therefore uneatable?) If you take Swan’s kitchen advice to heart, then you’re going to end up planting an enormous garden, growing a food forest, milking a cow, and cooking everything from scratch. You’re basically going to ditch the world as we know it.
The kitchen alone is a strong indictment of contemporary life, and it’s only one room in the house. The most damning evidence, though, comes from the children’s playroom. We peek through the door and Swan warns us to be careful about children’s toys, especially imported ones, since kids are so small, growing so quickly, and since they put everything in their mouths. Then she hurries us out to the yard to talk about garden hoses, paying no heed to the full-grown African bull elephant in the middle of the playroom trumpeting for all he’s worth. “Baby bottles, breast pumps, diapers, pacifiers, baby car seats, strollers,” he bellows. “The whole world of babyhood is plastic!”
Let that sink in for a moment. There’s probably no other stage of life where humans are in more contact with plastic than babyhood, but babies are the most vulnerable to EDCs. Even worse, each generation becomes more sensitized to EDCs, meaning it takes less exposure to cause harm. Society would buckle without EDCs to care for babies. Strangely, except for toys, Count Down gives us no other guidance on how to protect babies, even though Swan has done reams of research on chemical exposure in utero and in early childhood. It’s probably too uncomfortable for her to admit, but her research explodes the underpinnings of feminism, which has relied on the fiction that machines and plastics are perfectly good substitutes for mama and everybody else. Now it turns out that all those mama-liberators have slowly been destroying the future. Some advanced civilization.
Perhaps that’s why Count Down is being subjected to crude hit pieces by the feminist academics at GenderSci. After all, there is no feminism—conservative or liberal—in its current iteration without EDCs. Feminism has worked hard to ensure that the obligations we have to our loved ones come in a distant second, if at all, to our own agendas, but EDC research lays bare the lie that a woman’s body is her own. A man’s body is not his own either: recurrent miscarriages are often the result of embryonic chromosomal damage due to poor sperm quality. The inescapable fact revealed by EDCs is that there is no such thing as you do you. You might choose to wash your clothes with phthalate-laden laundry detergent, but everyone downwind of your dryer is forced to breathe it in.
Society as we have organized it is literally unreproducible. We’ve built our lives around the naïve assumption that humans will continue to multiply without needing to replenish, and this assumption has led us down a dead-end road. Count Down doesn’t tell us we need to turn around though. Instead, we are served up the same press-play solutions that modernists suggest for every problem: science and industry will establish better testing protocols; green chemistry will come up with new, safer materials; governments will ban harmful substances; and businesses will respond to consumer demand by selling cleaner products. In the meantime, we’ll all get second degrees in organic chemistry, and our new best friend will be the Environmental Working Group’s product database. For those unlucky humans who have already been hit hard by a fertility-destroying lifestyle, they can rely on artificial reproductive technologies to bring their precious little ones into the world. (Human sperm created through mouse skin, anyone?)
In short, we’re supposed to pray for deliverance through science while upgrading our shopping habits.
But who got us into this mess to begin with? Why are we turning first to the mode of thinking that created the toxic soup we’re all living in while continuing the mode of life it enables? Sure, let’s hope green chemistry comes up with better plastics. There are very few of us who could survive without them anymore. Unfortunately, it takes “millions of dollars and five to ten years of research for a single study” to determine the safety of a chemical—and that’s after all the animal testing has already been done (202). Plus, green chemistry can’t solve the problem of pointless and poorly made products that we throw away without a moment’s thought. Can we really justify taking the lives of millions of animals to test the reproductive toxicity of a chemical intended for some useless consumer good that will be out of fashion in six months’ time?
As far as relying on governments to identify and phase out toxic chemicals, even Count Down admits that we have an unimpressive track record. Swan was personally involved in research on DEHP, a phthalate that lowers testosterone. After twenty years and more than $10 million of taxpayer money, DEHP was conclusively found to be damaging and banned. It has been chiefly replaced by DINP, which, as it turns out, is just as bad. This phenomenon, when one toxic chemical is replaced by another equally toxic one, is known as a regrettable substitution, and it happens over and over again. DDT (which itself was a replacement for lead arsenate) has been replaced by organophosphate pesticides. BPA has been substituted with BPS, BPF, and others. The chemical gets switched, but the endocrine disruption remains—a boon to manufacturers, who get to sell us the “safer” replacement, but a disaster for the earth and all of us living creatures. Even if we manage to establish better protocols, there’s no guarantee that other countries will follow suit. Once a chemical is introduced into global industry, it’s pretty tricky to eliminate.
And before being lulled by the promise of high-tech reproduction, let’s first acknowledge that contemporary life is on the layaway plan: enjoy it now and pay for it later. It’s astonishing that someone who has spent her life documenting the harmful, unintended effects of technological gee-whiz regards artificial reproductive technology (ART) as the inevitable wave of the future, even as she notes that children born via IVF are at greater risk for developing autism and other neurological challenges. ART doesn’t solve our real problems; it just pushes them onto our children to deal with. We get to enjoy the cute baby, but the cute baby gets to deal with all the neurological, physiological, and spiritual problems that come from parents whose lives are out of harmony with the rhythms of Creation. Humans have already found many elegant solutions, proven for generations, of how to live a good life without destroying the planet or each other. Can we not learn from these other ways before we conclude that reengineered mouse-skin-cell fathers are the answer?
Count Down is a bit like being told there’s a raging wildfire on the brink of devouring your home and then being handed a squirt gun to protect yourself and your family. As long as we remain consumers—even “enlightened” consumers—we will be at the mercy of money. And money is answerable only to itself. If we want to get out of the mess we’ve inherited and contributed to, we must become makers again and learn to live not by money but by the work of our own hands.
We have gobbled up our children’s future. We have traded away their birthright for a mess of toxic garbage. EDCs are an egregious example of this thoughtless running up of the bill on their dime, but they’re only one group of chemicals wreaking havoc on the world, and they’re far from the only thing we’re borrowing against our children’s lives: we’re sucking major aquifers dry, mowing down the forests, paving over the good farmland, and letting the soil blow away with the wind. We’re trashing the oceans and blotting out the stars. It’s not just the natural world that we’re stealing from our children either. We’ve taken the real world from our children and raised them instead on pixels and plastic, so much so that an alarming number of them are more interested in reproducing the feeling of finding a holographic Charizard than in actually reproducing. EDCs may steal our children’s literal capacity to reproduce, but our fragmented, helter-skelter, non-place lives steal from them the spiritual capacity equally necessary for procreation.
We justify our choices as the price of innovation, of progress, of efficiency. We tell ourselves we can’t afford to do anything else. We even tell ourselves it’s for the children. And so we bankrupt our posterity so we can eat, drink, and be merry. It’s a nice life for those who get to live it, but it’s not reproducible. In adopting these fertility-destroying chemicals and the fertility-destroying lifestyle they enable, we have engineered the unplanned obsolescence of much of humanity.
It’s time to repent. The hearts of the fathers must turn toward the children. Swan and other EDC researchers have given us a real gift by revealing the lies that we live by. There’s no modern life without EDCs, but there’s no future with them. Count Down is pessimistic about our chances of arresting our fertility free fall any time soon, given how integral EDCs are to our lives, but there is a glimmer of hope: the book briefly mentions research done on rat pups. Those that received folic acid supplementation in utero were found to be able to resist the damaging effects of BPA on their reproductive development. (141).
While science has yet to sort it all out, to take a leap of imagination here, good nutrition might possibly have the salubrious, protective effect necessary to cushion the little ones from the compounding effects of EDCs. But good nutrition doesn’t come from vitamin pills and fortified foods. Good nutrition comes from good food. Good food comes from good soil. Good soil comes from the work of many living creatures, including people. As a side benefit, such work eliminates many EDCs from daily life.
Funny how everything comes back to the soil. It’s not sexy, it’s not going to make anybody gobs of money or bring anyone lasting fame, and it certainly isn’t something that very many people aspire to, but if we humans want to ensure that our families endure, we’d better get on our knees and tend to the earth, together.
Image from the opening scene of Idiocracy (2006).