‘More boys are born with genital disorders’
*Gender-bending chemicals, fatty diets implicated
For decades, male sperm counts have been plummeting.
Now, doctors are warning increasing numbers of boys are being born with genital disorders.
Many boys’ testicles fail to descend, while others are born with the opening of their urethra, the tube out of which urine flows, is at the base of their penis, meaning they have to sit down to go to the loo.
Some experts blame gender-bending chemicals in the environment, commonly found in the plastic used in containers and our homes.
It is said they inhibit male sex hormones in the womb, which can lead to defects in a developing male foetus.
Others say the problem is linked to lifestyle factors – that eating more fat means we produce more of the female hormone oestrogen – which again, will affect how a baby in the womb grows.
Some chalk men’s falling sperm counts down to men’s bulging waistlines – as fat cells naturally produce more oestrogen which can affect the volume and quality of their semen.
Here, speaking to medical blogging site The Hippocratic Post, experts explain the devastating effects of male feminisation – and theories on its cause…
An increasing number of baby boys in the UK are being born with genital disorders.
One in 350 male babies have a condition known as hypospadias.
Instead of the opening of the penis being at the tip, it may be lower down the penis or even around the scrotum.
In a few rare cases, there may not be an opening at all.
Other disorders of the male reproductive system are also on the increase.
Cryptorchidism is the most common genital malformation of all, when one of both testes fail to descend into the scrotum, affecting between two and four per cent of baby boys.
Chordee – a downward curve of the penis, especially when erect – is usually, but not always, associated with hypospadias.
Many experts believe that the defects seen in male babies are related to a broader problem- the feminisation of men.
Male sperm counts have halved since 1941. Infertility and cancer of the testes are also on the rise. Testicular cancer is now the most common cancer of young men.
Hypospadias is a congenital (present at birth) anomaly (abnormality), which means that the malformation occurs during foetal development.
As the foetus develops, the urethra does not grow to its complete length.
Also during foetal development, the foreskin does not develop completely, which typically leaves extra foreskin on the top side of the penis and no foreskin on the underside of the penis.
Professor Richard Sharpe, a male-fertility specialist at the Medical Research Council’s University of Edinburgh Centre of Reproductive Health, suggests that all the disorders stem from a problem arising at the key stage in the development of the male foetus during early pregnancy.
He said: “From epidemiological studies, we know that each of the disorders is a risk factor for all the others, and that they share several pregnancy-related risk factors.’
“Most importantly, we know that they share hormonal risk factors, in particular anything that interferes with the production or action of androgens and testosterone [the male sex hormones] during the sexual differentiation process of the foetus that occurs in the womb.”
In other words, the suggestion is that there is something happening early in the development of the male foetus that interferes with the key steps enabling it to develop into a healthy, fertile male.
Professor Neil Skakkebaek, of the University of Copenhagen, revealed in 2010 that sperm counts had fallen by about a half over the past 50 years – and more men were producing abnormal sperm.
Since the discovery, environmentalists have suggested that it could be ‘gender-bending’ chemicals – endocrine disrupters – in the environment that are the cause of the gradual feminisation of men.
But despite intense research to find these endocrine disrupters, the precise reasons for the problems have not so far been identified.
Some scientists believe that the culprit may just as likely be a change in lifestyle, rather than exposure to some new environmental chemical.
Another possible lifestyle factor that could be playing a role is the significant increase in the intake of dietary fat over the past 50 years.
Fat is linked with oestrogens – the female sex hormone – and more fat means more oestrogens, which means a possible increase in the risk of interference with the proper development of male reproductive organs.
Nevertheless, work on animals has led to the discovery of some chemicals in the environment that could be playing an important role.
Professor Sharpe cites his work on chemicals called phthalates, substances used by industry to soften plastics.
He has been able to create a set of disorders in laboratory animals that mimic human testicular dysgenesis syndrome – where the male reproductive organs don’t develop properly – by exposing pregnant mothers to certain phthalates at a key stage of foetal development.
However, he points out, it is too early to jump to the conclusion that this is the cause of the problem.
*Adapted from The Hippocratic Post