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Radio Review: Fertility and the Environment – BBC Radio 4

22 October 2018
Appeared in BioNews 972

A dystopian world where environmental pollutants are leading to sterility of the human race – fiction, or a stark reality of where we are heading?

Jheni Osman launches into her episode of Costing the Earth on Radio 4 with a rather disturbing prediction. But, with environmental factors almost certainly contributing to the dramatic decline in male fertility observed over the last 60 years, this is perhaps not entirely unjustified. 

'Fertility and the Environment' delves into the shocking array of contaminants we are exposed to during our daily lives and explores exactly how these may be damaging the fertility of future generations of both humans and animals. For science writer Osman, who says she has had several rounds of IVF herself, this is also something of a personal journey. Taking us through a series of interviews with experts in the field she provides an accessible and relatable overview of current research interspersed with her own personal experiences as she embarks on a quest to further understand her own struggle with fertility.

Since the revelation of the damaging properties of plastic components on the fertility of lab animals some 20 years ago, we have certainly become more aware of the dangers posed by human derived products in our environment. What becomes immediately apparent during this episode is the overwhelming complexity of the topic and the difficultly scientists are having trying to unpick exactly which contaminants may be responsible, and when and how the exposure is taking place.

Alan Pacey, professor of andrology at the University of Sheffield, explains that not only is the source of potential contaminants endless (pesticides, industrial chemicals and plastics in food wrapping, cosmetics, fragrances and medical supplies) but that the manner of exposure itself may vary. It's not just what males are exposed to as adults, but perhaps also what their mothers were exposed to when pregnant.

With the high profile of environmental plastics at the moment (most notably on Blue Planet II), it seems easy to point the finger of blame entirely here. Professor Richard Sharpe from the University of Edinburgh highlights a further dimension to the problem however, suggesting that while plastics and the like may be a contributory factor, we must also be aware of our lifestyle choices, drawing particular focus to both diet and pharmaceuticals.

Perhaps the most shocking revelation for me was the focus of the second half of the programme, where Osman explores the effect of man-made contaminants on our wildlife. With the increased use of modern pharmaceuticals in recent decades it is really no surprise that they have infiltrated our environment. 

As a reproductive biologist, I had some awareness of the risks posed to fertility by these chemicals. However, the prevalence and potency of these compounds in our immediate environment was a sobering realisation for me. It was a study by Dr Catherine Arnold from the University of York that particularly gripped me. Her team research the mating behaviour of birds that feed on worms that have absorbed the antidepressant Fluoxitine (or Prozac) because of their proximity to sewage treatment plants. They demonstrated that this exposure dramatically inhibited the mating behaviours of the female birds, ultimately impacting on their ability to reproduce. This is real-life evidence of man-made products directly affecting the propagation of our wildlife with huge implications for humans.

'Fertility and the Environment' is a logical well-explained listen made even more engaging by Osman's personal investment in the topic. As a researcher in the field, I found the nitty gritty scientific detail a little lacking overall but the implications for human health and topical subject matter were enough to keep me fully absorbed until the end.

The unadulterated images of plastic ingested sea birds and entangled sea turtles seen on the BBC series Blue Planet II sparked a nationwide revolt against plastic use. 'Fertility and the Environment' reveals yet another disturbing consequence of human contaminants on our environment with the fertility of all animal species – humans no exception – at risk. 

While it will never be possible to replicate the power of an Attenborough message, I urge all BioNews readers to give this a listen, if only to remind ourselves of the unforgiving effects of the human race on our planet.

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