Plastic contamination discovered in human testicles putting male fertility at risk

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — There’s no question plastic pollution is everywhere. Studies have shown that people are both breathing in and eating concerning amounts of plastic microparticles every week. Now, a new report finds that men may have even more to worry about. Researchers at the University of New Mexico have discovered “significant concentrations” of microplastics in the testicles of both dogs and humans.

Concerningly, the new findings may explain worrying trends revolving around male fertility. Researchers say plastic contamination may be exposing men to chemicals that are directly disrupting their reproductive health. Specifically, the study published in the journal Toxicological Sciences uncovered 12 types of microplastics in 47 canine and 23 human testes.

“Our study revealed the presence of microplastics in all human and canine testes,” reports Dr. Xiaozhong “John” Yu, a professor at the UNM College of Nursing, in a university release.

Yu’s team examined human tissue from the New Mexico Office of the Medical Investigator, which stores tissue from autopsies for up to seven years after a person’s death. The dog tissue samples came from the City of Albuquerque animal shelters and private veterinary clinics that perform spay-neutering procedures.

After filtering out the fat and proteins from these testicle samples, the researchers made a shocking discovery — an actual “nugget” of plastic at the bottom of their ultracentrifuge. In dogs, there were 122.63 micrograms per gram of tissue. A microgram is a millionth of a gram.

In human males, the team found 329.44 micrograms of plastic per gram. That’s nearly three times more than in dogs and the concentration of plastic contamination was also higher than what scientists have found in examinations of women’s placental tissue.

“At the beginning, I doubted whether microplastics could penetrate the reproductive system,” Yu admits. “When I first received the results for dogs I was surprised. I was even more surprised when I received the results for humans.”

Pregnant woman, couple holding photo of ultrasound sonogram with baby
Researchers say plastic contamination may be exposing men to chemicals that are directly disrupting their reproductive health. (Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash)

As for what scientists are finding in the plastics embedded in human testicles, the most prevalent polymer was polyethylene (PE) — an ingredient in making plastic bags and bottles. In dogs, the team also found PVC, an ingredient in industrial, municipal, and household plumbing materials.

Although they couldn’t conduct the same tests with human sperm, researchers found that sperm counts in dogs were much lower when the samples contained high levels of PVC. Yu notes that they did not find the same connection with PE. Regardless, Yu says it’s clear plastic is having an effect on reproductive health, and dogs could provide a major red flag for men’s health.

“The plastic makes a difference – what type of plastic might be correlated with potential function,” Yu explains. “PVC can release a lot of chemicals that interfere with spermatogenesis and it contains chemicals that cause endocrine disruption.”

“Compared to rats and other animals, dogs are closer to humans,” the research adds. “Physically, their spermatogenesis is closer to humans and the concentration has more similarity to humans. We believe dogs and humans share common environmental factors that contribute to their decline.”

The study notes that the average age of men in the OMI autopsy samples was 35. With that in mind, Yu says this plastic contamination likely began decades earlier, during childhood. This means the trend towards lower sperm counts among men may start long before men even reach adulthood.

“The impact on the younger generation might be more concerning,” now that there is more plastic than ever in the environment, Yu warns. “We have a lot of unknowns. We need to really look at what the potential long-term effect. Are microplastics one of the factors contributing to this decline?”

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About the Author

Chris Melore

Chris Melore has been a writer, researcher, editor, and producer in the New York-area since 2006. He won a local Emmy award for his work in sports television in 2011.

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