Sperm abnormalities are a contributing factor to fertility issues in men. More than 90% of men’s infertility is from low sperm counts, poor sperm quality, or both. Since sperm abnormalities include low sperm count, abnormal shape of sperm, and poor movement of sperm, it’s easy to see how critical sperm abnormalities can be to the fertility of males.

Abnormalities in sperm can be cause by several factors, which include (but are not limited to) lifestyle habits and chemical exposure, to name a couple, although causes are still unknown in many cases. The abnormalities are grouped by whether the shape, movement, or sperm count are affected.

Organochlorines (DDE and PCBs) are pesticides that are linked to high numbers of sperm abnormalities known to lead to infertility issues in men. Other industrial chemicals that have been found to contribute to low sperm counts after extended exposure include herbicides, organic solvents, painting materials, benzenes (a natural part of gasoline and oil also found in vehicle exhaust fumes), toluene (a chemical used as a solvent that is added to gasoline and also used to produce benzene), and xylene (a solvent for cleaning up spills with many other uses including removing certain adhesives, and thinning oil-based paints, epoxy, and other chemicals).

Many of the organochlorines are pesticides that have tainted crops, soils, surface waters, and other sources, making exposure widespread among people across the country. Although some organochlorines, like DDT were banned in the United States in 1972 (after a huge environmental movement began to halt indiscriminate use of the chemical because it was proven to be harmful to the environment), the breakdown chemical DDE is still widely used, and alarming amounts of DDT concentrations are still present in many locations, including some towns and national parks, and even lingering in our environment and tainting our food. Males who are exposed to these sources are at an extremely high risk of sperm abnormalities.

Chemicals such as xylene and painting materials (like paint thinners and varnishes) are used in occupations such as painting and printing. Toluene and benzene, along with xylene can be found in gasoline, and oil. While vehicle emissions can create exposure to these chemicals, professions in which production of nylon, plastic soda bottles, polyurethanes, cosmetic nail products, and dyes, among other things, also create an exposure risk.

In truth, there are chemicals that we come in contact with every day that prolonged exposure to can lead to sperm abnormalities that lower your sperm count, especially those resulting in low sperm counts and infertility. Generally, it takes long-term, intense exposure in an occupational environment for them to affect your sperm count, or put you at risk for abnormal sperm. Certain types of herbicides, though, may reduce your sperm count by causing difficulty in the function of the testicles, or potentially altering hormone systems in addition to lowering sperm counts. Even exposure to lead, cadmium, or certain heavy metals may affect the quality of the sperm in men who have had strong exposure to them. Men who have had only normal, or limited exposure to them do not show significant evidence of negative impacts on sperm counts.

While chemical exposure can definitely lead to abnormalities, even some that can result in infertility issues, for most chemicals, the exposure has to be intense in order to present noticeable sperm abnormalities.

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Betsy Smith

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