Paracetamol and plastics fertility risk

A toxic cocktail of chemical pollutants measured in people’s bodies has been linked by new research to male infertility, an ‘astonishing’ new European study suggests.

Sperm counts have more than halved in the last 40 years. One culprit is daily exposure to a mix of hormone-disrupting chemicals – with the cocktail effect way more dangerous than any single substance.

Chemicals found in everyday things such as milk cartons, tinned tuna, till receipts and the painkiller, paracetamol reach the body, damaging sperm.

Toxicologists analysed levels of mixtures of bisphenols, dioxins, phthalates, and paracetamol in urine from Danish men aged between 18 and 30.

The study out today in the journal Environment International found every single man tested had levels higher than considered safe. Some even were 100 times higher than safe levels. And because key steps in male sexual development start in pregnancy, developing babies are most at risk.

Until now, studies into male infertility and chemical exposures have focused on phthalates. This new research reveals that bisphenols, polychlorinated dioxins and paracetamol affect infertility more.

“Most of the chemicals we considered together reach us via food,” said Professor Andreas Kortenkamp at Brunel University London. “A lot of bisphenol A intake is via milk. The linings of milk cartons and canned food, for example the tomato tins, leach BPA into the product.

“Some of the chemicals we looked at only stay in the body for a few hours, but because exposure is continuous, the internal concentrations are always topped up. This applies to bisphenols A, F, S and to the phthalates, as well as paracetamol. When they meet in the body, they each exert their toxicity, so the effect adds up.” 

But “apart from being careful with paracetamol, people can do relatively little to reduce exposures,” Professor Kortemkamp says. “The problem can only be tackled through better policy,”

France bans bisphenol A getting into contact with food, but the researchers want this ban rolled out to cover all bisphenols and all countries.

Leading toxicologists wrote to the journal, Nature in September urging expectant mothers to stop taking paracetamol in pregnancy and seek advice from their doctors. The 2021 review backed by 90 scientists said: “We recommend that pregnant women should be cautioned at the beginning of pregnancy to forgo paracetamol unless its use is medically indicated and consult with a physician or pharmacist if they are uncertain.”

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