A new Finnish study linking environmental toxins to reproductive problems in young men reminded me of the ongoing, three-decade-old toxic assault on children's health and a speech I gave in 1995. The place was the annual meeting of the Indiana Environmental Institute (IEI) in downtown Indianapolis. The occasion was the release of my first book. The topic was sperm.
Before the talk, I figured I would never again have the undivided attention of the cream of the state's environmental stakeholders -- leaders from Indiana industry, government, academia and citizen groups, almost all white males. So I decided targeting their testicles might get their attention and be something they just might remember. I built the speech around an article the New Yorker had just published about worldwide declines in sperm counts.
Among the most memorable parts of the experience for me was the opening anecdote, which I had crafted around another new book written by a fellow Indianapolis east sider named Gordon Durnil.
"Various studies have indicated increased infertility as well as cancers and other abnormalities in male reproductive systems. Human sperm counts have been reported to decline by 50 percent over the past 50 years." - Seventh Biannual Report, International Joint Commission, 1994
A half generation older than me, Gordon had followed a considerably different life path from mine. Lawyer, diplomat, former Indiana Republican Party chair and Republican National Committeeman were among the achievements on his book jacket.
I had moved to and stayed in Bloomington, where I had lived hand-to-mouth and had spent seven years living in the woods east and southeast of town. My resume included camera salesman and city bus driver. My professional track had led me to The Herald-Times daily newspaper as an environmental/political reporter, 12 years after I had graduated from college.
Durnil had witnessed the environmental light on toxic chemicals while serving as a George H.W. Bush appointee to the International Joint Commission, which oversees environmental quality on the U.S.-Canadian border. IU Press simultaneously published his book, The Making of a Conservative Environmentalist, and mine, Eternal Vigilance: Nine Tales of Environmental Heroism in Indiana, in fall 1995.
The Conservative Environmentalist was far more radical than Eternal Vigilance. In it Durnil says business executives who knowingly expose children to toxic chemicals should be jailed and suggests homosexuality could be caused by mothers' exposures to persistent toxic substances.
The moral of my opening: These two guys, writing these two books, at the same time and in the same place, should tell you guys something.
My enthusiasm for the intro, however, subsided some when I saw Gordon Durnil seated in the audience. The IEI speech was one of the first I had ever given and by far the biggest. To say I was nervous when I opened the floor for comments and Durnil rose as the first to speak would torture the term's meaning.
But to my great relief, and satisfaction, Indiana's conservative environmentalist applauded and confirmed the essence of my sperm-count tale. A new book on the subject, the now-classic Our Stolen Future, would soon be published, he said, urging everyone in the room to buy it.
A harbinger of the new 2011 University of Turku study, Durnil and the International Joint Commission's Seventh Biannual Report in 1994 reported and warned about sperm counts and cancer.
"Men from the general population of young Finns from the Turku area showed lower sperm counts in the most recent birth (sample) compared with only few years older (sample). Additionally, the younger and more recently born men also had higher incidences of testis cancer than the older generations." - University of Torku study, 2010
"Various studies have indicated increased infertility as well as cancers and other abnormalities in male reproductive systems," the report said. "Human sperm counts have been reported to decline by 50 percent over the past 50 years."
One detail I recall from my 1995 speech was confirmed by the new Finnish study, which was published in the International Journal of Andrology and reported on by the BBC on March 4, 2011. Historically, studies have shown Finnish men "have some of the highest sperm counts in the world," it says.
The University of Torku study, however, analyzed three groups of Finnish men who reached 19 between 1998 and 2006. And it found their sperm counts declining, from 227 million per milliliter for men born in 1979-81 to 202 million for men born in 1982-83 to 165 million for men born in 1987.
"Men from the general population of young Finns from the Turku area showed lower sperm counts in the most recent birth (sample) compared with only few years older (sample)," the study says. "Additionally, the younger and more recently born men also had higher incidences of testis cancer than the older generations."
Specifically, the study found rates of testicular cancer to be 8-10 times greater in Finnish men born around 1980 as compared with men born around 1950.
The Torku study also found "an increasing number of the young Finns had a sperm concentration below the new WHO (World Health Organization) reference level of 15 million/ml," which may be too low to reproduce "because the chances of achieving a pregnancy decrease with sperm concentrations below 40 million/ml."
Additionally, the study says, a 2002 study of fertile European men showed a "decrease in waiting time to pregnancy" with sperm concentration up to 55 million/ml. A 2001 American study showed "only men with a sperm concentration of more than 48 million/ml could be classified as having a normal fertility chance."
Taken together, all of this could spell reproductive problems for nearly half of the males in the youngest study sample, the study says. The 15 percent with less than 15 million/ml may have "difficulties in fathering children by natural means." The 28 percent with less than 40 million/ml "may experience a longer waiting time to pregnancy."
While the increases appeared to be more pronounced for men from the Torku area, where the semen quality study was undertaken than for the overall Finnish population, the study results have broader implications, its authors conclude.
"The currently young Finnish men in general may suffer from more reproductive health problems," they say.
The study authors said the "low sperm counts may be the result of both pre- and post-natal events." But while the factors causing the adverse trends in male reproductive health "remain elusive," they identified a culprit.
"Only environmental factors can explain the rapidly increasing trends in testicular cancer. Factors related to modern way of living may be involved, including exposure to modern industrial chemicals and pesticides." - University of Torku study, 2010
"Only environmental factors can explain the rapidly increasing trends in testicular cancer," they say. "Factors related to modern way of living may be involved, including exposure to modern industrial chemicals and pesticides."
Recent research has shown "fetal gonads are particularly vulnerable to endocrine disruption," they say.
Among the chemicals known to disrupt endocrine system function are persistent toxic chemicals of the types Gordon Durnil wrote about in 1995 and I still talk and write about, like pesticides, PCBs and mercury.
"The rapid rate of changes may suggest that the underlying causes are environmental and, as such, preventable," the authors conclude. "Our findings necessitate not only further surveillance of male reproductive health but also more research efforts to detect and remove the environmental factors which most likely are behind these findings."
I'm not sure I ever saw Gordon Durnil again after my 1995 speech. But IEI founder and president Bill Beranek, who had invited me to speak, became a regular lunch partner during my four years as the senior environmental writer at the Indiana Department of Environmental Management (IDEM), from 1996-2000.
Toward the end of my tenure at IDEM, I started a 501(c)(3) nonprofit through which I published an online daily newsletter called the Indiana Environmental Report. Beranek served on my board and helped solicit financial support.
IEI was funded largely by business interests. And over lunch one day, Beranek said some of them would contribute $800 a year to my nonprofit to purchase a subscription to Greenwire, a groundbreaking online environmental newsletter founded by former New York Times environmental reporter Philip Shabecoff.
Beranek told me some of them remembered my 1995 talk. Their recollections, he said, were that it had an "edge."
Steven Higgs can be reached at .