Fabric and sex

11 08 2010

Whoa, caught your attention, didn’t I?  I’m actually not talking about the company that contacted us to provide organic fabrics for their sexy lingerie, but rather the ways our fabric choices (or rather the chemicals in them) can effect our reproductive systems.  Because many of the chemicals (i.e. chlorine, phthalates, PBDE’s) used in textile processing are those implicated in some alarming statistics,  it’s becoming important to know what’s in your fabrics.

Certain stats are indeed startling:   sperm counts for men in industrialized countries have been declining at a rate of 1% per year – every year since 1934! [1] Infertility affects between 5 – 10% of all couples.  Just two days ago, August 9, NPR’s All Things Considered reported on a new study published in the journal Pediatrics which found that puberty is coming earlier and earlier to young girls.   How much earlier?  In the United States in the early 1800s, breast buds and menarche arrived around ages 13 and 16 respectively. Those changes now come around ages 9 and a half and 12 and a half – sometimes as early as age 7.  Dr. Frank Biro, lead author of this study, was quoted in Time Magazine as speculating on the primary driver behind this shift:

may be overweight and obesity, because estrogen is sequestered in fat tissue. But environmental exposures to chemicals — including pesticides and endocrine-disrupting chemicals (EDCs) — could also play a role.”
And if current trends for the incidence of breast cancer continue at today’s rate, the granddaughter’s of these young girls could face a one in four chance of developing breast cancer, according to the Environmental Working Group.  Testicular and prostate cancers are also both on the rise – in fact, testicular cancer is the most common cancer in men age 15 to 35, and prostate cancer is the most common cancer among all U.S. men.

Dioxins are found in textile dyestuffs, in PCP treated cotton and are created by burning some textiles (incineration is often quoted as an offset for carbon footprint of synthetics) – among the many ways dioxins are used/created during the textile process.  Dioxins affect human health in many ways, and among them is the alteration of hormone levels.  In men, tiny levels of dioxin alter testosterone levels.  Dioxin at 80 parts per trillion in paternal blood causes a significant change in the sex ratio of children.  At this tiny dose, men father nearly twice as many girls as boys.

All this you might already know.  But I recently saw a study which threw a whole new light on these issues.  It was published in the journal Urological Research, and the lead author is Ahmed Shafik.  Dr. Shafik did a study about the effect of different types of textile fabrics on spermatogenesis.    He found that dogs who wore polyester underpants (and I could get really creative here but will spare you) had both a reduction in the number of sperm as well as an increase in abnormal sperm.

First sweathers, then underpants

You’ll be happy to hear that after removal, the sperm counts returned to normal.   Not sure that these results have been replicated (I wasn’t able to find more recent reports of polyester and sperm counts), but it points to another reason – if you’re still looking – for replacements for synthetics.


[1] Swan et al. 2000 – http://www.ewg.org/reports/bodyburden2/part3.php


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