The Actual Threat to Humanity We Should Talk About
Sunday, October 8th, 2023
This week’s core story is about: Declining sperm counts.
KNEAD TO KNOW
A new report by the U.N. Children’s Fund found more than 43 million children worldwide were internally displaced by weather-related disasters between 2016 and 2021, equivalent to around 20,000 child displacements per day. The report found almost all (95%) of the displacements were driven by floods and storms, though droughts and wildfires were also significant contributors. The report projects some 113 million children will be internally displaced over the next three decades.
A new report by OpenSecrets, a nonprofit tracking money in politics, found lobbying spending across all industries in the first two federal lobbying quarters reached $2.1 billion, surpassing 2022’s record by $86.6 million. The report found midyear lobbying was led by the pharmaceuticals/health products industry, which spent $193 million, followed by electronic manufacturing and equipment ($119 million), insurance ($84 million), securities and investment ($73 million), and air transportation ($69 million).
A new report by the California Department of Water Resources (DWR) found the state just experienced a “miracle” water year (October 1 to September 30), receiving 141% of average statewide precipitation after three consecutive years of drought. The report found statewide rainfall totaled 33.56 inches the past water year, nearly twice the amount from the previous water year and almost three times the amount from the year prior. “This was as close to a miracle year as you can get following the intensity of drought conditions,” said DWR director Karla Nemeth.
A new study by researchers from the U.S. Geological Survey found ancient footprints at White Sands National Park in New Mexico are around 23,000 to 21,000 years old, affirming a 2021 study by the same team that suggested the tracks are the oldest human footprints in North America. The researchers used a dating technique suggested by other scientists in a rebuttal to the 2021 paper, finding the updated methodology produced similar results as their original technique. The finding is significant as it was previously believed the first people in North America arrived around only 13,000 years ago.
The Actual Threat to Humanity We Should Talk About
Science Photo Library
Falling sperm counts have become a global issue, serving as a “canary in a coal mine” for a problem researchers say we can’t continue to ignore.
Heads up: This story was originally written in February and never published in The Bagel. I’m a one-man show here and have been dealing with some personal matters (everything is fine!) that prevented me from writing a Core Story this week. I apologize and will be back at it next week!
Spend any amount of time online nowadays and you won’t be surprised to come across a doomsayer listing their favorite ways the world could end. The lists are often skewed by the author's own worldview and experiences, and typically offer some variation of at least one of the classics, like nuclear war or climate change.
Sometimes the lists are conspiratorial, whether clownishly or convincingly, and sometimes they're informative, giving you new reasons to be anxious about a thing you truly have no control over. In the end, the lists usually aren't all that compelling, more often reading like one person's vendetta against a racial or ethnic group than anything truly persuasive.
This article isn't one of those. This article isn't about a wild ideation of some thing or some group that’s secretly driving the world toward annihilation. Rather, it's about a real and ongoing threat to humanity: falling sperm counts.
What the research says:
Our story begins in 2017, when a team of researchers led by Hagai Levine at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem published the results of the first systematic review and meta-regression analysis of trends in sperm count. The team screened 7,500 studies relying on data from 1973 to 2011, eventually finding men’s sperm concentration and total sperm counts had declined by 52% and 59%, respectively, in North America, Europe, Australia, and New Zealand.
The study was a revelation. Levine called it “an urgent wake-up call” for researchers and governments, one with important public health implications. It spawned countless articles in mainstream media, most of which quoted outside researchers who described the findings much like Levine did.
While the study didn’t investigate or offer any possible causes of the decline, it noted declines had previously been plausibly associated with environmental and lifestyle factors, like prenatal chemical exposure, adult pesticide exposure, smoking, stress, and obesity. Therefore, the team speculated, “sperm count may sensitively reflect the impact of the modern environment on male health across the lifespan and serve as a ‘canary in the coal mine’ signaling broader risks to male health.”
In contrast to the Western countries, the 2017 study didn’t find a decline in sperm concentration or counts in South America, Asia, and Africa, where far fewer studies had been conducted.
Well, Levine and his team are back with another study, this time finding that men in those regions indeed share the declines in sperm concentration and total sperm counts that the 2017 study found among men in Western countries. The researchers say their study is the first to show such declines among men in South America, Asia, and Africa.
Like their previous study, the researchers again didn’t investigate or offer any possible causes of the decline, though they pointed to recent research indicating disturbances in the development of the reproductive tract during fetal life are linked to lifetime reduction of fertility and other markers of reproductive dysfunction.
This time around, Levine described the findings more drastically: “Our findings serve as a canary in a coal mine. We have a serious problem on our hands that, if not mitigated, could threaten humankind's survival. We urgently call for global action to promote healthier environments for all species and reduce exposures and behaviors that threaten our reproductive health."
Other researchers caution that nailing down definitive proof of declining sperm counts is difficult, since they’re inherently hard to capture. “Counting sperm, even with the gold standard technique of [the laboratory process] haemocytometry, is really difficult,” said Allen Pace, a professor of andrology at the University of Sheffield, who wasn’t involved in the study. “I believe that over time we have simply got better at it because of the development of training and quality control programmes around the world. I still think this is much of what we are seeing in the data.”
Levine, for his part, dismisses those concerns, saying the decline has been more pronounced in recent years.
Why it matters:
While it’s not yet clear what’s causing the apparent trend, it’s at least something health officials should take seriously.
We can’t be a society that laments the end of humanity when a group we don’t like gets something we don’t think they should have, only to bury our heads in the sand when it comes to an actual threat to us all. We can’t be an economy rife with gurus and influencers inundating our timelines with the newest health trends, only to ignore a real public health trend that actually threatens humankind. And we can’t sit idle while the trend drives itself toward immutability.
“The troubling declines in men's sperm concentration and total sperm counts at over 1% each year as reported in our paper are consistent with adverse trends in other men's health outcomes, such as testicular cancer, hormonal disruption, and genital birth defects, as well as declines in female reproductive health.” said study author Shanna Swan. “This clearly cannot continue unchecked."
Dads May Experience Postpartum Depression
A new study by researchers at the University of Illinois Chicago found new dads can experience postpartum depression, potentially impacting their partner’s health. The pilot study included 24 dads who were assessed for postpartum depression using the same tool commonly used to screen moms, finding 30% screened positive.
“A lot of dads are stressed. They're scared. They're struggling with balancing work and parental and partner responsibilities,” said lead author Sam Wainwright. “Men are often not doing well, but no one is asking them about it.”
The findings suggest dads can and should be screened for postpartum depression, particularly considering how impactful it can be on their partner’s mental health. “A woman at risk for postpartum depression is much more likely to get postpartum depression if she has a depressed partner," said Wainwright.
Child Gun Deaths and Fatal Poisonings Have Surged Over the Past Decade
A new study by researchers at Boston’s Children Hospital found fatal injury rates among U.S. children and teenagers under 18 have surged over the past decade, led by increases in firearm deaths (87% increase) and drug poisonings (133%).
The study also found large decreases in nonfatal injuries in several other categories, including declines in injuries from overexertion (67% decrease), falls (53%), and car accidents (47%).
The researchers say the disparity between fatal and nonfatal injuries could be driven by differences in relevant safety measures over the study period, like car safety measures (e.g., mandatory seat belts, booster seats, and airbags) which have become standard across the U.S. “The opposite is happening with firearms,” said lead author Rebekah Mannix. “It’s just getting worse, and kids are dying at higher rates from firearms.”
Carbrook Golf Club; Getty
Sharks Lived in a Golf Course Pond for 20 Years Before Vanishing
A recent study by a researcher at Ruhr University Bochum in Germany examines the bizarre story of a group of juvenile bull sharks that got stranded in a pond at the Carbrook Golf Club outside of Brisbane, Australia in the 1990s. The sharks lived and thrived in the pond for decades before vanishing.
The study found the sharks were likely washed inland during periods of flooding at the Logan and Albert rivers, which lie adjacent to the golf course. During periods of flooding, water would breach the banks of the river and sweep inland, bringing sharks (and likely other species) along for the ride. As the water receded, the sharks became stranded.
The sharks ended up in the pond some time between 1990 and 1991, and were first detected in 1996. The sharks were last seen in 2015, two years after a 2013 flood may have allowed some to escape back into the nearby rivers. The study author also believes some of the sharks may have simply died and sank.
$7 billion - The amount of cryptocurrency that has been laundered through “cross-chain crime,” according to a new report by blockchain analytics firm Elliptic. Cross-chain crime refers to the swapping of cryptoassets between different blockchains or tokens in rapid succession with no legitimate business purpose. Elliptic says cross-chain crime is on pace to become the dominant means of laundering cryptoassets, finding $2.7 billion was laundered through such means between July 2022 and July 2023 alone.
1.2 miles - The estimated height of a massive twister roaming across the Martian surface on August 30. NASA’s Perseverance Rover captured footage of the twister as it swept through a nearby ridge for 84 seconds. In the video, the twister reaches a maximum height of about 387 feet, though NASA scientists used its shadow to estimate its true height at more than a mile; five times taller than the Empire State Building.
10,000 - The estimated number of pre-Columbian structures that could be hidden beneath the Amazon Rain Forest, according to a new study by researchers at Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research. The estimates come after the team identified 24 new archaeological sites using a laser system mounted on an aircraft, allowing the scientists to reconstruct highly detailed three-dimensional models of surface elements.
125 - The number of mammal species that show some form of fluorescence, according to a new study by researchers at the Western Australian Museum. Fluorescence happens when energy from UV light is absorbed by certain chemicals which then emit visible light. Prior to the present study, fluorescence was known to be common among animals, particularly birds, reptiles, amphibians, and fish, though it was observed less frequently in mammals.
Long Video. Learn about Soul City, the planned anti-racist town located in the American South. (18 min)
Short Video. The science behind whether mosquitoes actually bite some people more than others. (5 min)
Fun Video. You’ve seen the Sphere, so check out more megaprojects under construction in Las Vegas. (10 min)
Good Read. Learn the story of Jack Trice, the namesake of the only Division 1 football stadium to bear the name of a Black man. (1,978 words; 10 min)
Neat List. The 10 best science and tech podcasts, according to NewScientist.
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Written by Ryan Wittler