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BLOG: March 2007

Beef chemicals and infertility

A recent study at the University of Rochester Medical Center in New York concluded that mothers eating lots of beef while expecting, risk compromising fertility of their sons (CNN, BBC). Men born by mothers consuming more than 7 beef meals a week during pregnancy had three times higher incidence - nearly 18% - of sperm concentration below the WHO (World Health Organization) sub-fertility threshold.

While the study was retrospective, depending on mothers' recollection, the correlation between the level of beef consumption and sperm quality is consistent: the higher consumption, the lover average sperm count. No other food has shown positive correlation in this respect.

The main suspect for this effect of beef on fertility are synthetic hormones used as growth stimulants by beef industry. At present, it is still legal in the U.S. to use six hormonal growth promoters, among them steroids like testosterone, estrogen and progesterone. In the EU (European Union), they are banned for nearly two decades (since 1988).

Contamination of beef with pesticides and dioxins may also be a factor, both being estrogen mimics.

This shouldn't come as a surprise. Developing fetus is most vulnerable to toxic and potentially damaging chemicals, including those that we are commonly exposed to, and consider harmless. Levels of estrogen often found in tap water alone are not very much lower than those that have been found capable of affecting fetus, to the extent of causing birth defects.

One more chemical threat, not a subject of the above study, is another contaminant present in beef - and other meat products - namely antibiotics. Exposure to antibiotic from the earliest age may result in lowered effectiveness of future antibiotic treatments. And the always present risk is that antibiotic-containing meat will harbor antibiotic-resistant bacteria, which are serious danger for anyone, regardless of age.

Results of this study are just another reminder that our indiscriminate and often irresponsible use of chemicals everywhere from agriculture to industry, from household cleaners to personal care, and from food processing to pharmaceutical products, takes increasingly heavy toll on public health. We are just beginning to scratch the surface of their adverse effects, and there is certainly more to come.