Environmental Issues Taking Toll on Men: Are Guys Biologically ‘Weaker’ than Women?

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Declining rates of male newborns hints to the vulnerability of the “stronger” half of our species. And research indicates that males may even be more vulnerable than women to environmental issues such as chemical pollutants.

According toAlice Shabecoff, coauthor of “Poisoned for Profit: How Toxins Are Making Our Children Chronically Ill,” there arebasic biological weaknesses” that are “built into the male of our species.” And it may be why the rate of newborn males is on the decline. “Examining U. S. records of births for the years between 1970 and 1990, [the researchers] found 1.7 fewer boys per 1,000 than in decades and centuries past; Japan’s loss in the same decades was 3.7 boys.” Premature births and infant death rates are also higher among boys.

Biological weaknesses inherent in the male DNA, notes Shabecoff, “leave [males] more vulnerable than girls to life’s hazards, including environmental pollutants such as insecticides, lead and plasticizers that target their brains or hormones,” which our modern world is overflowing with. The environmental issues a newborn male faces today are unparalleled in human history.

A recent study published by the Lancet Neurology added six common chemicals to a list (now totaling 11) that the study authors dubbed “a global, silent pandemic” leading to cognitive disorders including autism, ADHD and dyslexia. Autism is as much as five times more likely to affect boys than girls, according to the CDC. And notes Shabecoff, “Several studies suggest that boys are harmed in some ways by these chemical exposures that girls are not. It’s man’s fate, so to speak.”

Health problems connected with lead exposure are more common and severe among boys, and says Shabecoff, “Boys also suffer from asthma at higher rates. There’s also a stronger link between air pollution and autism in boys.”

Why are boys so susceptible to so many health issues? “The answer is that the male’s problems start in the womb,” says Shabecoff. “From his more complicated fetal development, to his genetic makeup, to how his hormones work.”

The complications related to the XY chromosome put men at a greater disadvantage than women. “The complicated transformation in utero from female to male exposes the male to a journey packed with special perils,” notes Shabecoff. “The simpler female reproductive system has to turn into the more complex male reproductive tract, developing tissues such as the testis and prostate. Further, it takes a greater number of cell divisions to make a male; with each comes the greater risk of an error as well as the greater vulnerability to a hit from pollutants.”

And with the number of environmental pollutants we’re exposed to these days, the fragile male system is being bombarded with threats. Insecticide exposure, like chloropyrifos, which was used inside homes until a ban in 2001, to those chemicals used in our agriculture system, can have a more intense and debilitating effect on boys. Shabecoff notes that researchers seem to suspect the endocrine-disrupting effects that can make boys more sensitive to the chemicals and suffer lower IQs and other cognitive impairments as a result.

Shabecoff says that pregnant mothers who are exposed to phthalates—chemicals found in a number of personal care products and vinyl—has been linked to behavioral issues, “such as aggression and attention problems,” more so in boys than in girls. And phthalates may also feminize male genitalia.

BPA is also a risk factor, particularly in utero, notes Shabecoff. The chemical common in plastics, canned goods and thermal register receipts has been connected with “more hyperactivity, aggression and anxiety problems,” in boys. “In addition, pregnant women exposed to higher levels of the chemical gave birth to baby boys with lower thyroid hormones. No such effect was detected in the baby girls,” says Shabecoff.

All this points to more reasons for regulations of chemicals. The EPA just announced some restrictions on pesticide and herbicide spraying, and BPA is being voluntarily removed from many products. The EPA has enforced bans on BPA from certain baby products, which is critical, notes Shabecoff, because “[male] vulnerability to environmental contaminants and diseases could have serious ramifications for the future of the entire human race unless we find ways to protect them from harm.”

Find Jill on Twitter @jillettinger

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Image: Steve Koukoulas