THE SPERM CRISIS first came to light about 20 years ago as the kind of light-hearted filler material that rounds out the evening news. Researchers compared sperm-counts studies from the 1930s with similar studies from the 1970s. They discovered that worldwide, men's average sperm count had declined by about 40 percent, from 120 million sperm cells per milliliter of semen to about 70 million. 

At the time, scientists had no idea why sperm counts might be declining. But there was no shortage of speculation. Counting techniques might have changed over 45 years. Or perhaps men had become more sexually active, leaving men with depleted reserves. Or maybe underwear was the culprit. Underwear? Yes: Sperm are heat sensi­tive and do not survive well at normal body temperature. That's why the scrotum hangs outside the body - to keep sperm cool. But since the early sperm­ count studies, tight-fitting jockey shorts have become more popular. They hold the scrotum unnaturally close to the body, possibly warming the testicles enough to reduce sperm counts. The reason for the sperm decline was a mystery, the TV news anchors intoned, but consider buying some boxers ... and stay tuned for sports and weather. 

But the levity surrounding the decrease in sperm counts took an ominous turn in 1979, when Ralph C. Dougherty, Ph.D., a professor of chemistry at Florida State University in Tallahassee, stumbled across unusually low sperm counts in young men attending FSU and traced the problem to contamination of their semen with toxic industrial chemicals: PCBs, pentachlorophenol, hexachlorobenzene, and the DDT breakdown products DOE and DDMU. His conclusion: toxic chemicals were to blame for the observed decline in sperm counts and might have something to do with increases in male infertility, testicular cancer, and genital abnormalities. 

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Paul Koberstein