7. “The Specter of Sterility”

by Project Censored
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The problem first came to light last year when some production workers at the Occidental Chemical Plant in Lathrop, California, were found to be sterile as a result of exposure to the pesticide DBCP. Various government agencies, including the Environmental Protection Agency and the Food and Drug Administration, swarmed over the case and wound up restricting domestic use of DBCP, which is applied to the soil to kill pests that destroy the roots of certain crops.

Next, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (N.I.O.S.H.) broadened the investigation to include other industrial compounds to determine their effects on male fertility. What they found was evidence that other agents might cause a reduction in sperm count. Some scientists involved in the project found scientific literature suggesting that the entire male population may have lower sperm counts today than it did thirty years ago. What gives this issue alarming urgency, is the mounting evidence that the average sperm count among American men has dropped by frightening percentages since a landmark study done twenty-seven years ago.

The probable causes are chemicals similar to DBCP-herbicides, fungicides, and other elements–which are known to decompose very slowly. Presumably they have worked their way up through the food chain and are finally poisoning man. By this logic, the male reproductive process (and most certainly the female) has been affected by industrial and agricultural poisons associated with modern America for the past thirty to fifty years.

“There is no question in my mind,” said Dr. Kenneth Bridbord of the Office of Extramural Coordination and Special Projects at N.I.O.S.H. in Washington,” but that this is a major problem facing the nation. I would not be surprised, based on the evidence we have looked at so far, to find that the declining sperm count represents a potential sterility threat to the entire male population. We do not know the seriousness of the threat at this time, but the DBCP findings may be just the beginning of it. What the government must do is reexamine everything we know about spermatogenesis and toxicity: If you look at fertility in America, it shows a decline in the late Fifties and Sixties which we have always assumed social and economic changes in American life were responsible for. But if our worst fears about the effects of toxins on male fertility are true, it isn’t too far afield to assume that the birthrate dropped then because of chemical inter­ference with testicular functioning. Had we asked the right kind of questions then, we mightn’t be in the fix we’re in today.”

The potential impact of widespread sterility and the lack of exposure given this problem in the mass media, qualifies this story for nomination as one of the “best censored” stories of 1978.


Esquire, April 11, 1978, p.30, “The Spectre of Sterility,” by Raymond M. Lane.