The book—spoiler!—explains that stillbirths, miscarriages, and birth defects all rose thanks to sexually transmitted diseases, as well as pesticides and leaks from nuclear power plants and stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons.
The nuclear-plant accidents in question would have to be pretty awful for them to cause widespread, permanent infertility. As in, worse than Chernobyl. International reports on the aftermath of Chernobyl found “no effects on fertility, numbers of stillbirths, adverse pregnancy outcomes or delivery complications.”
Eli Glatstein, a professor of radiation oncology at the University of Pennsylvania, said the extent to which radiation could affect fertility would depend on the age of the women nearby. “If a woman is close to menopause, it doesn’t take much to knock the rest of her fertility out,” he said. For women in their 20s, it would take a lot.
It would also depend on what kinds of isotopes are released in the nuclear accident, and where the fallout lands. If it gets into the groundwater, people could potentially ingest it, and it could damage most of their organs. But, Glatstein says, most nuclear isotopes don’t “home in” on the reproductive organs. The thyroid, for example, collects radioactive iodine, which is why one of the health concerns experts worry about most after accidents like Chernobyl is thyroid cancer.
And, for what it’s worth, Glatstein said, “testes are generally more sensitive than ovaries to radiation.” So perhaps we should have hand-men instead.
But there’s also evidence that more mundane types of pollution, such as vehicle exhaust and toxic substances in our homes, can affect fertility. A study last year by Shruthi Mahalingaiah, a researcher at Boston University School of Medicine, found that women who live within a tenth of a mile of a major roadway are 11 percent more likely to have problems conceiving than those who live further away. A review paper published last year found a small but significant association between exposure to traffic-related pollution and miscarriages and problems conceiving.
The culprits are the particulate matter, volatile compounds, and other chemicals found in exhaust, which experts say can disrupt the endocrine system—and thus, the delicate hormonal balancing act that must play out near-perfectly for a successful pregnancy. Air pollution might also reduce sperm quality and hurt the embryo at critical periods in its development, and it can increase the odds of preterm birth, which, in turn, carries the risk of birth defects.
And it isn’t just air pollution. Earlier research found that couples took about 20 percent longer to conceive if they were exposed to high levels of flame retardants or polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, an old class of chemicals that can still be found in some types of paints and finishes.