Review: Count Down presents a grim, plastic-coated view of humanity’s infertile future

Does it ever seem like people are having a harder and harder time conceiving children? Do men seem less “manly” than they used to be (so-called “soy boys”)? Many of us have laughed at conspiracy theorists screaming about how “they’re turning the fricking frogs gay,” but there is something to it after all, and it threatens the entire human race.

The title Count Down: How Our Modern World Is Threatening Sperm Counts, Altering Male and Female Reproductive Development, and Imperiling the Future of the Human Race says it all. Authors Shannah H. Swan, Ph.D., and Stacey Colino clearly lay out a case that by 2050, it’s very probable that humans will be unable to procreate naturally due to pervasive, endocrine-disrupting chemicals in our environment.

The book claims that fewer and fewer males are being born, and the men being born have lower testosterone levels, lower sperm counts, and small genitals. Meanwhile, women are having periods at younger ages, losing eggs at alarming rates, and suffering miscarriages and other fertility woes. And all of those conditions are linked to overall weaker health.

Scenarios like this have long been presented in fiction, in the book and TV series The Handmaid’s Tale, comic series Y: The Last Man, and the film Children of Men.

More: Children of Men is one of the best movies for preppers

What is happening to the human race, why, and what can you do about it? While it’s one of the most depressing books I’ve ever read, Count Down is essential reading.

Dr. Swan recently sat down for an interview with Joe Rogan that offers a bit more color.

The book itself

Dr. Shawna Swan isn’t some lunatic. She is the leading environmental and reproductive epidemiologist at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai (a top 20 hospital), with over 30 years of experience studying fertility and the environmental causes affecting it.

In fact, when first presented with studies showing these problems, she was skeptical. But that skepticism gave way to curiosity that led to decades of research into these alarming and species-threatening trends.

Despite her deep scientific background, the book is far from dry, likely thanks to the input of her coauthor, journalist Stacey Colinio. The book will overload you with facts, figures, and data points, but it’s never boring, which is quite an accomplishment for such a data-packed tome.

The book itself also isn’t that long. It totals 304 pages, but much of that consists of extensive footnotes and a 40-page (!) bibliography citing dozens of studies and other sources.

All in all, it’s a brisk read, though I found myself often having to take breaks because the information presented is so overwhelming and depressing.

The data behind rising infertility

Much of Count Down makes the case for a steady rise in infertility. Here are some of the concerning data points from the book:

  • Adverse reproductive changes are steadily increasing by 1% per year in both men and women
    • Sperm counts are declining by 1% per year
    • Miscarriages in women are increasing by 1% per year
    • Testosterone levels have been declining by 1% per year since 1982
    • Gestational surrogacy has been increasing 1 percent per year between 1999 and 2013
  • Sperm counts have dropped 50 percent in the past forty years, and continue to drop
  • The sperm count decline is “steep, significant, and continuing, with no sign of tapering off”
  • Lower infertility is linked to not only a lower birth rate but increased risk of diseases and death for both men and women
    • The decline in sperm counts and increase in fertility problems is linked to higher rates of obesity
  • Worldwide fertility dropped by 50 percent between 1960 and 2015
  • In some parts of the world, women are less fertile at age 20 than their grandmothers were at age 35
    • In the first decade of the 20th century, women over age 30 in Denmark had higher fertility rates than women under 30 had between 1949 and 2014
  • It’s not just the Western world that’s affected. In China, the percentage of eligible sperm donors dropped from 56 percent in 2001 to 18 percent in 2015.
  • Other problems are occurring as well: lower sex drives, erectile dysfunction, fish and frogs changing sex, and homosexual behavior in turtles
    • 26 percent of men displaying erectile dysfunction are now under age 40
    • A study of more than 1.3 million Israeli teenage boys found that incidents of varicocele (a sort of varicose vein in the scrotum) more than doubled between 1967 and 2010
    • A study of 7,000 women in Canada found a more than threefold increase between 1996 and 2008 in the number of women between the ages of 18 and 24 diagnosed with endometriosis
  • In 2017, the total birth rate for women in the United States was 16% below replacement rates

Additionally, male children are being born with smaller genitals, and girls are having periods at younger and younger ages.

The suspected causes

The book delves into many causes of infertility. Some are fairly standard, such as diet, weight, and smoking (both tobacco and marijuana). But none of those are satisfactory answers for the current trends. The number of eligible sperm donors declined from 69 percent in 2003 to 44 percent in 2013, despite declines in alcohol use, smoking, and body weight, and an increase in exercise.

Dr. Swan homes in on a wide assortment of Endocrine Disrupting Chemicals (EDCs), which include many plastics and plasticizers — particularly phthalates — as well as fire retardants, insecticides, herbicides, and fungicides. Additionally, our waterways are chock full of prescription drugs like birth control hormones that act as EDCs.

EDCs interfere with the normal function of the body’s endocrine system, which controls hormone function. EDCs can have profound effects on gender and sexual identity in developing brains.

Some of the data points about EDCs:

  • Unlike many toxins, EDCs can damage reproductive health even in small doses
  • These chemicals can be found all over your house: in your flooring, children’s toys, electronics, in dust, and even in your water
  • The most concerning chemicals are phthalates, bisphenol A (BPA), flame retardants, and pesticides
    • Phthalates are found in plastic and vinyl, flooring, medical devices, toys, and many personal hygiene products
    • The chemicals most damaging to males are di-2-ethylhexyl phthalate (DEHP), dibutyl phthalate (DBP), and butyl benzyl phthalate (BBzP), which are set to be phased out in Europe but not the United States.
    • BPA is especially damaging to women. Pregnant women with high levels of BPA in their blood have an 83 percent higher risk of miscarriage during the first trimester.
  • Prenatal exposure to antiandrogenic phthalates can reduce the size of male genitals
  • Chemicals like polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDE) can be passed to infants through the mother’s milk
  • Premenopausal women who had the highest concentrations of DEHP metabolite were 2.5 times more likely to report a low interest in sexual activity
  • One theory suggests that in utero exposure to EDCs, especially phthalates, are linked with an increased risk of autism and gender dysphoria
  • Males exposed to antiandrogenic chemicals in the womb, like dibutyl phthalate and acetaminophen (Tylenol), show more female behaviors over time
  • There is a link between prenatal exposure to pesticides and phthalates and a higher risk of external genital malformation in male newborns
  • A 2014 study in the Netherlands found a link between exposure to dioxins and PCBs and feminine behavior in boys and masculine behavior in girls
  • Another study showed a link in monkeys between prenatal exposure to BPA and more female behavior in males
  • In rats, a link has been found between EDCs and lower testosterone levels and disruptions to male genital development
  • Acetaminophen (Tylenol) has testosterone-lowering effects
  • Industry often practices what’s called “regrettable substitution,” where one harmful chemical is replaced with another. Such as replacing DEHP with diisononyl phthalate and BPA with bisphenol S in “BPA free” products, even though the new chemicals are just as harmful.

What you can do

The reality is that most of us are living in a sea of these EDCs, and only so much can be done until there is strong regulatory action to not only ban these chemicals but to become more proactive about keeping them from getting into the environment in the first place. Unfortunately, even if such action is taken, many of these chemicals are “forever chemicals” that will always be in our environment.

I don’t want to give you a sense of hopelessness or paranoia. Remember the 80-20 principle of prepping. Focus on easy actions that can have a big impact on your EDCs levels while not making yourself crazy.

Here are some of the recommendations from Count Down:

  • Use a countertop water filter to remove chemicals from your drinking water
  • Limit fast-food consumption. Fast food is often contaminated with phthalates.
  • Focus on fresh, organic foods
    • A Berkley study found that eating organic food for one week reduces the levels of 13 pesticide metabolites in your body
    • Packaged foods are often contaminated with phthalates
  • Make sure to wash strawberries, spinach, kale, nectarines, apples, and grapes, which are the fruits and vegetables most contaminated with pesticides. Rinse thoroughly with tap water, no special cleanser required.
  • Use the apps Detox Me and the Environmental Working Group’s Healthy Living App to identify harmful products and better replacements
  • Switch to glass or metal food containers and never microwave plastic
  • Switch out nonstick cookware for cast iron
  • Don’t drink from plastic bottles. Get a glass or stainless bottle and keep it with you.
  • Inspect all of your cleaning products and dump any with warnings like “danger, warning, poison, or fatal” on the label
  • Dust frequently. Household dust often contains EDCs.
  • Avoid handling receipts printed on thermal paper since it contains BPA
  • Get rid of mothballs, antibacterial soap, air fresheners, and scented candles
  • Switch to personal care products labeled organic, like makeup, toothpaste, skin cream, soap, shampoo, sunscreen, etc.
    • A study found that when teenage girls switched to personal care products free of phthalates, parabens, triclosan, and benzophenone-3, the concentrations of those chemicals declined in their urine by 27 to 44 percent in just three days.
  • Dump your vinyl shower curtain for one made from cotton, linen, or hemp
  • When replacing floors and furniture, opt for natural materials like wood and tile, and ones that do not have chemical treatments.

In short: choose natural materials, eat organic, and filter your water. However, not every kind of plastic is bad for you. The book offers this rhyme to remember: “4, 5, 1, and 2, all the rest are bad for you,” referring to the plastic recycling symbols you can usually find on plastic containers. Plastics labeled 3 and V, or anything with a PVC label, contains phthalates.

Plastic recycling numbers
Examples of plastic labels. Both of these are 4, so they should be safe.

More: Review: Force of Nature’s DIY at-home disinfectant

Keeping things in perspective

When we introduced our online video course about water survival, we used an image from the course showing that you can boil water in a plastic water bottle. A lot of people got angry about that because of the general knowledge that plastic has bad chemicals that leach out with heat.

But you know what’s even worse for you? Giardia and dehydration, for starters. Likewise, if you rip all of the laminate out of your house and go into debt buying hardwood floors, you’re not doing yourself any favors.

Reading about all the chemical threats and their severe consequences was overwhelming, but there’s an old cliche I’ve often found helpful: “How do you eat an elephant? A bite at a time.” That is to say when faced with an overwhelming task, like prepping or building up a homestead, break an enormous task down into small, doable ones, and steadily complete them. Over time, you can make more progress than you ever imagined.

That’s going to be my strategy for reducing exposure to these chemicals: slowly and steadily reducing my family’s exposure to these chemicals for the sake of my children, both born and unborn.


    • Cia

      Occurrences like fertility being higher in Danish women over thirty between 2000 and 2010 than in women under thirty during that same time period doesn’t show infertility in younger women, but that they either remained outside relationship for longer or used birth control. The same for the overall decline in the number of children. Again, from preference for many aspects of a small family or concern about overpopulation.

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      • Josh CentersContributor Cia

        Fair point, but the overall data shows a number of changes that aren’t voluntary.

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    • Hardened

      This sentence is missing its tail: “When replacing floors and furniture, opt for natural materials like wood and tile, or products labeled as being”

      When we moved into our house I replaced all of the carpet with natural linoleum at the suggestion of the EWG.

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    • mopdx

      I had to laugh at the “soy boys” term–I guess they’re similar to them “children of seitan.” 😉

      Excellent analysis and writing, as always. Enjoy reading your posts, Josh! 

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    • Lindsey ⚜

      Very informative. Thank you highlighting the findings and for providing actions that we can take to protect ourselves and our families.

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    • CR

      Great post! Millennials and Gen Z couples are certainly having issues. We’ve heard of a number of young couples in our circle with fertility difficulties and miscarriages. Quite rare years 30 or so ago. I appreciated your mention of tips to mitigate ongoing exposure to potentially harmful products. 

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    • TraceContributor

      Great information from an interesting prepper angle (I can imagine it’s getting hard to find new topics to write on!). I’ve been concerned about this for some time. Between the environmental/EDC aspects, and the manipulating of DNA (I can only imagine the unintended consequences of infertility when we start changing DNA to create “designer babies”). I remember watching ‘Children of Men’ and wondering if that was how the human race would end — not with a huge explosion, just with an inability to continue.

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