Hey, guys: You might want to put down that apple you're eating, and slowly back away.
A new study by doctors at the Harvard School of Public Health, appearing in the most recent issue of the journal Human Reproduction, demonstrates that men who eat produce with high levels of pesticide residues may be less fertile. As ranked by the Environmental Working Group, which uses data collected by the US Department of Agriculture, the fruits and vegetables that carry the highest levels of pesticide include apples, strawberries, celery, and spinach, while corn, avocados, and pineapples contain very low levels of the chemicals (guess that tropical fruit salsa is still a good snacking option).
The study examined the eating habits of 155 men without asking them to change anything about their diets. Men who consumed the highest amounts of high-pesticide produce were compared to men who ate the highest amounts of low-pesticide fruits and vegetables. And the results are stark: they show that men in the former category have sperm counts that are a full 50 percent lower than men in the latter category. And men who eat a lot of pesticide residues are also much more likely to produce sperm that's abnormally shaped.
Dr. Jorge E. Chavarro, one of the study's eight authors, told MUNCHIES that initially, he was skeptical that the study would demonstrate a clear correlation between pesticide consumption and sperm count. Though many studies over the past few years have attempted to show such a link, they've proven inconclusive, Chavarro said.
"Occupational exposure to pesticides—the kind that manufacturers of these chemicals get, as well as agricultural workers who are exposed to pesticides on a daily basis—has proven to be extremely harmful," he said. "But when it comes to ingestion of pesticide residues by the general population, there's been very little evidence of harm to humans."
When asked if the results of the study make a compelling argument for men to avoid high-pesticide produce, Chavarro replied that response can fall into one of two camps.
"One camp is to be skeptical and do nothing, and that's a perfectly reasonable response," he noted. "This is the first time that this link has been conclusively demonstrated, and maybe the next study on it will show no link at all."
"But there's also the 'better safe than sorry' camp," Chavarro said. "People might be better off buying organic produce, or, when eating conventional produce, favoring fruits and vegetables that are low in pesticide residues."
The mechanisms by which pesticides harm sperm aren't fully understood. But according to Niels Skakkebaek, a fertility expert at the University of Copenhagen, the chemicals have been engineered to kill living organisms. Therefore, it's not surprising that they could alter the structure of the germ cells that produce sperm and eggs, Skakkebaek told Newsweek on Monday.
Speaking of eggs, Chavarro said that he and other researchers have long been interested in the effects of the consumption of pesticide residues on women, but noted that it's faster to see results in men. Nevertheless, he said, he hoped to have some results in the near future.
In advance of those studies, ladies, you might want to avoid common high-pesticide culprits such as peaches, grapes, and potatoes, too.