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Could The Handmaid's Tale come true?

13 July 2018
Blessed be the fruit, pollution may lead to infertility
Many of us share a quiet fear that the world is spiraling out of control, so when parallels can be drawn between the fictional world of Gilead and our present day, we’re left to question – could The Handmaid’s Tale come true?
Handmaid's Tale at Sydney Uni

Following the finale of what has become a cult classic adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel, some would say the dystopian depiction of modern America in The Handmaid's Tale tells a terrifying story of what may be yet to come - social dysfunction, toxic nuclear wastelands and the cessation of what is assumed to be natural to humans – the ability to procreate.

It would take weeks to find answers to all the questions of social commentary raised by this series, so we focused in on the fear of a future where the planet is in environmental chaos, newborn babies are nearing extinction and fertile women are enslaved to powerful infertile couples.

In the novel and series, the mass infertility plaguing the globe is linked to pollution and chemicals in produce; and when you consider that global fertility rates and sperm counts among western men have halved in the last 50 years, the desperation brought to life in the show is alarmingly imaginable. So we put the premise to the experts:

Could pollution lead to infertility?

Ambient air pollution affects everyone throughout our entire lifespan - womb to tomb. There is very strong evidence that air pollution reduces babies’ birthweight, and preterm birth, but the evidence of an impact on fertility is weaker. Large general population studies have shown couples who live in high air pollution areas have had more miscarriages. And in fertility clinic studies, couples living in more polluted areas also had fewer pregnancies than couples who live in less polluted areas. But it’s not just a female problem - studies have shown quality of sperm in men is also reduced when exposed to pollution. The evidence is supported by animal studies where mice exposed to pollution resulted in fewer pregnancies and reduced quality of sperm.

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Almost everything we experience throughout our lives influences our fertility. Even something as benign as living close to a busy road can increase the risk of negative pregnancy outcomes such as pre-eclampsia and premature birth. What’s more, the risks of exposure to pollution are not just a female issue - environmental effects can have a similar impact on male fertility. Interestingly, some animal species have shown they can be adaptive and prepare offspring to deal with adverse environmental conditions. For example, marine invertebrate mothers who are exposed to pollution can make pollution-resistant babies. Perhaps if humans were evolving at the same rate that we are polluting the planet we would be saved from a future like The Handmaid’s Tale.

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Individuals acting to their self-interest are spoiling the earth's natural resources such as air, water and habitable land. Studies have linked air pollution exposure to a broad range of adverse health effects including cardiovascular and respiratory disease, diabetes, atherosclerosis, adverse birth outcomes, as well as neurodevelopment and cognitive function. Evidence suggests that there is no safe threshold for air pollution exposure and even low levels of air pollution can affect health. A broad range of biological mechanisms that affect all functions, including procreation may be responsible for these health impacts. A recent review concluded that air pollution negatively impacts both sperm and egg cell production of men and women, which may also alter embryo development.

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The expert consensus says yes, it’s been proven that exposure to everyday types of pollution and chemicals - used in everything from agriculture to cosmetics – are already making it harder for men and women to conceive. The impacts on future generations are yet to be felt, which validates our fear, pollution may lead to infertility.

May the Lord open, indeed. 

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