Microplastics found in human penises: Sexual health impacts

By Katie Robinson | Fact-checked by Hale Goetz
Published July 1, 2024

Key Takeaways

  • In two recent studies, researchers detected microplastics in penises and testes for the first time.

  • Further research may indicate how microplastics affect sexual health, shedding light on possible links between the increasing levels of microplastics in the environment, increasing rates of erectile dysfunction, and reduced sperm counts.

  • Individuals may reduce microplastic exposure by making more thoughtful decisions regarding what they eat, drink, and what products they use.

Microplastics—plastic toxins measuring less than 5 mm in diameter—have been detected in both human penises and testes, according to two recent studies.

The findings raise concern about a potential link between these microplastics and dysfunction of the reproductive system.

“The impact on the younger generation might be more concerning” now that microplastics are more prevalent than ever before in our environment, said Xiaozhong ‘John’ Yu, MD, PhD, MPH, a professor at the University of New Mexico College of Nursing.[] Dr. Yu led a study published in Toxicological Sciences that found the presence of 12 types of microplastics in every human and canine subject’s testes during autopsies.

Microplastics and sperm counts

When exposed to sunlight, plastics in landfills degrade, forming microplastics that could be blown by the wind or absorbed into nearby waterways.[] Measured in nanometers—a billionth of a meter—these tiny particles can penetrate seafood, sea salt, and bottled drinks.[] Along with ingestion, exposure to microplastics occurs through inhalation and skin contact.

According to the Endocrine Society, the global production of plastics, which contain endocrine-disrupting chemicals, has increased annually from 50 million tons to 300 million tons since the 1970s.[] At the same time, sperm counts have declined in some countries, including the US, by as much as 50% over the past 50 years.

Dr. Yu noted the individuals in his autopsy study had died at around age 35, suggesting that their exposure to plastic began decades ago, when less plastic existed in the environment.[]

Decoding the studies

When Dr. Yu and colleagues examined tissue from the New Mexico Office of the Medical Investigator, which collects tissue during autopsies, they found 12 types of microplastics in all 23 testes tested.[] The average concentration of microplastics found was around 328 micrograms per gram. The most frequent plastic detected was polyethylene, which is used to make plastic bags and bottles.

As the levels of specific plastics, such as polyvinyl chloride (PVC) and polyethylene terephthalate (PET), increased, a healthy weight of the testes was less likely.[]

“The plastic makes a difference—what type of plastic might be correlated with potential function. PVC can release a lot of chemicals that interfere with spermatogenesis and it contains chemicals that cause endocrine disruption,” Dr. Yu said.

Meanwhile, a small study published in IJIR: Your Sexual Medicine Journal detected microplastics in penises.[] The researchers analyzed penis tissue samples taken from six individuals undergoing surgery to implant an inflatable penile prosthesis for erectile dysfunction. The samples were taken from the corpus spongiosum, a column of spongy tissue that contains blood vessels and runs through the shaft and head of the penis.[] It fills with blood to help form an erection and keep the urethra open during the erection.

Microplastics were identified in 80% of the samples, ranging from 2 micrograms to 500  micrograms. Seven types of microplastics were found, with PET and polypropylene being the most prevalent.

“The detection of [microplastics] in penile tissue raises inquiries on the ramifications of environmental pollutants on sexual health,” the IJIR authors wrote. "Our research adds a key dimension to the discussion on man-made pollutants, focusing on microplastics in the male reproductive system.”

Reducing exposure

The Endocrine Society recommends ways to reduce exposure to endocrine-disrupting chemicals found in plastics, such as minimizing the consumption of processed foods, using filtered rather than bottled water, and washing fruit and vegetables before eating.[]

They also recommend individuals avoid storing plastic-packaged foods in hot areas and cooking food in plastic containers. Consumers should also take note of the labels for PVC on shower curtains, flooring, furniture, and clothing.

“We don’t want to scare people,” Dr. Yu said.[] “We want to scientifically provide the data and make people aware there are a lot of microplastics. We can make our own choices to better avoid exposures, change our lifestyle and change our behavior.”

What this means for you

Researchers detected microplastics in penises and testes, highlighting the need for further research to understand how microplastics might affect sexual health. The findings coincide with the increasing level of plastics in the environment and reduced sperm counts. However, by deciding what and how we consume, and which products we use, individuals can reduce their exposure to microplastics.

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