Mumbai: The next time you find yourself at the vegetable and fruit aisle inside a supermarket, gazing at the dozens of shiny, plump apples and perfectly purple brinjals, think about your fertility. That's right. A recent test in the UK suggests that pesticides found in fruits and vegetables could damage fertility in men.

The study carried out by scientists from the University of London's School of Pharmacy found 30 of the 37 crop chemicals tested interfered with the action of testosterone, a decisive hormone in the male reproductive system.

 Alarmingly, a surprise check on vegetables and fruits available in the capital city, ordered by the Delhi High court last week, verifies that the produce in our country too contains a deadly cocktail of insecticides.

Deadly cocktail

So, why are the pesticides ostensibly created to protect our food harmful to us? The reason is that the chemicals used to destroy pests are unfortunately harmful to us as well when we consume fruits and vegetables that contain residue from pesticides. Certain pesticides due to their highly stable structure can persist in the environment for decades, wrecking havoc on our health.

Heptachlor, for instance, is a pesticide which was banned in the United States during the '80s. While it is illegal around the world, several farmers use it across the country.

"While this reproductive toxicant affects females as well, in males it can lead to altered sexual behaviour, distorted fertility and problems with sperm shape or count," says Dr Nandita Palshetkar, leading IVF specialist at Lilavati Hospitals.

Similarly, dichlorodipheny-trichloroethane or the notorious DDT, which is a banned agricultural chemical in many countries is restrictively used in India . 

 Experts add that the role of hormonal preparations (like oxytocin) used by some farmers as ripening agents needs to be further investigated.

Adds Dr Tandulwadkar, "The increase in use of harmful chemicals increases the importance of safety measures to avoid chemical exposure and also to find better alternatives."

Tackling the menace
Agriculture Minister Sharad Pawar on 11 March 2011 admitted that as many as 67 pesticides that are forbidden or restricted in several countries are being used in the country.

"Farmers indulge in the use of banned pesticides sometimes because of ignorance and sometimes because they want to increase yield," says Nasik-based organic farmer Sanjay Dutta Bappa Pawar. 

A test conducted by non-governmental organization ‘Consumer Voice ‘ a few months ago found levels of pesticides in Indian vegetables and fruits to be 750 times higher than European standards.

"Unregulated use is one of the factors, which has led to low sperm count. How much is safe is a debatable question, because more studies and research in this field is required," says Dr Firuza Parekh, Director, IVF and Genetic Center, Jaslok Hospital.
Without strong government and civil society initiation, 'healthy fruits' seems to be a distant dream for the common man.

Other reasons that can adversely affect sperm health

Age: Once you hit 39 fertilization rates drop by 60 per cent.

Stressful lifestyle: Be it physical or mental stress has an adverse effect on sperm count. Psychological or relationship problems can contribute to infertility, although these conditions are treatable.

Certain lubricants: When choosing spermicides, oils and lubricants, make sure to opt for a sperm-friendly one.

Saunas, hot tubs: Staying too long in the steam room can adversely affect sperm count.

Fever: Can lead to the lowering of sperm count.

Drugs: Cocaine and marijuana can adversely affect sperm quality by 50 per cent.

Smoking: Those cancer sticks impair sperm motility and life span.

Radiation: X-rays affect any rapidly dividing cell, so cells that produce sperm are quite sensitive to radiation damage.

Malnutrition: Lack of nutrients, such as vitamin C, selenium and zinc may be risk factors for low sperm count.

Bicycling: Pressure from the bike seat may damage blood vessels and nerves that are responsible for erections.

Genetic Factors: Genetic conditions may be inherited or caused by environmental assaults. Inherited disorders can genetically impair fertility.