Androgenic Anxiety and COVID-19

sperm quality
Normal (left) and abnormal forms of sperm

Early this morning, January 1, 2021, three minutes after midnight, the last human being to be born on earth was killed

Thus begins Children of Men, a dystopian novel by P.D. James (1992). A sudden and unexplained loss of human fertility tipped the world toward apocalypse. Whereas the book held testes to be responsible, the movie version directed by Alfonso Cuaron switched the cause to gynecology, sparing those precious nuts from blame!

It’s possible for a scientist to suspend disbelief in science fiction, but he/ she always prefers to have facts. I had a professional interest in fertility, both female and male. When I first read about a dip in sperm counts, I dismissed it as a statistical quirk or fiction, but no longer. A study combining 185 studies amounting to 42,000 men found average sperm counts have dropped almost 60% in 40 years to 2011 in Western cultures. The trend continues. The paper didn’t report sperm quality (depicted above), a pity because ours is much poorer than in any other species.

The cause is unknown although experts offer similar suggestions to James—lifestyle and/ or pollution. The average count has fallen below 50 million per milliliter, the range of subfertility. While worrying for people who plan to start a family, I wonder what else it portends. Not a plunging population, but possibly raising other alarms if sperm are honest biomarkers.

During development, sperm are shorn of the apparatus that protects and repairs other cells. Short-lived, they only live a couple of days under the best conditions. They could be harmed by toxins in testicular fluids or further along from glandular secretions that contribute to semen. Bad enough if only these specialized cells are harmed, but what if the damage is already done to their stem cell parents? If they are vulnerable to a hidden threat perhaps other cells are affected, and in women as well as men. Could discovery of the affliction of sperm lead to a better understanding of today’s prevalence of some chronic diseases and impacted immune systems?

One in four men who develop mumps have orchitis as fluid builds up to create pressure inside the rigid capsule of testes. Hence, they lose fertility. That the MMR vaccine has greatly reduced the risk of the disease makes the population-wide decline in sperm counts more striking.

But what role for other airborne RNA viruses, especially from the onslaught in recent SARS epidemics and now a pandemic? Cells in testes and ovaries express the ACE-2 receptor, the spike protein that binds the SARS-COVID-19 virus so it can step into cells. A recent study at Columbia University, New York, reported only one covid patient with a low sperm count and virions in his semen, so the risk of infertility or sexual transmission of covid seems slight. Science is still pending a final decision but already concluded the vaccine does no harm to fertility, quashing anxieties in the media.

The human population won’t crash even if every living person became infertile overnight. Vast numbers of semen samples are stored in freezers around the world and frozen cells are good for decades if not centuries. Besides, a few sperm can be found in almost every clinically sterile testis, all that is needed for fatherhood by injecting eggs using the ICSI technique launched the same year as James published her book.

Urushiol Pain and Products

Chinese ancestor chair
After more than a century, lacquer has cured on this Chinese ancestor chair

A week after nightly creaming my face and arms with hydrocortisone I’m still itching. Each exposure makes the reaction worse next time. A few people, including our gardener, are lucky they don’t react to poison ivy, nor wildlife or pets protected by hair or feathers. Even after cautiously walking on a woodland path or weeding, the unwary can become victims simply by cuddling a canine companion who brushed against a vine.

Poison ivy is not strictly a poisonous plant although the allegation is rooted in the scientific literature as it belongs to the genus Toxicodendron, along with poison sumac and poison oak. The allergic irritant in its leaves, stem and root is urushiol, which presumably evolved to deter to grazing animals (and gardeners). I read that trace amounts exist in mango skins. Eek!

So potent is the oil that when microscopic droplets penetrate the skin, Langerhans cells recruit ‘armed’ T-lymphocytes to fight the invader. The process kills cells as collateral damage and causes blistering, swelling and a blazing red rash. As a slight consolation, my palms and soles never react because they have thicker layers of keratin.

Wakened at night by the urge to scratch, it’s hard to find a polite word for the irritant, but urushiol has a larger story. Once used in herbal remedies when plants were the basis of the pharmacopeia, it still finds a place in traditional Chinese medicine. Its anti-tumor properties encourage researchers to overcome insolubility in water to create a medication for testing in the body. I doubt they will find volunteers for a clinical trial !

Urushiol research is mostly based in Asia where it has long been used as a lacquer for furniture and other wood products. It is collected from lacquer trees, like tapping maple trees or rubber trees. The name of the tree in Japanese gave urushiol its name. Painted in thin layers, it oxidizes and polymerizes to a hard, stable coating.

If your arms become inflamed after resting on a table made in China, it wasn’t your mom’s scold that came back to haunt you from breaking domestic etiquette. The lacquer may not have cured completely.

Next Post: Wood Stork

Phosphatemia—How Green is your Water?

Phosphate in drinking water
Colorimetric phosphate test

My swimming pool has a thin green carpet. The fish and frog pond is choked with weed and slime. Even sugar water in the hummingbird feeder turned cloudy in 24 hours. What’s going on?

Now I’ve lit my pipe let’s start the inquiry, Dr. Watson.  Does the water have a common source? Is it polluted?

Yes and no, Holmes. The water originated from our faucet, but we didn’t spread fertilizer in the garden.

Hmm. Tell me, then, what can make stuff grow quickly in water?  

My dear Holmes, I’m reminded of rapidly growing dead zones in the Bay during summer, though the tides were ‘red’ with algae, never green. But if I have the same problem at home the answer must be phosphate.

Congratulations on your deduction and commiseration with the slimy state of your water. Now give it a test.


A combination of colorimetric and laboratory tests confirmed high levels of phosphate in samples from all three sources, but even higher straight out of the tap people drink from. In excess of 4,000 parts per billion, exceeding the sanitation capacity of free chlorine in the pool. How so, when only <100 ppb from the garden well and rainwater barrel?

Remember Flint, Michigan, in 2014? The city managers (that’s what they call them) switched the water supply to save money. Instead of the Detroit river where phosphate was added they drew from the Flint river which has only a low natural level.

Phosphate is added to domestic water supplies around this country, Britain and others included, to avoid poisoning children in homes that still have lead plumbing. It reduces lead in drinking water by coating pipes. Few people seem to know or ask what’s in their water. Phosphate isn’t mentioned in the James City County Water Quality Report, although plenty about bacteria.

Like other living organisms, bacteria need phosphorus to grow, and some kinds are able to liberate more from insoluble mineral. The municipal answer to lead provides more food (PO4) for bacteria and algae to grow, and that consequence is fixed by pumping more chlorine in our water.

Holmes didn’t seem worried about drinking our local water (or that in Baker’s Street, London). He is glad of a generous helping of phosphate in his diet to top up his hydroxyapatite and ATP reserves, but spurns colas supercharged with phosphoric acid for the sake of his brain.