Gap Narrows Between Male, Female Births

"There is something that is affecting our fertility now that has an important effect on the number of males being born," says Lovell Jones, co-investigator and director of the Center for Research on Minority Health at the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center.

"The trend was first observed a couple of years ago, and people thought it was a quirk then," he says. "As we've gone back and looked at the records, indisputably, the trend has continued."

CDC Draws Different Conclusions

However, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says the downturn in the ratio of boy babies to girl babies is interesting, but not a cause for alarm.

T.J. Mathews, a demographer with the CDC's National Center of Health Statistics, says that even though a general downward trend can be seen over the decades, it is very gradual -- particularly when the trends before the 1970 cutoff are considered.

Indeed, the graph that illustrated the year-by-year fluctuations in the ratio of boy births to girl births from 1940 onward looks a bit more like the jagged trace of a seismograph than a smooth downward slope.

Follow the average movements, and there is a subtle downward trend. But Mathews says chalking up this downturn to environmental pollutants alone could be jumping the gun.

"We continue to observe these changes, and we have data through 2004," he says. "The thing to keep in mind is that this transition from 1,052 to 1,048 [the sex ratio of babies born from 1940 to present] is not a large one, no matter how you cut it.

"It is not a big change."

In 2005, Mathews wrote a CDC report on the same U.S. numbers seen in the new study. In his report, he concluded, "In the past 60 years the sex ratio has risen and fallen repeatedly, such that short-term comparisons provide little useful information about long-term trends and changes in the sex ratio."

However, Davis says the decreasing sex ratio may indicate other effects that the environment is having on male reproductive health, especially when considered alongside increases in testicular cancer and decreases in average sperm count among males.

"We are now seeing a 30-year trend, and I don't think that 30 years can be dismissed," Davis says. "I think it is arrogant and foolish to try to explain this away."

If there is any common ground between the study's authors and critics, it is that the potential impact of environmental pollutants may play some part in changes in birth trends.

"Our data does not have anything along the lines of determining factors, but there are studied factors that determine that, and environmental toxins are one of them," the CDC's Mathews says.

But he adds that many other factors may be at play, including the age of the parents, obesity of mothers, cultural norms and practices -- and even widespread emotional stress.

"It's an interesting paper," Wills says. "But the number of reasons that this could be happening are immense. I don't think that the paper demonstrates that."

Pollution Still a Threat

Still, the study's investigators say the threat of pollution to birth ratios is real.

"It is time for us to really change our approach to science," Jones says. "If not, 100 years from now, or even sooner, we may have to talk about the male-female ratio being at such a point that it might affect society.

"There is enough data out there now to say that this issue is something that we need to be concerned about."

"I think that men and women who are thinking about having children need to pay a lot more attention to the things around them in the environment," Davis says, adding that private sector industries must also be conscientious about their impact on the environment.

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