Canadian fertility clinics are confronted with an unusual problem. They are overflowing with abandoned sperm, and they don't know what to do with it.
Sperm banks across Canada are having a tough time tracking down clients about their "little swimmers."
"I think it's time," said Dr. Beth Taylor, an expert in reproductive endocrinology and infertility care at the Genesis Fertility Centre in Vancouver.
"If you asked a woman when was the last time she had her Pap test, most people can't remember that — and that's within a year — so you can imagine something you did 15 or 10 years ago, you may not remember."
There are many reasons why a man might freeze and store sperm. The Genesis centre says doing so can provide a safeguard against unforeseen circumstances. Men who are about to undergo chemotherapy or radiation therapy often choose to save some sperm, which can be frozen indefinitely, in case they become infertile.
"Sperm fortunately are really hardy cells that freeze very well," said Taylor. "[They're] frozen in liquid nitrogen, which seems to suspend all cell processes so sperm don't degenerate."
She says the longest that sperm has been frozen and then used to produce a healthy baby was 28 years. There was a recent case in Calgary where a child was born from sperm frozen 22 years ago.
First, though, a donor must remember that the sample exists. But what's a clinic to do with sperm that's been abandoned?
It's a situation facing many labs, including one at the Royal University Hospital in Saskatoon, where space in storage tanks is running out. Staff have sent letters and called owners about abandoned samples, but their pleas have gone unanswered.
In February, the lab ran an advertisement in a local newspaper in an effort to locate donors for about 100 samples dating back more than a decade.
"I don't think there's any clinic that can guarantee storing samples indefinitely because no matter how big that clinic is, it will run out of storage facilities," said Dr. Femi Olatunbosun, chairman of the department of obstetrics, gynecology and reproductive sciences at the University of Saskatchewan's College of Medicine.
"There is a space involved in storage and there is a cost involved in storage," he said.
"This is not like putting money in the bank. The bank can store money in there forever, but we just cannot store sperm forever without having a clear idea of what the owner wants to do with those samples."
Genesis will store the sperm for two-year periods as long as the annual storage fee of about $200 is paid. The clinic warns that if the fee isn't covered, it will thaw and destroy the deposit.
Sperm die after about an hour at room temperature and what's left isn't simply flushed down the toilet. Like other biohazard material, such as blood, it's incinerated.
But abandoned samples aren't generally destroyed quickly, since clinics don't want to throw away something someone may eventually want or need.
"Often we'll hold onto the sperm compassionately, just in case," said Taylor.
Officials at the hospital lab in Saskatoon say no one has responded to the ad.
Olatunbosun said he's not terribly surprised. In his experience, people "simply just either forget that they have samples stored or they just don't bother."
"There's some in whom the cancer treatment will have no effect, so these individuals remain fertile and after their treatment they simply move on with their lives. They have their families and they have no need for the storage sample."
It's not clear how much sperm has been abandoned across the country.
That's because Canada — which marked Infertility Awareness Week starting Sunday until May 24 — doesn't have any rules on the matter.
Health Canada has created a human reproduction agency that's expected to set up such guidelines, but it hasn't happened yet, CBC News reports.