Air pollution is taking a toll on men's sperm quality

Air pollution is contributing to poor sperm quality worldwide. (Photo: Getty Images)
Air pollution is contributing to poor sperm quality worldwide. (Photo: Getty Images)

Sperm quality is one of those things that people rarely think about until they’re trying to conceive. And at that point it becomes a pretty important factor in the whole baby-making equation.

While most men have heard that important factors like eating a healthy diet and exercising regularly can help keep their swimmers stay healthy, a new study published in the journal Occupational & Environmental Medicine found there’s one thing that can negatively affect sperm quality that’s outside of men’s control: air pollution.

For the study, researchers did several semen analyses on 6,475 men in Taiwan between the ages of 15 and 49. Their semen was assessed for sperm concentration, motility, and the size and shape of the sperm. The researchers also estimated how much the men had short-term and long-term exposure to fine particulate matter, i.e., air pollution.

Here’s what they found: Men who were exposed to air pollution were more likely to have abnormally shaped sperm. Men who were exposed to air pollution over a two-year period were the most likely to have a big change in their sperm’s shape and size. The researchers didn’t actually find that this made it difficult for the men to have children, but they say in the study’s conclusion that it could definitely lead to infertility.

Edward Marut, MD, of Fertility Centers of Illinois, tells Yahoo Lifestyle that the findings aren’t shocking. “Air pollution contains many of the toxins readily recognized in tobacco smoke, which damages sperm,” he says.

Jennifer Hirshfeld-Cytron, MD, director of fertility preservation at Fertility Centers of Illinois, tells Yahoo Lifestyle that her practice is seeing an increase in abnormal semen analysis — and it’s thought that air pollution might be one of the reasons.

But it’s important to note that this study was conducted in Taiwan — not the U.S. — and air quality standards may be different there, Ben Lannon, MD, a reproductive endocrinologist at Boston IVF, tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “While men living in certain parts of the U.S. may have increased exposure to environmental toxins, on average this may not be applicable here,” he says.

Unfortunately, air pollution isn’t the only environmental toxin that men have to worry about when it comes to their sperm health. Chemicals like phthalates and bisphenol A (BPA) can leach off of plastic water bottles and lower a man’s sperm quality, Marut says. Smoking and drinking excessive amounts of alcohol can also torpedo a man’s sperm quality, he says.

For men who have concerns about their sperm quality or fertility, a simple semen analysis can be performed by their doctor to see if anything is off. “This combined with a conversation with a fertility specialist can identify many potential issues,” Lannon says.

While it’s unlikely that visiting a polluted area will cause a man’s semen quality to permanently go down, the study found that constant exposure to air pollution definitely isn’t great for sperm — and a couple’s chances of conceiving. If air quality isn’t ideal where you live, there unfortunately isn’t much you can do about it. That’s why Hirshfeld-Cytron recommends focusing on what you can control — namely, your weight as well as tobacco and marijuana use. “All of these impact sperm,” she says.

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