Is there a link between air pollution and male infertility?

Research has shown a link between poor air quality and everything from prenatal health to upper respiratory problems. Now, a new study indicates it may have a negative impact on male fertility.

A team of researchers at the Chinese University of Hong Kong and elsewhere recently studied the health effects of fine particulate pollution on male fertility. Their findings: a decrease in the size and shape of sperm, a phenomenon that could result in infertility.

The particulate matter comes from pollution emitted from power plants, cars, smokestacks and the like, that contain potentially toxic chemicals such as heavy metals. After breathing the air, the particles enter the bloodstream. Because their size is so small—30 times smaller than the thickness of human hair—they’re easier to inhale deeply into the lungs.

Researchers studied medical examination data spanning 2001 to 2014 from 6,500 15- to 49-year-old men and compared that to fine particulate levels at their home addresses. They found a correlation between air pollution levels and abnormal sperm shape. Specifically, high levels of air pollution were associated with a 26 percent increase in the risk of being in the lower 10 percent of average sperm size and shape.

The study didn’t demonstrate a direct cause and effect between air pollution and lower sperm quality. But in their report, researchers point to earlier experiments on animals that found sperm damage caused by cadmium, a potentially carcinogenic metal derived from burning fossil fuels and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, which are in things such as vehicle exhaust and fumes from asphalt roads.

While the change in sperm size and shape linked to poor air quality is small, the report also suggests the implications are large, given the widespread scale of air pollution and, especially, the harmful effects of particulate matter. With that in mind, researchers say it could result in “a significant number of couples with infertility.”

The findings underscore earlier work by researchers in the Czech Republic, who also discovered evidence of alterations in sperm quality due to exposure to air pollution. That study examined two groups of 18-year-old men, one living in a highly industrialized district with seasonally high levels of air pollution and another from a rural area with relatively clean air. During periods of higher levels of air pollution, the sperm of subjects in the first region showed greater decreases in motility and increases in abnormal shapes.

What can you do? One step to take is to keep the air in your home clean by using a smart air purifier with an advanced particle filter, like the Coway Airmega. That can help cut down on the amount of unhealthy particulate matter you inhale.