Sorry, Sperm: Air Pollution Has a Sickening Side Effect

Smog in one Chinese city is affecting resident men's little swimmers.

(Photo: China Daily/Reuters)

Kristine Wong is a regular contributor to TakePart and a multimedia journalist who reports on energy, the environment, sustainable business, and food.

The disturbing symbol of today’s China is the face mask: worn by millions to protect themselves from the industrial titan’s ever-worsening air pollution problem.

The new symbol could be sperm.

A new study published in the journal Environmental Pollution found that the sperm of men who lived in the notoriously noxious city of Chongqing were less robust than the sperm of men living in a rural area.

The rural air was found to have lower concentrations of particulate matter, sulfur dioxide, and nitrous dioxide compared with that of Chongqing, a manufacturing stronghold in the country’s center. In the mid-1980s, its air had seven times more sulfur dioxide than was allowed by national air pollution standards.

In November, a local doctor and sperm expert told the Shanghai Morning Post that two-thirds of the supply in its sperm bank failed to meet World Health Organization criteria, which considers factors such as semen’s volume, sperm count, and the sperms’ mobility, and that he suspected the city’s air pollution was at fault.

“If we don’t protect the environment now, we will face a worsening infertility predicament,” said Dr. Li Zheng. He has been monitoring the city's sperm bank supply over the last decade.

In recent years, more than 40 million Chinese men and women of childbearing age have been diagnosed with infertility, at a rate that has more than quadrupled from 3 percent to 12.5 percent over the past two decades. And thanks to a number of factors stemming from almost 35 years of Mao Zedong’s one-child policy—including a flat fertility rate and a lack of younger females owing to infanticides or abortions—China faces an aging population that’s expected to shrink beginning next decade.

More recently, the government has been trying to swing the population pendulum in the other direction. In 2009, officials in Shanghai decided to allow couples to have more than one child if at least one of the parents is an only child. In November 2013, the Communist Party extended this allowance nationwide.

Chinese couples facing infertility traditionally would head to a sperm bank. But with fewer than a dozen banks nationwide and good-quality sperm being harder to find these days, black markets (where donors meet couples online and arrange meetings through a go-between) are an alternative option.

There’s one bright spot in the Chongqing study. The Chinese government has stepped up its support of research examining the effects of pollution on fertility, according to the South China Morning Post. Since 2009, the number of studies funded on the topic has tripled.

Though the great majority of those studies are focused on sperm, the first national study investigating the effect of endocrine disruptors on Chinese women’s fertility will be launched this year, the Post reported.

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