Male fertility decline in China linked to air pollution

As China relaxes its one-child policy, doctors suggest smog may be responsible for the country’s worsening infertility

About two-thirds of the semen donated to major sperm banks in Shanghai and Jinan have failed to meet the World Health Organization standard, and doctors speculate that air pollution might be responsible.

The figures have raised concerns in a country where the infertility rate among the childbearing population is currently 15%, compared to 3% just 30 years ago. 

“Reproductive ability could be influenced by people’s levels of pressure, ways of living and the conditions of living, but there is no denying that pollution could be an adverse impact,” Wang Li, the director of a major sperm bank in Jinan, the provincial capital of Shangdong, told a local newspaper.

The sperm quality of donors from Rizhao and Weifang, where pollution is less severe, is better than that of donors from the regional industrial centre Jinan, according to Wang.

Li Zheng, a sperm expert at Shanghai’s Renji Hospital and director of Shanghai’s sperm bank, also observed an decrease in male fertility. A 2012 study coordinated by Li concluded that worsening environmental conditions had closely mirrored falling sperm quality over the last 10 years, the Shanghai Morning Post reported.

“When the environment is bad, sperm become “ugly” and even stop swimming,” Dr Li told the local newspaper. “To find out whether an eco-system is stable or not, just examine the sperm.”

Earlier this month, state news agency Xinhua stated that a report published by the China Meteorological Administration and the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences said smog could adversely effect human reproductive ability.

Although there is still no conclusive evidence that air pollution is involved in the decline in fertility, the issue is likely to remain a concern. As an opinion piece on the People’s Daily’s website asked, “When the smog is affecting people’s reproductive ability, who should still be nonchalant?”