Can air pollution affect fertility in men and women? Experts answer

Air pollution, which has once again shrouded the Delhi skies with the air quality reaching ‘severe’ levels in most parts of the National Capital Region, has been linked to a host of health concerns including breathlessness, chronic bronchitis, chest tightness, lung and chest infections, among others. But, did you know that air pollution can significantly impact one’s fertility, too? “Though the largest causal factor of infertility is a woman’s age, many studies have shown that daily exposure to high levels of pollution is also linked with a decline in potential fertility,” Dr Ratna Saxena, IVF Specialist in Bijwasan, Nova Southend IVF and Fertility, said.

She added that deteriorating air quality has been associated with lower sexual drive. “Many couples attempting to conceive are finding a dip in their sexual interest,” she told indianexpress.com.

Agreeing, Dr Shilpa Ellur, Senior Consultant – Reproductive Medicine, Milann Fertility Hospital, Whitefield, Bangalore said that air pollution impairs fertility and the birthing process, in addition to causing early deaths. “Air pollution has been associated in numerous studies with infertility, difficult births, a rise in birth abnormalities in offspring, and stillbirths,” she added.

But, why does it happen?

Dr Saxena cited a 2018 study of 1,285 pregnant women in Chennai and its surrounding districts which found that every 10-g/m3 increase in PM 2.5 could result in a four-gram decrease in the baby’s birth weight. “Other research studies support the theory that inhaling poor-quality air increases the risk of other aspects of reproduction, such as premature birth and low birth weight. Furthermore, perinatal exposure to polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), nitrogen dioxide (NO2), and particulate matter (PM) has been shown to affect children’s neuropsychological development,” she added.

Air pollution continues to be in ‘severe’ category (Source: Express photo by Praveen Khanna)

The experts said that air pollution may also have an impact on sperm quality. “According to a study conducted by Hammoud et al, PM2.5 exposure was found to be negatively related to sperm morphology and motility,” Dr Saxena said.

Dr Ellur added that environmental contaminants release reactive oxygen species (ROS) which “may subject the sperm to oxidative stress and lead to DNA fragmentation (broken up DNA in the sperm head)”. This, in turn, could lead to infertility problems.

Further, Dr Saxena said that inhaling air containing estrogenic and antiandrogenic substances, such as copper, zinc and lead, can impair testosterone and sperm cell production if inhaled for an extended period of time. “Endocrine disruptors generate estrogenic, antiestrogenic, and antiandrogenic activity, interfering with the thyroid axis and influencing metabolic disorders such as insulin resistance and obesity, both of which are strongly linked to infertility,” she added.

So, what can be done?

The expert suggested everyone to control their sleep cycle. “Sleep is an important factor in fertility because it allows the body to regenerate many cells while also regulating the rhythm of hormone changes. Furthermore, sleep produces dark melatonin, which can benefit the entire body system,” Dr Saxena said.

She added that there are some lifestyle measures that one can take to safeguard fertility. “To maintain overall good health, exercise daily, avoid preserved foodstuffs, eat a well-balanced diet, avoid the intake of substances such as alcohol or tobacco, discuss the side-effects of medication with your doctor, and avoid endocrine disruptors,” she said.

However, if the issue persists, it is recommended to consult a fertility specialist.

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