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Pollution May Be Crippling Chinese Men’s Sperm

The problem likely reaches beyond China, as some researchers have reported a worldwide decline in average sperm counts

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Photo: Lu Feng

A Chinese physician is raising concerns about the poor quality of men’s sperm, which he attributes to decades of exposure to pollution in the country. According to the Telegraph, the doctor, Li Zheng, told local newspapers that he was “very worried” about the falling quality of sperm, and that two-thirds sperm at Shanghai’s main bank did not meet standards set by the World Health Organization.

A 2012 study, coordinated by Dr Li, concluded that over the last 10 years worsening environmental conditions had closely mirrored the falling quality of sperm. Low sperm counts and aspermia, a condition that causes a man to produce no semen at all, were among the problems.

Oftentimes, it’s women’s rather than men’s reproductive problems that are at the center of reproductive health discussions. For example, the Wall Street Journal called a hospital in Beijing to inquire about their take on pollution and reproductive health, but the hospital spokesperson told them, “Our (obstetrician and gynecologist) chief refused the interview, because there is no data or document to explain the pollution’s impact to pregnant women.”

Still, there is evidence that environmental pollution is a double-edged sword impacting both men and women. As the Journal writes: “Previous studies have shown exposure to high levels of pollution can reduce the success rate of in vitro fertilization and drawn a link between toxic air and reduced fertility in men.”

The problem likely reaches beyond China, too. Some researchers have reported a worldwide decline in average sperm counts. Others, however, point out that the issue is far from settled and may be a case of not enough data. As researchers pursue more studies to unravel this tangled subject, however, couples in China, at least, are experiencing the very real impacts of falling sperm quality and availability. As Quartz reports, sperm goes for around $4,900 on the Chinese black market these days.

More from Smithsonian.com:

Female Squid Uses Sperm for Both Reproducing and Snacking 
American May Be the World’s Top Exporter of Sperm 

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