Air Pollution Is Linked to Infertility

Approximately one in five people are infertile in the United States, meaning they cannot conceive a child after at least one year of trying. Globally, around one in six are unable to get pregnant. With a relatively high number, it is essential to pay attention to all possible reasons behind the unfortunate reality.

Key takeaways:

Infertility is usually characterized as the inability to become pregnant after at least a year of unprotected sexual activity. As women's fertility lowers with age, some medical experts analyze and treat women aged 35 and above after six months of unprotected sexual activity.

There are a variety of factors that can contribute to infertility, including age, sperm elements, endometriosis, ovulation complications, and more.

Aside from these medical problems, the air we breathe every day may be hindering our ability to conceive. One of the most significant environmental health risks is air pollution.

Countries can lessen the burden of disease from lung cancer, stroke, heart disease, and both chronic and acute respiratory illnesses, including asthma, by decreasing air pollution levels.

In 2019, 99% of people around the globe lived in areas where the WHO's recommended air quality criteria were not being reached, and 6.7 million premature deaths were attributed to the impacts of home and ambient air pollution combined. Car emission also doesn’t help, with approximately 84.1% of the country having a driver’s license.

A 32-year-old woman from Queens, New York, who wished to remain anonymous, says she's been trying for a baby for the past three years."I've lived in the city all my life and am confident that the air pollution has something to do with my inability to get pregnant," she says.

"I am perfectly healthy, exercise regularly, eat healthy, and tried every possible method out there to get pregnant. Although the horrible air quality here in the city might not be the main reason behind my infertility, I can confidently say that it must've contributed a little to it."

She adds that every time she comes home and washes her face, she can see black dust all over her makeup.

"Aside from COVID-19, I just put on a mask whenever I have to walk a lot in the city because or else, I end up coughing and getting an itchy throat. You'd think that I'd be immune to the bad air quality with 32 years of living here, but no, it just gets worse. All the cars, buses, trucks... they all stress me out at this point."

Since all main pollutants influence the climate and most come from the same sources as greenhouse gases, air pollution and climate change are intimately related. Enhancing air quality will help our environment, economy, and health.

"Air pollution is associated with an increased risk of infertility, as well as an increased risk of miscarriages and pregnancy complications," says Molly Kornfield, fellow physician at Oregon Health & Science University in Portland, Oregon.

Despite the fact that air pollution is a worldwide issue, it disproportionately affects people who live in underdeveloped countries, especially the weakest members of society, including women, children, and the elderly.

How are infertility and air pollution linked?

Air pollution can make it harder to become pregnant, leading to a higher-risk pregnancy, including smaller babies and an increased risk of preterm birth. Beyond fertility and pregnancy, air pollution affects other aspects of health, as well. For example, air pollution can also increase the risk of someone developing heart and lung disease.

Image by USEPA

Infertility, which is defined as failing to become pregnant within a year of trying, is found to be 20% more common in those who live in areas with moderately higher levels of small-particle pollution, according to an examination of 18,000 couples in China published in the journal Epidemiology.

The study's design prevented the researchers from determining how air pollution can affect fertility, but they noted that since pollution particles are known to increase inflammation in the body, this could harm the development of eggs and sperm.

Another recent research of 600 women receiving infertility treatment in the U.S. discovered a link between higher air pollution exposure and fewer developing eggs in the ovaries. Many millions of couples worldwide struggle with infertility, yet the effects of air pollution have received comparatively little attention in studies.

Nevertheless, it is already established that unhealthy air raises the chance of other reproductive outcomes, such as early birth and low birth weight. Pollution particles have been discovered on the fetal side of placentas, and common levels of nitrogen dioxide are as hazardous as smoking, increasing the chance of miscarriage.

The increase in wildfires related to global warming has also, unfortunately, led to additional insults to air quality. In the places we spend the most time, our homes and offices, well-working air filtration systems and regularly changing air filters can improve air quality and reduce pollution exposure. You can check the outdoor air quality in your area daily on a website like airnow.gov, and particularly on bad days, try to limit your time outdoors and, if you need to be outside, consider wearing a mask like an N95. Post-pandemic, many more of us have masks, including N95s, at home than before.

- Kornfield

Air pollution leads to lower sperm counts, and may also impact egg quality. The pollution likely leads to inflammation and oxidative stress, negatively affecting sperm and eggs, the developing embryo, and its ability to implant in the uterus and grow.

Some air pollutants may act as "endocrine disruptors," which can affect hormones by either imitating them or blocking their effect in your body. Endocrine disruptors can be found in plastics, chemicals, and beauty products, and can be released into the air with waste fires or wildfires, then act as air pollutants.

Kornfield says that while it is less likely that occasional exposure to a single endocrine disruptor exposure would cause infertility in an otherwise fertile person, we are exposed to many endocrine disruptors from a variety of sources in our daily lives, and a cumulative effect of these exposures can contribute to subfertility or infertility.

In addition to this cumulative effect, if someone tells me they have a recurring, regular exposure, like working on a farm with pesticides daily, that would also be more likely to negatively impact fertility.

- Kornfield

How can we reduce air pollution?

Kornfield adds that from a bird's eye view, we can reduce air pollution as a society by choosing greener options for commuting, like biking or taking public transportation, and regularly completing emissions testing on our cars.

People living close to a power plant or fracking site are at higher risk of the adverse effects of pollution. Concerningly, the geographic risk of traffic pollution and proximity to power plants is more likely to affect people in underserved communities.

To improve air quality, regulatory agencies can ensure companies and factories are limiting emissions, and managing their waste appropriately.

Even in high air pollution areas, people's homes and offices should have optimized air filtration to provide as much protection as possible.

Kornfield concludes: "As a nation, continued focus on reducing emissions from commuting can reduce pollution, which can be supported by incentives for taking public transportation, biking, or carpooling. Interventions that improve our energy efficiency overall can reduce pollution and carbon emissions."


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