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Infertility: Not Always About the Woman

For couples struggling to conceive, the focus in treatment often lies with the woman. But if you live in an area with a strong agricultural presence, take note: agricultural chemicals affect sperm count and motility.

In 2002, Shanna Swan, a professor of family and community medicine at the University of Missouri, announced findings suggesting that fertile men in more rural areas have lower sperm counts and less vigorous sperm than men in urban areas. In 2003, in an online edition of the peer-reviewed journal Environmental Health Perspectives (EHP), Swan confirmed that men with lower sperm counts and quality had higher concentrations of alachlor, diazinon, and atrazine metabolites in their urine than men with higher-quality sperm. These three chemicals are commonly used in agriculture operations throughout the Midwest. (Read the whole study here.)

“This is the first study that shows a link between elevated levels of these pesticides in the human body and potential reproductive problems,” Swan said. “Since our subjects include a cross-section of men in mid-Missouri, rather than mostly farmers, the pesticide levels we found probably represent the exposure of the general population.”

According to a 1995 survey by the U.S. Geological Survey, these pesticides were found in groundwater supplies in rural areas in the Midwest at concentrations exceeding federal reporting levels. In addition, the agency stated that conventional water treatment is ineffective in removing herbicides such as alachlor and atrazine from finished drinking water. Unlike many other contaminants, those herbicides remain in the water following conventional treatment processes such as coagulation and sand filtration.

“We think it is likely that men are ingesting these chemicals through their drinking water,” Swan said. “Some water filters do claim to rid the system of these chemicals. We need to analyze men’s home tap water and examine alternative water treatment methods to determine levels of these chemicals currently in the water supply and to find effective ways to remove them.”

The answer? Water filters! A good faucet-mounted water filter lists chemicals that will be removed. Look for these three chemicals on the list: alachlor, diazinon, and atrazine. And remember that it takes sperm three months to mature, so it will take that long to see any change in the husband’s fertility.