Fertility health is often indicative of general health. But, when women struggle with infertility for no apparent medical reason it can be extremely frustrating. It turns out that supporting the health of the planet is as essential as getting enough sleep and eating our vegetables when it comes to fertility health. Air pollution can seriously damage fertility and have catastrophic effects on infant health.
What is the impact of air pollution on fertility and infant health? (And, what can you do to about it?)
In a systemic review of 10 animal studies and human epidemiologic studies of women both in the general population and of those undergoing IVF treatments, a significant impact of air pollution was found both on miscarriage and clinical pregnancy rates (Frutos et al., 2015).
Studies in mammals found a negative effect on fertility outcomes associated with high concentrations of air pollutants. Certain air pollutants are worse than others for fertility outcomes, as discussed below.
A statistically significant reduction in fertility rates was found in women in Barcelona with an increase in air pollution, especially from particulate pollution (Nieuwenhuijsen et al., 2014). There is significant particulate pollution throughout the eastern half of the United States, primarily caused by automobile exhaust and energy production (Caiazzo et al., 2013).
In 2005, prospective fertility studies were performed on rats using air from Sao Paulo, Brazil (Mohallem et al., 2005). The (polluted) outdoor air was 50% higher in particulate matter and 77.5% higher in NO2 compared with air that was filtered. In one experiment, the animals were exposed to the polluted air at just 10 days after birth, in the other experiment the rats were only exposed to the polluted air as adults. Only in those rats that were exposed to the polluted air 10 days after birth showed fertility effects. Of those, the young rats (who were not bred until 12 weeks of age, reproductive age in rats) that were exposed to the air pollution had fewer live born pups compared with those in the clean (filtered air) chamber (median=4.0 and 6.0, respectively; P=0.037). There was also a higher incidence of implantation failures in the polluted group compared with the clean (filtered air) group (median=3.5 and 2.0, respectively; P=0.048).
Air pollution also has serious effects on pregnancy and infant health (Poursafa & Kelishadi, 2011). During pregnancy, women exposed to air pollution – particulates, CO, NO2, and SO2 – are more likely to experience premature labor, have infants with intrauterine growth retardation, and even have a higher infant death rate. Air pollution exposure during pregnancy also increases the rates of cancers, such as leukemia and Hodgkin lymphoma, respiratory diseases, allergic disorders and anemia in the infants that were exposed in utero. Additionally, air pollution exposure during pregnancy is associated with an increased risk for cardiometabolic diseases later in life, such as heart disease, diabetes, and stroke due to increases in oxidative stress, inflammation and endothelial dysfunction.
Children in more polluted urban areas, exposed to air pollution in utero and in infancy, show serious brain impacts (Calderón-Garcidueñas, et al., 2014). These children’s brains have structural and volumetric abnormalities, systemic inflammation, olfactory, auditory, vestibular and cognitive deficits. Certain adolescents in urban areas with high levels of air pollution show very serious neurodegenerative effects, which significantly accelerate Alzheimer’s diease pathology.
Most women don’t have the luxury of moving to a less polluted location. However, many women spend the vast majority of their time indoors where the air quality is often worse. The good news is that there is a lot that can be done to reduce air pollution and each individual’s exposure.
What to do to reduce the impact of exposure to air pollutants on fertility:
1. Add plants to your home and office. In 1989, NASA did a study on a variety of plants looking for the best performers for removing indoor air pollutants such as formaldehyde and benzene. Some of the best: philodendron, spider plant and the golden pothos for formaldehyde, and gerbera daisy and chrysanthemums for removing benzene (Wolverton, et al., 1989)
2. Avoid soft drinks. In a study done by the FDA between 2005 and 2007, soft drinks were tested to assess levels of benzene (a common air pollutant from burning coal or oil, or car exhaust.) Most of the soft drinks were found to contain very little or no benzene, but a few were found to contain quite high levels. Safeway Select Diet Orange and Crystal Light were among the worst offenders in terms of benzene contamination. And, since soft drinks contribute to blood sugar issues, contain no nutrients, and have other chemical preservatives, it’s best to stop drinking them anyway, especially if you’re trying to get pregnant.
5. Find the best air filter for the specific kinds of air pollution where you live. The site with the most complete recommendations for air and water filters based on the specific pollution in your area is run by Ecologist James P. McMahon of Sweetwater. Find the best air and water filter to clean the air and water in your home.
Caiazzon, F, Ashok, A, Waitz, IA, Yim, SHL, & Barrett, SRH (2013) Air pollution and early deaths in the United States. Part I: Quantifying the impact of major sectors in 2005. Atmospheric Environment, 79, 198-208, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.atmosenv.2013.05.081.
Calderón-Garcidueñas, L., Torres-Jardón, R., Kulesza, R. J., Park, S.-B., & D’Angiulli, A. (2014). Air pollution and detrimental effects on children’s brain. The need for a multidisciplinary approach to the issue complexity and challenges. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 8, 613. http://doi.org/10.3389/fnhum.2014.00613
Frutos, V., Gonzalez-Comadran, M., Sola, I., Jacquemin, B., Carreras, R., & Checa Vizcaino, M. A. (2015). Impact of air pollution on fertility: a systematic review. Gynecol Endocrinol, 31(1), 7-13. doi: 10.3109/09513590.2014.958992
Mohallem, S. V., de Araujo Lobo, D. J., Pesquero, C. R., Assuncao, J. V., de Andre, P. A., Saldiva, P. H., & Dolhnikoff, M. (2005). Decreased fertility in mice exposed to environmental air pollution in the city of Sao Paulo. Environ Res, 98(2), 196-202. doi: 10.1016/j.envres.2004.08.007
Nieuwenhuijsen, M. J., Basagana, X., Dadvand, P., Martinez, D., Cirach, M., Beelen, R., & Jacquemin, B. (2014). Air pollution and human fertility rates. Environ Int, 70, 9-14. doi: 10.1016/j.envint.2014.05.005
Poursafa, P., & Kelishadi, R. (2011). What health professionals should know about the health effects of air pollution and climate change on children and pregnant mothers. Iranian Journal of Nursing and Midwifery Research, 16(3), 257–264.
Wolverton, B.C., Johnson, A., & Bounds, K. (1989). Interior landscape plants for indoor air pollution abatement, NASA, http://ntrs.nasa.gov/archive/nasa/casi.ntrs.nasa.gov/19930073077.pdf.