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New study raises concerns for pregnant women: ‘A cascade of effects that impacts all future reproductive development’

“When we see shorter anogenital lengths, it’s telling us there is lower testosterone activity in the womb …”

“When we see shorter anogenital lengths, it’s telling us there is lower testosterone activity in the womb …"

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Air pollution may be having a negative effect on humans’ ability to reproduce, according to one new study from Rutgers University.

What is happening?

The study found a connection between prenatal exposure to air pollutants such as fine particle pollution (also known as PM2.5) and nitrogen oxide and shortened anogenital distance — the distance between the anus and the genitals.

The reason that matters is that anogenital distance is correlated to hormone levels, lower semen quality, fertility, and reproductive disorders.

“When we see shorter anogenital lengths, it’s telling us there is lower testosterone activity in the womb … and it may have implications for fertility and reproductive health down the road,” said biostatistics and epidemiology professor Emily Barrett, the study’s lead author. 

“Testosterone is really important for the development of the male reproductive system, and anything that disrupts that normal testosterone surge during gestation has the potential to then have a cascade of effects that impacts all future reproductive development,” she added.

Why is this concerning?

This link between prenatal exposure to air pollutants and decreased reproductive health is not the only reason to believe that pollution is making it more difficult for people to become pregnant.

Sperm counts have declined by 51% worldwide over the past 50 years, according to one report, with connections being found between low sperm counts and exposure to PFAS, i.e., “forever chemicals.”

Another study linked low sperm counts to high exposure to pesticides.

And, of course, there are many other adverse health effects that prenatal exposure to pollution can bring beyond lowered sperm counts down the line. 

According to one study published in the National Library of Medicine, “Stunting and its related health and developmental effects are particularly common in populations … exposed to high levels of particle pollution.”

What can be done about it?

Pregnant people can avoid, as much as possible, exposing their unborn children to air pollutants by following air quality advisories and staying indoors when pollution levels are high. They can also wear N95 masks outdoors and use air filters in their homes.

However, ideally, the air would not be so polluted in the first place, which would involve (at the very least) ceasing the usage of dirty energy sources such as oil and gas.

“This is a public health issue that impacts all of us and there should really be a nationwide and worldwide effort to reduce air pollution,” Professor Barrett told the Guardian.

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