Rural living may hobble sperm

Many city dwellers left urban environs for quieter, cleaner lives in farm country. A new epidemiological study suggests that a man’s sperm may pay a subtle price for that rural life.

Researchers previously reported evidence suggesting regional variations in the amount and quality of men’s sperm. However, most of this work didn’t account for smoking, recent sexual abstinence, or other factors that can greatly affect sperm. Moreover, the studies were conducted strictly in big cities.

Shanna H. Swan of the University of Missouri–Columbia School of Medicine and her colleagues worked to avoid such shortcomings in their comparison of sperm from more than 500 fertile men in Minneapolis, Los Angeles, New York City, and the much smaller Columbia, Mo.

To the researchers’ surprise, the quality of sperm from Columbia men, measured by the cells’ motility, was just 56 to 70 percent of that from men in the bigger cities. Columbia men also registered only 57 to 72 percent as many sperm in a milliliter of semen as did the other men. Swan’s team reports its findings in the April, 2003 Environmental Health Perspectives.

In a county where 57 percent of the land is farmed, Columbia is considered semirural. Because many pesticides and other agricultural chemicals disrupt the action of reproductive hormones, Swan and her colleagues are now examining whether men’s sperm characteristics correlate with the concentration of such pollutants in their urine.


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Janet Raloff is the Editor, Digital of Science News Explores, a daily online magazine for middle school students. She started at Science News in 1977 as the environment and policy writer, specializing in toxicology. To her never-ending surprise, her daughter became a toxicologist.

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