Fertility: The Impact of Environmental and Lifestyle Factors

As more and more people worldwide experience infertility, there is a growing understanding of the negative impact of certain environmental and lifestyle factors on the fertility of men and women alike.

In this article we take a look at some of the lifestyle choices, as well as the environmental pollutants and toxins, that are known to affect fertility, and provide some expert advice for managing these factors when trying to conceive.

Infertility affects millions of people globally. Estimates suggest that approximately one in every six people of reproductive age worldwide experience infertility in their lifetime.

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), environmental and lifestyle factors can affect fertility. Lifestyle factors include, for example, smoking, excessive alcohol intake and obesity. In addition, exposure to environmental pollutants and toxins can be directly toxic to eggs and sperm – also known as gametes – resulting in their decreased numbers and poor quality, which in turn can lead to infertility.

Lifestyle factors

The increase of lifestyle diseases like diabetes, obesity and hypertension certainly has had an impact on infertility rates.

One of the best-known causes of reproductive problems is obesity. The link between obesity and infertility has been well-established, as obesity is known to decrease the rates of successful pregnancy in natural conception cycles, as well as the rates of pregnancy in women who are undergoing IVF.

Smoking is another well-known contributing factor in infertility. In fact, infertility rates in both male and female smokers are about double the rate of infertility found in non-smokers. The effect is dose dependent, which means that the risk for fertility problems increases with the number of cigarettes smoked daily.

Smoking during pregnancy also has long term health effects on the baby. Smoking during pregnancy also can lead to growth restriction of the baby before birth. Children born with lower-than-expected birth weights are at higher risk for medical problems later in life, such as diabetes, obesity and cardiovascular disease. Children whose parents smoke are also at increased risk for sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS) and asthma.

Our team at Cape Fertility gladly shares the lifestyle advice we offer all our patients to help them achieve a pregnancy:

* Stop smoking!
* Alcohol only in moderation
* Prevent or manage obesity, hypertension and diabetes
* Avoid consuming sugary drinks
* Choose fresh food – fruits, vegetables, meat and fish – instead of processed food.

Environmental factors

In today’s modern world, we are all exposed to a wide array of pollutants and toxins. These negatively impact people’s general health, and as a result, the health of their sperm and eggs, which has a direct negative impact on their fertility. Some pollutants and toxins, such as xenoestrogens, heavy metals and air pollution have been found to have a direct negative impact on fertility. In fact, reproductive system malfunction seems to be a good sensitive marker of environmental hazards.

For example, a study in China found that city-dwelling men had higher levels of abnormally shaped sperm than their rural counterparts. Their sperm also swam more slowly.

These dramatic effects on sperm count have serious implications for fertility. In fact, over the past 50 years, human sperm concentration decreased drastically from 113 to 61 million/mL, which represents almost 50% decrease. Evidence showed that human semen quality has been also declining more rapidly during the last decades, in particular in the United States and Europe. For example, it has been estimated that the sperm count in American males is decreasing by 1.5% each year.

While there are different causes for this problem and we have definitely not found all the causes, xenoestrogens, heavy metals and air pollution have been shown to be contributors to the decline in sperm counts.

Our experts at Cape Fertility provide this useful overview of some of the pollutants and toxins known to adversely affect fertility, and that should be avoided when you are trying to conceive.


Xenoestrogens are substances in the environment that mimic the action of estrogen. Estrogen is one of the two female hormones, and the other female hormone is progesterone. Estrogen plays a role in both the male and female reproductive systems, and in women, it contributes to reproductive and breast health, among other functions.

“Xeno” is the Greek word for “foreign” and so “xenoestrogens” refer to substances that have the same effect on the human body as one of the female hormones. Some examples are BPA, dioxine and pyrethoids.

There has been a great concern that xenoestrogens have a significant effect on infertility, specifically in endometriosis and male infertility.

Bisphenol A or BPA

One of the most common xenoestrogens is Bisphenol A, also known as BPA. It is used in plastic to make it stronger. It is found mainly in plastic bottles, trays, on the inside of cans and also on receipts and other rolled paper. As a result, everyone is exposed!

You can avoid exposure to BPA by not using plastic bottles and cans. Instead, switch to better options that are BPA free, such as glass, porcelain and stainless steel.

Heating plastics also releases more BPA or BPA substitutes, so if you are storing food or drinks in plastic containers, be certain to put it on a glass or porcelain plate before microwaving or adding boiling water. Also, don’t leave reusable water bottles in the car in the summer where it gets baked.


Dioxin is another famous xenoestrogen and it is a toxic by-product of industrial and consumer processes. The main source of dioxins is waste incineration. Dioxins are subsequently released into the environment, contaminating fields and crops. Livestock eat the crops and the dioxin enters their tissue. Humans then eat the contaminated animal products and become exposed to the dioxin.

There is strong suggestion that dioxin is a major contributor to the increase in endometriosis among women. Endometriosis is a known cause of infertility.

Pyrethoid pesticides

Pyretoid is used in many insecticides and is known to have a significant effect on egg quality and quantity in women. A South African study looked at the effect of pyretoids and the results are suggestive of decreased ovarian reserve associated with exposure to pyrethoid pesticides.

Air pollution

Air pollution is another important environmental factor known to affect fertility.

In one study published in the journal Human Reproduction (a peer-reviewed scientific journal covering all aspects of human reproduction) researchers compared women who lived close to highways to women who lived in more rural areas. These women who lived close to highways were 21% more likely to report secondary infertility than women who lived farther away, and that increase is statistically significant.

Are environmental and lifestyle factors causing your infertility?

If you are concerned about your fertility as a couple, it is highly recommended that you consult with a fertility specialist as soon as possible.

While the environmental and lifestyle factors discussed above are known to affect fertility, there are also many other possible causes of infertility. Pinpointing the exact cause of infertility in a couple requires expertise, experience and the right equipment. However, once the exact cause of your infertility as a couple has been established, the right treatment can be provided.

If you would like to meet one of our world-renowned fertility specialists, simply contact us by clicking here

At Cape Fertility, we value each individual patient and we look forward to providing you with individualised and personalised care, affordable quality fertility treatment, and higher success rates at our purpose-built premises in the beautiful city of Cape Town.