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Is pollution in China ratcheting up infertility?

Longtime opponents of China’s one-child policy can stick this feather in their cap: Infertility is rising and at this point, the causes can’t be easily reversed. Last week, Chinese scientists from three universities and the government think tank, the Chinese Academy of Sciences, said they would be launching a five-year study (paywall) into the relationship between pollution and female infertility.

Although China’s infertility rate is likely still lower than the average for developing countries, it’s particularly a problem in the context of China’s growing population woes. Decades of the one-child policy, which restricts most urban couples from having more than one child, have left China with a disproportionately large numbers of old people, a yawning gender gap, and a workforce set to start shrinking by 2025.

Now, what’s concerning about infertility in China—which has risen fourfold over the past three decades to 12.5%, according to the last government study on the issue in 2010—is that it may be the result of development-related trends that can’t be resolved with a quick fix, like pollution. Other factors that researchers have cited, like Chinese couples having children later, may be easier to address through Singapore-style conception-promoting campaigns. (Researchers have noted other possible causes like stress, work, unhealthy lifestyles or previous abortions.)

Scientific research has established that exposure to high levels of chemicals at farms and factories can cause infertility. But less is known about how much being exposed frequently to low levels of “environmental disruptors” affects one’s hormones. Last year, researchers found that exposure to certain pesticides, perchlorinated biphenhyls, also known as PCBs, used in coolants, and industrial compounds could reduce a couple’s ability to have children by as much as 29%. The coming Chinese study will analyze the presence and impact of pesticides, plasticizers, and bisphenol in women’s blood and urine.

Further complicating China’s ongoing debate over population policies is the fact that data on the country’s birth rates are imprecise. The rate of infertility among women of child-bearing age was 12.5% in 2010, compared to 3% in 1983, according to the government. But as Damjian DeNoble of the blog Health Intel Asia notes, those figures are based on unstandardized data. Moreover, other studies have found that the reporting of births in China is sometimes suppressed or misreported as a way to skirt one-child policy regulations.

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