Sperm quality and aluminium: Atomic revelations

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  • Published: Dec 15, 2014
  • Author: David Bradley
  • Channels: Atomic
thumbnail image: Sperm quality and aluminium: Atomic revelations

Seminal decline

Stained sperm cell sections (Credit; Elsevier/Reproduct Toxicol)

Could aluminium be responsible for a decades-long decline in sperm quality? Researchers in France and the UK have used graphite furnace atomic absorption spectrometry to analyse aluminium content of semen samples an found that men with "oligozoospermia" had a statistically higher aluminium concentration than others.

Jean-Philippe Klein of Université de Lyon, Université Jean Monnet and CHU de Saint-Etienne, France and colleagues there and at The Birchall Centre, Lennard Jones Laboratories, at Keele University, Staffordshire, UK, suggest that an increased exposure to environmental pollution may be to blame for the decline in sperm quality observed in recent decades. Sperm count specifically has declined since 1973 and many observers have suggested that endocrine disruptors may be to blame.

However, another pollutant may have a role in declining sperm quality - aluminium. Human exposure to this metal has increased almost exponentially, the team reports, since the industrial revolution and is a growing problem today. The metal has been detected in various biological fluids including urine, cerebrospinal fluid, sweat and semen and is worryingly known as a pro-oxidative element, excitotoxic, immunogenic, pro-inflammatory and mutagenic.

Environmental sources

Food is the primary source, with additional sources in cosmetics, personal hygiene products and pharmaceuticals (some antacids for instance) with contamination from cookware also being common. We also breathe aluminium as an atmospheric pollutant and present in cigarette smoke. The World Health Organisation has strict guidelines on "safe" exposure, although many people may be exposed to levels well above those guidelines on a daily basis. Earlier work in animal models has shown that exposure to high levels of aluminium can be detrimental to the male reproductive system.

Metal exposure

As such, the researchers have focused on aluminium as one possible culprit and measured its concentration in the semen of 62 patients (average age about 34 years) and carried out a preliminary evaluation of whether or not that concentration correlates with specific semen parameters, sperm count, progressive motility, vitality and morphology. Of the 62, 33 patients were classified as having normal sperm, 29 exhibited at least one pathological sign (12 were oligozoospermic, 14 were asthenozoospermic, 5 were necrozoospermic and 15 were teratozoospermic). For 7 of the patients, sperm count was too low to allow the researchers to properly assess vitality and morphology. They used GF-AAS to determine concentration and cytological analysis using an aluminium-specific fluor, lumogallion and revealed a mean average concentration of 339 micrograms per litre. Interestingly, there was no correlation between smoking and semen quality, the team reports, despite the high exposure to the metal in regular smokers.

"Despite the relatively low number of individuals in this study, a significant increase in Al concentration was observed in the group who had a low sperm count," the team reports. "Conversely, we did not find any significant difference in Al concentration in semen between individuals with normal or pathological semen quality criteria for sperm progressive motility, vitality and morphology. When all quality criteria were taken together there was a higher though not statistically significant increase in Al in abnormal semen." They recommend that a larger cohort study now be carried out in order to validate (or otherwise) these preliminary findings.

Related Links

Reproduct Toxicol, 2014, 50, 43-48: "Aluminum content of human semen: Implications for semen quality"

Article by David Bradley

The views represented in this article are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of John Wiley and Sons, Ltd.

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