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  QUESTION: Complications during Pregnancy and Fertilisation in partners exposed to lead, 28 Dec 2005, West Virginia USA

I have experienced 2 miscarriages and we recently found out that my partner works with lead everyday at work. Can this lead have an effect on the embryos development once the egg has been fertilized. Both pregnancies did not make it past the 6 week of development. My doctor says it is not passed in sperm but the information I have found states it is. Who is right and what can be done to help a pregnancy if the male has been exposed and is exposed daily?

ANSWER: 28 Dec 2005

Dear Tammy,

Many scientific documents do indeed state that an increased exposure to lead in males affects the reproductive system. While lead cannot be "passed" to female cells through sperm, when fertilisation occurs with a sperm cell that is damaged from lead exposure it can affect the developmental process of the embryo. Damaged sperm DNA can lead to infertility and miscarriage, as corroborated by the Division of Occupational Safety, Massachusetts, information available at Health Hazards of Lead for Workers and Children. High levels of lead exposure is noted to affect a male's sperm quality because lead displaces the calcium that is essential for the normal processes of sperm function.

It would be very beneficial for your husband to conduct a blood lead level test in order to discover whether his lead level exceeds the standard that is deemed detrimental to health within a lead related workplace. If the level is found to be excessive, your husband may be entitled to receiving treatment according to Occupational Health and Safety policies. I have attached an Australian document about occupational risk management and lead related work. It has much good advice that can be applied in any workplace.

Taking a blood test is a very important step because an above average level of lead in the blood usually affects the way in which a sperm is able to bind to the egg, as there are fewer receptors on the head of the cell that are able to identify and bind to the egg's sugar. In sperm function tests that were conducted at the North Shore-Long Island Jewish Research Institute in Manhasset, New York, they found "wide variation in lead levels in the men's seminal plasma, with high levels correlating with low fertilisation rates." (Bhattacharya, Shaoni, "Lead may cause mystery male infertility",, 06 February 2003). Lead readily crosses the placenta and may exert adverse effects on the outcome of a pregnancy and the fetus. (Rania Habal, MD, Assistant Professor, Department of Emergency Medicine, New York Medical College "Toxicity, Lead", October 2004.) Elevated lead levels in your husband's blood might therefore produce future complications with conceiving and pregnancy.
A pregnant mother may also be exposed if lead particles are carried home from her husband's work clothes and shoes. ("Lead and Pregnancy", Organisation of Teratology information Services.). In this case she should not handle the laundry if items have been exposed to lead. A diet high in iron and calcium and low in fat will help preserve your pregnancy and protect your developing child. Your husband may also try antioxidant supplements to help build himself better health. For further remedies, please consult your doctor.

Giuseppina Tesoriero
Volunteer Information Officer,
on behalf of Elizabeth O'Brien

Update 2010

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