Hair mercury (Hg) levels, fish consumption and semen parameters among men attending a fertility center

for the Earth Study Team

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

29 Scopus citations


General population exposure to methylmercury (MeHg), the most common organic mercury compound found in the environment, occurs primarily through the consumption of contaminated fish and shellfish. Due to limited studies and lack of consideration of effect modification by fish consumption, it remains uncertain if exposure to mercury affects semen parameters. Thus, we investigated whether hair Hg levels, a biomarker of mercury exposure, were associated with semen parameters among men attending an academic fertility center, and whether this relationship was modified by intake of fish. This analysis included 129 men contributing 243 semen samples who were enrolled in the Environment and Reproductive Health (EARTH) Study between 2005 and 2013, and had data of hair Hg, intake of fish and semen parameters available. Hair Hg levels were assessed using a direct mercury analyzer. Intake of fish was collected using a validated food frequency questionnaire. Semen parameters were analyzed following WHO 2010 evaluation criteria. Generalized linear mixed models with random intercepts accounting for within-man correlations across semen samples were used to evaluate the association of hair Hg levels and semen parameters adjusting for age, BMI, smoking status, abstinence time and alcohol intake. Effect modification by total fish intake (≤1.68 vs. >1.68 servings/week) was tested. The median hair Hg levels of the men was 0.72 ppm and ranged from 0.03 to 8.01 ppm; almost 30% of the men had hair Hg levels >1 ppm. Hair Hg levels were positively related with sperm concentration, total sperm count, and progressive motility, after adjusting for potential confounders and became attenuated after further adjustment for fish intake. Specifically, men in the highest quartile of hair mercury levels had 50%, 46% and 31% higher sperm concentration, total sperm count and progressive motility, respectively, compared to men in the lowest quartile. These associations were stronger among men whose fish intake was above the study population median. Semen volume and normal morphology were unrelated to hair Hg levels. These results confirmed exposure to MeHg through fish intake and showed the important role of diet when exploring the associations between heavy metals and semen parameters among men of couples seeking fertility care. Further research is needed to clarify the complex relationship between fish intake and Hg, and potential effects on male reproductive health, specifically, semen parameters.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)174-182
Number of pages9
JournalInternational Journal of Hygiene and Environmental Health
Issue number2
StatePublished - Mar 2018


  • Fertility
  • Fish intake
  • Hair mercury (Hg) levels
  • Male reproductive health
  • Semen parameters


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