The case of the ugly sperm

Janelle Lamoreaux

The Chinese film, Under the Dome, tells the story of a former CCTV (China Central Television) news anchor’s struggle to understand and deal with smog in the wake of her pregnancy and motherhood. The filmmaker and narrator, Chai Jing, makes a case for reducing pollution in China by highlighting the potential correlation between Beijing’s smog and the tumour found in her developing foetus, diagnosed in utero. The film was released on video streaming websites in 2015, and quickly went viral. According to China Dialogue, the video was viewed hundreds of millions of times before being removed from major streaming portals one week later. This viral appeal could be attributed to the film’s concentration on reproductive health, along with the ways environmental and personal narratives intersect at this critical juncture. Case in point: At a screening of Under the Dome that I attended in London, our host introduced the film by relating Chai’s story to her own difficult experience of finding out she was pregnant while living in smog-filled Beijing. In her case, as in Chai’s, tackling pollution in China became more pressing when its potential consequences threatened future generations.

There are other, less personalised, less narrativised approaches to making a case for reducing pollution in China via reproductive health. One of these is developmental and reproductive toxicology. Since the mid-twentieth century, this branch of toxicology has focused on studying correlations between toxic exposures and reproductive ability, as well as congenital disorders in developing offspring. Among the group of toxicologists I researched while conducting fieldwork in Nanjing, China, who I refer to as the DeTox Lab, the case for reducing China’s pollution was initially made through male infertility. More specifically, the case was made through sperm.

By the early 2000s, many toxicologists in the US and Europe had shown through animal experiments that indirect exposure to synthetic pesticides leads to reduced sperm quality and quantity. The DeTox Lab was one of the first research groups able to conduct similar research on humans because of the amount of pesticide factory labour taking place in China’s Yangtze River delta and its surroundings. Comparing the sperm of pesticide factory workers to those outside the occupational environment, the DeTox Lab found that human males who were indirectly exposed to synthetic pesticides in the factory were more likely to have sperm with chromosomal abnormalities, a condition linked to infertility, stillbirths and spontaneous abortion. Through this study, the lab made its first case for the harmful impacts of China’s environment on sperm, focusing on the ‘occupational environment’. Results were published in an international toxicology journal and, the laboratory director told me, shared at public health forums where they could potentially impact industrial regulations.

Was sperm an effective vehicle through which a case could be made for the regulation of pesticides and pollutants in China? It seems the DeTox Lab chose to first focus on male infertility partially because a broader discussion of post-industrial sperm decline was already occurring in many nations around the world. In China, the nuances of this conversation connected rising rates of male and female infertility to rapid social and economic transformations that had occurred since Reform and Opening began in the late 1970s. Under what the Chinese government called Socialism with Chinese Characteristics, the organisation of economies, labour and other aspects of daily life shifted. Male reproductive health specialists and media outlets listed lifestyle changes and increased stress as potential reasons for the accompanying post-Reform and Opening shifts in sperm counts: in one study, from approximately 100 million per ml in the 1970s to 40 million per ml in 2007.1 Since then, the degradation of Chinese sperm has been explicitly linked to a degradation of the ‘Chinese environment’. A 2013 green paper on climate change released by the China Meteorological Administration made passing reference to reproductive health problems brought about by exposure to smog, resulting in renewed media coverage of the declining quality and quantity of Chinese sperm. One news article quotes Li Zheng, an andrologist and sperm bank coordinator from Shanghai, who states ‘[if] the environment is bad, sperm become ugly’.2 Here, ‘the environment’ – more broadly defined – is again seen as a causal factor in sperm’s decline.

Since their initial studies of the occupational environment, the DeTox Lab’s research has raised the stakes of this toxic connection between human substances and their environments. In epigenetic studies of sperm quality and quantity, which I observed while doing research in 2011, toxicologists tried to understand how the contexts surrounding Chinese sperm become incorporated into and inherited by future generations.3 Toxicologists would breed mice and rats that had been exposed to chemicals known to bring about sperm decline, and then analyse the sperm of their offspring. Though no statistically significant results were found during the time of my research, an experimental formula was being established which they hoped could be used to make a case for reducing pollution by emphasising the threat to future generations. Today, making a case for changing the environmental present seems to increasingly be done by making a case for the future.

Whether utilising film, toxicology or ethnography, when making a case one usually considers what will capture the imagination of an audience. How will one seize upon existing values, expectations and structures of feeling in order to move readers, colleagues or viewers? As Annemarie Mol writes, ‘A case carries knowledge, not in the form of firm rules or statistically salient regularities, but in the form of a story about an occurrence that, even though it may have happened just once, is still telling, indicative, suggestive. It condenses expertise that is not general, but inspirational’ (this volume: 44). Unlike Chai Jing’s story, which suggests a relationship between her child’s tumour and Beijing’s smog, the DeTox Lab attempts to make its case through statistically significant correlations between increasing toxic exposures and decreasing sperm quality. Perhaps one is more inspirational than the other, and perhaps this has to do with their relationships to specificity and generality – with the degree to which a case is made through a personal account (a mother’s first-person documentary) or by depersonalised accounting (the male-oriented scientific ‘view from nowhere’).

But what these two cases of case-making have in common is that they draw upon concerns about China’s ‘environment’ – how it is defined is part of the problem – inhibiting the ability to bring forth healthy future generations. Like the threat of a congenital disorder, the threat of male infertility is, in a sense, inspirational. Sperm is a figure that inspires toxicologists in the DeTox Lab to seek the generalities that might allow others to make specific policy recommendations. Through sperm they also hope to better understand and inspire others to understand the intimate connections that exist between biological, economic and political domains, as well as the future stakes of ignoring these connections.


1 Xinhua, ‘Experts Warn of Lower Fertility because of Stress, Lifestyle’, China Daily, 4 October 2007.

2 Liyu Chen, ‘Last 10 Years of Sperm Donor’s Sperm Does Not Reach Set Standards’, Shanghai Morning Post, 11 June 2013.

3 Epigenetics is often defined as (the study of) modifications to the genes that impact gene expression, but do not alter DNA sequence. Epigenetic research often studies the way DNA expression is influenced by extra-genetic factors such as diet, lifestyle or toxic exposures.