A number of studies point to a connection between early development in the womb and male reproductive problems in later life, especially low sperm counts. For example, men whose pregnant mothers were exposed to high levels of toxic dioxins as a result of the 1976 industrial accident in Seveso, Italy have been found to have lower-than-average sperm counts. But men exposed to dioxins in adulthood showed no such effect. Another study found women who ate large amounts of beef during pregnancy, a diet rich in potentially damaging chemicals called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), had sons with relatively low sperm counts. But eating beef as an adult man shows no similar impact.
Meanwhile, studies of migrants between Sweden and Finland, showed that a man's lifetime risk of testicular cancer tends to follow the country he was born in rather than the country where he was brought up. It was his mother's environment when she was pregnant with him, rather than his own as a boy or as an adolescent, that seems to have largely determined a man's risk of testicular cancer.
One of the strongest pieces of evidence in support of this idea comes from studies of people who smoke. A man who smokes typically reduces his sperm count by a modest 15 per cent or so, which is probably reversible if he quits. However, a man whose mother smoked during pregnancy has a fairly dramatic decrease in sperm counts of up to 40 per cent – which also tends to be irreversible.
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