In the News: Smokers are passing down health problems to future generations

If you’re trying to get pregnant and your partner smokes and drinks now might be the best time for him to quit smoking and cut down on his drinking.  Smoking is linked to birth defects such as spina bifida and cleft palate while drinking large amounts of alcohol has been linked to heart defects, among other problems.


While it is well known that a mother-to-be’s health and diet can affect the future health of her unborn child, new research from the University of Idaho suggests that their partners have an equally important role to play.

Toxic chemicals in cigarettes and alcohol are thought to cause changes in the DNA which are passed down via the sperm to future generations. So even if a smoker’s child never starts smoking, they might still carry the associated risks.

The message is simple: Men are as important as women in terms of their impact on the baby and their health in later life and men who smoke and drink could be endangering the health of their future children and grandchildren.

This warning came along with another warning about a widely used pesticide which may cause prostate and kidney problems across many generations. The pesticide research, presented at the annual conference of the American Association for Advancement of Science, centred around vinclozolin, which is used on oilseed rape in the UK and on grapes and fruit and vegetables in other parts of the world. When it was injected into unborn rats in the first days of life it caused prostate and kidney problems in the young animals. The rats’ sons, grandsons and great-grandsons also suffered prostate and kidney defects. Previous work showed that exposure to vinclozolin in the womb can also affect the quality and quantity of sperm for several generations.

Admittedly, concentrations of the pesticide used were much higher than those people would normally be exposed to, but the experiments provide evidence that the effects of toxins can persist for generations.

The study also underlines the importance of suspending our long held assumption that men are less important in healthy human reproduction than women. Fortunately, not all damage to sperm is permanent and any man hoping to start a family should think twice about drinking and smoking. This is because when both mother and father-to-be minimise their exposure to toxic chemicals, the risk of potential reproductive harm is minimised.

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