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Demographic evaluation of the fertility of aluminium
industry workers: influence of exposure to heat and
static magnetic fields
J.-M.Mur1,3, P.Wild1, R.Rapp1, J.-P.Vautrin1 and
1INRS, Avenue de Bourgogne, BP
and 2Socie´te´ Aluminium Pechiney,
27, 54501 Vandoeuvre Cedex
Service Me´dical Central,
Immeuble Balzac,10 Place des Vosges, 92048 Paris La Defense,
whom correspondence should be addressed
A demographic analysis of the fertility of French aluminium
industry workers was performed in order to evaluate the
potential effects on male fertility of occupational exposure
to heat and static magnetic fields occurring in certain
workshops. Two groups of aluminium workers were
studied: one group of 692 potroom workers exposed to
heat and to static magnetic fields, and a control group of
588 workers from the same plants, who had not been
exposed to these factors. The birthrate was significantly
higher in the ‘exposed’ group than in the ‘control’ group.
The relative birthrate ratio (‘exposed’ versus ‘control’)
was 1.1 (P < 0.001). These results do not show any decrease
in the fertility of potroom workers exposed to heat and
static magnetic fields, when compared to other workers in
the aluminium producing industry.
Key words: aluminium producing industry/epidemiology/fertility/heat/static magnetic fields
The adverse effects of heat on male fertility have been observed
in humans for more than 20 years (Brun and Clavert, 1977;
Zorgniotti, 1981), and even longer in animals (Howarth, 1969).
Several studies on the reproductive effects of occupational
exposure to heat of male workers have been performed, the
results of which have been presented in reviews (Knave and
Tornqvist, 1985; Cohen, 1986; Henderson et al., 1986; Martin
and Mur, 1986; Williams, 1993; Lahdetie, 1995).
On the other hand, electromagnetic fields have also been
suspected to alter the fertility of humans (Lancranjan et al.,
1975) and of animals (Aldrich and Easterly, 1987); however,
the results of the majority of experimental studies were
negative, as reported in two reviews (Veicsteinas, 1985;
During an epidemiological study of the occupational risks
in the aluminium producing industry, a number of workers
exposed to heat and static magnetic fields expressed their fear
of possible hypofertility linked to their occupational exposure.
In order to ascertain the reality of this risk, we compared the
fertility of these workers with that of workers in the same
factories who were not exposed to these factors.
Materials and methods
The study was carried out among the workers of 11 French aluminium
producing factories situated in the Alps and the Pyrenees. Aluminium
is produced by the electrolytic reduction of alumina in pots. The
workers involved in this operation are called potroom workers. Close
to the electrolysis baths, the potroom workers are exposed to heat
and static magnetic fields. The levels of exposure to heat were
calculated using a mathematical model for thermal regulation in
humans (Gagge et al., 1971) and were expressed by the increase of
the central body temperature (∆tcr), in °C (the maximum allowable
value is 0.8°C). These specific measurements were made in winter
and in summer. The static magnetic fields were measured using an
electromagnetic fields measurement apparatus (RFL®, model 505,
RFL Electronics Inc. Boonton Tnp., NJ. USA), equipped with two
Hall-effect probes (semiconductor used for the measurement of
The data for evaluating the fertility of the workers were obtained
exclusively from the administrative files of the company; thus it was
only possible to obtain the dates of birth of the worker and of his
wife, the marriage date, the number of children (and date of birth of
the last child) born live up to 31 December 1976.
These data were the latest relating to the workers still working in
Eligibility criteria of the workers studied included: French nationality (in order to avoid cultural differences in sexual habits), marriage
after entering the company (this was necessary in order to ascertain
the number of children born after the start of occupational exposure),
and worked for at least 1 year in the company, without any major
change in the type of activity. The job histories of the workers were
obtained from the administrative files of the company.
Two groups of workers fulfilling these criteria were identified: the
exposed group (n 5 692), members of which had always worked as
potroom workers, and the control group (n 5 588), mainly employed
at maintenance operations, and who had never worked as potroom
workers (‘control’ group). All were blue-collar workers.
As we did not know the dates of birth for all the children of each
couple, but only the date of birth of the last child, the annual birthrates
of each couple after the marriage were calculated by dividing the
total number of children of the couple by the number of years between
the marriage date and the date of birth of the last child (linear
interpolation). This approximation underestimates the birthrates during
the first years of marriage when compared to the national birthrates.
We calculated the standardized birthrate ratio (SBR) in the ‘exposed’
and ‘control’ groups, using indirect standardization on the length of
marriage, taking as reference the annual birthrate per couple in the
French population between 1945 and 1975 (INSEE, 1978). The
confidence intervals for the SBR were determined by using the normal
approximation of the binomial distribution law. The ratio SBR
‘exposed’/SBR ‘controls’ gave an estimation of the relative birthrate
ratio (RBR) and its confidence interval was calculated (Breslow and
The matrimonial characteristics (year of marriage, age of husband
and wife at time of marriage) of the two groups were compared using
© European Society for Human Reproduction and Embryology
Fertility of aluminium industry workers
Table I. General characteristics of workers in the aluminium producing
Table II. Number of live births in relation to length of time elapsed since
date of marriage (N: number; M: mean; S: standard deviation) in workers in
the aluminium producing industry
Exposed group Control group
Number of workers
Year of marriage: mean (SD)
Age at time of marriage (years): mean (SD)
Heavy drinkers: %
Length of employment (years):
Number of years French
Significant difference: *P , 0.01.
The levels of exposure of potroom workers to heat (∆tcr)
evaluated in winter ranged from 0.1°C to 1.1°C. In summer,
they were above the maximum allowable level (0.8°C) for
most potroom workers.
The strength of the magnetic fields measured near the pots
was ~4–30 mT. In the passageways where potroom workers
mainly stay, the exposure levels were lower: 20 mT maximum.
These values were generally below the limit value suggested
in the USA: 20 mT (Miller, 1987).
There was no significant difference between the ‘exposed’
and ‘control’ groups for the average year of marriage, and the
average age of the workers and of their spouses at the time of
marriage (Table I).
Exposed workers were more frequently smokers than unexposed ones.
The length of employment in the aluminium industry was
not significantly different between exposed and non-exposed
The numbers of live births, in both groups, in relation to
length of time elapsed since the date of marriage, are indicated
in Table II.
Whatever the time elapsed since the date of marriage, the
average number of live births in the ‘exposed’ group was
greater than that in the ‘control’ group; in addition, the average
number of live births in both groups of aluminium industry
workers was greater than the national average. For instance,
30 years after marriage, the average numbers of live births
were 2.63 (61.34) for the ‘control’ group, and 3.11 (61.74)
for the ‘exposed’ group (P , 0.05). The reference value in
the French population was 2.28.
The standardized birth ratio (SBR) in the ‘control’ group
was: 1.04 (95% CI: 0.98–1.09) and in the ‘exposed’ group:
1.17 (95% CI: 1.12–1.23). The relative birthrate ratio (RBR 5
1.13) was significantly higher than 1 (P , 0.001).
The index taken for estimating the fertility of these workers
was the number of live births since the marriage. As data for
evaluating the fertility of the workers were obtained exclusively
from the administrative files of the company, we could not
take into account the following factors: miscarriages and
abortions, births before or outside wedlock, the contraceptive
Standardized birth ratios (SBR)
95% confidence interval
Relative risk of birth (RRB)
Comparisons between French population and aluminium industry workers
(Student’s t-test): **P , 0.01; ***P , 0.001.
Comparisons between exposed and control groups (Student’s t-test): 1P ,
0.05, 11P , 0.01, 111P , 0.001.
Significance of relative risk of birth (RRB): °°P , 0.01.
practices of the couples, non-occupational factors influencing
the fertility of the man and/or woman (e.g. smoking, which
can alter male fertility, was more frequent in the ‘exposed’
than in the ‘non-exposed’ group; this could have been a bias
if fertility was reduced in the ‘exposed’ group, but this was
not the case).
It is unlikely, however, that these factors should differ
between the ‘exposed’ and ‘control’ groups, since they were
composed of workers from within the same factories, who
belonged to the same socio–professional category and were
all of French nationality.
The object of the study was to see whether the working
conditions of potroom workers in the aluminium industry, who
are exposed to heat and to static magnetic fields, have any
effects on male fertility.
Our results are not in accordance with those of numerous
experimental and epidemiological studies which showed an
adverse effect of heat on male fertility. These include experimental studies which were performed on rats or mice, either
with direct exposure of animals to heat (Parvinen, 1973;
Knecht et al., 1978; Bedrak et al., 1980) or with exposure to
microwaves (Abadir et al., 1979; Saunders and Kowalczuk,
1981; Saunders et al., 1983), the effects of which are due to
local heat generated in the testes (Erwin, 1988).
Exposure to heat in a Finnish sauna bath of 12 married
medical students resulted in a lowered sperm count followed
by rapid recovery (Procope, 1965). Changes in spermatogenesis
have been observed in subjects exposed to heat (Brun and
Clavert, 1977), and in feverish subjects (Zorgniotti, 1981).
The role of hyperthermia on the testicles has also been put
J.-M.Mur et al.
forward as an explanation for the hypofertility of subjects
suffering from varicocele, and would appear to be confirmed
by experimental studies during which a lowering of the
temperature of the testicles had led to an improvement of
spermatogenesis (Zorgniotti, 1981).
Several epidemiological case-control studies showed a clear
relationship between occupational exposure to heat and a
decrease in male fertility, delayed conception (Rachootin and
Olsen, 1983; Baird and Wilcox, 1986) and oligozoospermia
(Chia et al., 1994). Studies conducted in the ceramics industry
(Figa-Talamanca et al., 1992) and in welders (Bonde, 1992)
showed sperm abnormalities in workers exposed to heat. Only
one epidemiological study was negative and could not relate
the summer decrease in sperm count to heat in outdoor workers
(Levine et al., 1992).
On the other hand, our results are in accordance with
those of most studies, which did not reveal any effect of
electromagnetic fields on male fertility, if one omits the effects
of microwaves, which can be explained by an increase of heat
in the testes (Erwin, 1988). The effects on spermatogenesis or
on sperm indices were negative in mice exposed to low
frequency magnetic fields (Picazo et al. 1995; de Vita et al.,
1995) or to static magnetic fields (Tablado et al., 1996) or to
pulsed electromagnetic radiation (Baum et al., 1976).
In an epidemiological case-control study, there was no
relationship between sperm parameters and occupational exposure to high or medium magnetic fields (Lundberg et al.,
1995). Two epidemiological studies on workers in high-voltage
substations (Knave et al., 1979) and on operators of plastic
welding machines (Mild et al., 1987) failed to reveal any
fertility effect related to exposure of male workers to electromagnetic fields.
Despite the presence of at least one real risk factor (exposure
to heat), we have observed significantly greater birthrates in
the ‘exposed’ group than in the ‘control’ group. The potroom
workers are also exposed to other agents, of a chemical
nature, in particular fluoride products and polycyclic aromatic
hydrocarbons. We have no knowledge of any effects of these
products on male fertility. The comparison with the national
reference reveals that fertility in the ‘exposed’ and ‘control’
groups is greater than that of the population as a whole. This
difference can be attributed to regional disparities in the
birthrates (INSEE, 1981), and to the socio–professional category of the subjects studied. We are concerned here with
blue-collar workers whose fertility is higher than that of other
socio–professional categories included in the national reference
To conclude, this study does not bring to light any depression
of the fertility of potroom workers exposed to heat and static
magnetic fields when these workers are compared to others in
the aluminium producing industry. An opposite hypothesis
may be supported by the results, but needs further study.
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Received on October 2, 1997; accepted on April 8, 1998