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Fears about declining sperm quality and quantity could be justified, according to a study in tomorrow's Lancet which shows that Finnish men are more fertile than their British peers.

The Finns are known to have the highest sperm counts in the world and appear to have escaped the falling sperm counts which are being reported from the rest of Europe. These have been linked with chemicals, such as the phthalates at the centre of the baby milk row, which mimic the female hormone oestrogen. However, the new study speculates that the "Finnish exception" to falling sperm rates may be due to lower rates of maternal smoking in Finland compared with the rest of Europe. The study by Dr Michael Joffe, a senior lecturer in public health at Imperial College, London, is significant because it assessed how long it took couples to get pregnant as a measure of fertility, rather than sperm counts or motility which are difficult to compare. "It is the first time that someone has shown a change in fertility as well as a change in sperm quality," Dr Joffe said yesterday.