The Impact of The Environment on Your Fertility
Every little thing counts when you are trying to conceive, from when you have sex to what you eat. The world around you can also significantly impact your fertility. Every year, thousands of chemicals are produced in excess of 1000 and even 10,000 tons per year. Yet, little is actually known about the safety of many of these chemicals on the human body, while even less is known about the effects on the reproductive system.
As infertility rates continue to climb in many countries, more and more experts are looking at possible environmental factors as a potential cause of infertility. Increasingly, studies are being done to evaluate the safety of various chemicals, toxins and pesticides; numerous tests have found alarming results.
Unfortunately, though, fewer clinical evaluations are being performed on women than on men. Because it is significantly harder to assess the function and quality of a woman’s reproductive system, fewer studies have been done on females.
However, many environmental toxins have been shown to be just as harmful for women as they are for men, including radiation, lead ethylene glycol ethers and cigarette smoke. Therefore, many experts feel that it is safe to assume that any chemical that negatively impacts a male is likely to have a similarly detrimental effect in a woman.
Pesticides have a long history in causing health and reproductive problems in people who are continuously exposed to these strong chemicals. Here is just a sampling of various findings:
- Women who live near crops on which particular pesticides have been used may have anywhere from a 40 to 120% increased risk of miscarriage.
- DDT and chlordane are of particular concern as they have both been found to reduce sperm counts as well as damage the seminiferous tubules. Chlordane has also been linked to cancer.
- Chlorpyrifos has been found to cause autoimmune responses whereby your own body attacks your sperm or egg
- Many pesticides have been restricted because of their proven links with reduced sperm counts, including kepone (pesticide); DBCP (agricultural nematocide); and ethylene dibromide (pesticide)
It is important to note, though, that many of the studies conducted on pesticides only examined those people who live in an agricultural area or regularly work with pesticides. Therefore, not everyone is likely to have such a high-exposure to these chemicals. However, even a low-level exposure to pesticides has been found to cause health problems.
Whether knowingly or unknowingly, everyday you are exposed to numerous harmful chemicals. Because many of the toxins and chemicals that are causing concern for infertility specialists today did not exist before the 20th century, the problems and consequences of exposure to these chemicals is a new phenomenon.
While tests have been done on some chemicals, many have yet to be examined by toxicologists. Those that have been studied have often been tested with the assumption that the higher the dose, the worse the effects. Therefore, often only high doses of these chemicals have been studied. Yet, numerous chemicals can do serious damage even at low doses.
Many are aware that workplace exposure to toxins can result in high-level contaminations. French scientists first made a link between job occupation and reproductive problems in 1860 when they found that wives of lead workers were more likely to have troubles conceiving as well as higher rates of miscarrying.
It has been well documented how working with pesticides and other toxins often leads to low sperm counts and poor sperm quality in men. Recently, work environments that have not traditionally been associated with an excess of harsh chemical solvents, like hair salons, spas and dry cleaners, have been linked with an increased rate of miscarriage among their female employees.
However, this doesn’t mean that, just because you work somewhere with few chemicals, you are safe. Scientists are now examining the effects of low-level exposure to toxins and chemicals, the kind that most people are exposed to everyday, and are finding that even this level of toxic exposure can have harmful effects on the reproductive system.
Chemicals and toxins can be found in water, soil, air and food, making exposure to them virtually unavoidable. How do they end up in all these places? Sometimes they are dumped into a water supply or the ground, thereby polluting the water or soil for years.
Other times, as the chemicals break down, their particles settle and contaminate the environment, like PCBs which were banned from use in the 1970s. Yet, traces of the chemicals contained within PCBs can still be found in the environment today. And then there are the chemicals that are put right into our food.
Pesticides are often used on crops, which are then sold in your local produce department. Processed foods often have additives and preservatives added to them in order to give them a longer shelf life as well as help them stay tasty. Some additives, like MSG, have been found to reduce fertility in animal tests. Additionally, eating a diet heavily based in processed foods can lead to obesity, which can also lead to fertility problems.
Some studies have shown a relation between endometriosis and certain environmental toxins. In particular, dioxin has been singled out as a possible cause of endo. However, there are some conflicting studies on this topic, making it difficult to say for sure that these chemicals are the reason behind endometriosis.
Personal Care Products
Numerous personal care items, like shampoos and soaps, are loaded with harmful chemicals. Some chemicals, despite the fact that they are known to be harmful, continue to be used in far too many products. One such toxin is phthalates.
Phthalates are industrial plasticizers used in numerous cosmetics and personal care items. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has conducted two investigations on the effects of the toxin and to evaluate the level of exposure in humans. Their findings showed that both men and women had astoundingly high (and unsafe) levels of phthalates. Women were found to have exceptionally high levels of phthalates.
Although phthalates are banned from use in Europe, the United States has yet to follow suit. In fact, because US labeling laws don’t require the ingredients of fragrances (where phthalates are often used) to be listed, phthalates are often not mentioned on packaging at all. Therefore, people cannot avoid using them even if they want to.
Phthalates are known to damage both the female and male reproductive organs. Despite the fact that men tend to have lower levels of phthalates than women, males seem to suffer the most severe reproductive consequences. Among the effects, phthalates can cause low sperm counts, damaged or absent epididymus, absent or damaged testicles and an absent prostate gland in males.
Another common toxin found in personal care items is paraben. Because this regular cosmetic preservative can imitate estrogen when it is absorbed into your body, there is concern over what kind of impact this places on your hormonal system. But parabens are not the only source of estrogen-like substances or endocrine disrupters. PVC plastics also contain chemicals that can mimic estrogen and interfere with your body’s hormones.
Endocrine disrupters, chemicals that can cause your genes to mutate and change, are becoming a growing concern. Never has the serious effects of these chemicals been more apparent than when the UK Environment Agency conducted a survey that showed the dangerous effects of water pollution.
After studying 42 British rivers in 2004, researchers noted that a third of the male fish living in these rivers had begun to grow female genitals. Surveyors believe this is the result of a build up of endocrine disrupters in the environment that are typically found in pesticides, shampoos, plastics and food packaging.
What You Can Do
While it is almost inevitable that you will be exposed to chemicals and toxins during your lifetime, you can take an active role in reducing your contact with them:
- Avoid using pesticides on your lawn and plants
- Buy organic foods
- Use natural, organic personal care products
- Always work in a well-ventilated area and/or wear a face mask when working with chemicals (including when you paint and do home repairs)
It is suspected that the effects of the environmental toxins that you are exposed to may impact your offspring as well. While there are some long-term studies being developed, there is currently no evidence to back this up just yet.