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How chemicals in our environment threaten fertility

Posted by Lara Salahi  October 3, 2013 11:28 AM

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Every pregnant woman in the U.S. is exposed to at least 43 different chemicals during their pregnancy. 

That statistic by the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey means that babies too are coming into contact with these same chemicals. 

Sounds scary, right? Not necessarily. For one, “chemical” does not always equate to “harmful.” What’s concerning, however, is how much we don’t know about these chemicals and their potential level of harm to our reproductive health. 

One thing’s for sure: Over the past two decades, medical studies have found that regular exposure to some agents—such as plastics and pesticides -- over a prolonged period of time can have a profound impact not only on an unborn baby, but on both men and women’s abilities to reproduce. 

There’s enough preliminary evidence that the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) – the largest group of obstetricians and fertility specialists – recently released a committee report calling for stricter environmental policies to identify and limit potentially harmful chemicals.  

“Lawmakers should require the US Environmental Protection Agency and industry to define and estimate the dangers that aggregate exposure to harmful chemicals pose to pregnant women, infants, and children and act to protect these vulnerable populations,” Dr. Jeanne A. Conry, president of ACOG said in a public statement. 

But The College doesn’t stop there.  The organization is also calling for medical experts at the ground level – obstetricians, gynecologists, fertility specialists, and all who care for our reproductive health – to intervene. 

“Reproductive care providers can be effective in preventing prenatal exposure to environmental threats to health because they are uniquely poised to intervene before and during pregnancy,” the committee wrote. 

Put aside for a moment the alarmist beliefs that a laptop on your lap, or that tuna tartar you just ate just ruined your chance at conceiving. Many chemicals don’t work that way. Here’s how it does: 


Some chemicals contain endocrine disruptors and are found in certain pesticides, plastics, industrial chemicals, and fuels. Regular contact over a long period of time with these agents can mess with your hormones.

Every day we, pregnant or not, are all exposed to chemicals in our environment – anything from plastics to pesticides. The truth is, even the “greenest” of us can’t avoid it. That’s because, besides being found in certain products, some are also in our air, soil, food and water. 

The highest risk for exposure for women is at their workplace, the committee reported. However, a majority of the focus on going green tends to be geared toward making our homes cleaner, not our work space.

While studies have linked for example, high pesticide exposure to male sterility, the frustrating part is that there are still so many unknowns about chemicals and their connection to fertility. It's unclear how much exposure exactly is "too much." If you're finding it difficult to conceive, many times it's nearly impossible to know whether a certain chemical may be to blame. That's why it's important for researchers to identify the toxic agents and rigorously study its consequences to quantify our risk.

For now, don't worry about what you can't control; do something about what you can. Try to reduce and deliberate exposure, the committee advised. Until that policy change that the committee has called for happens, here are a few suggestions: Be aware of the environmental hazards around you; eat unprocessed food; avoid fish with high levels of mercury; use BPA-free products.  

Is there something you'd like me to write about? Like UltraSound Pregnancy on Facebook and leave a message or Email me
This blog is not written or edited by or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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About the author

Lara Salahi is an award-winning multimedia journalist whose specialty is reporting health and medical stories. She has worked in local, network, and cable television, international print, and documentary film. She More »

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