Infertility: Toxins and Reproductive Health

Chemist checking toxin levels for reproductive health measures

Infertility: Toxins and Reproductive Health

There are an abundance of chemicals that can impair fertility — chemicals that are extremely hard to avoid in everyday life.

Research implicates prenatal exposures to synthetic chemicals affect hormonal activity. To be more specific, phthalates — can lead to female reproductive toxicity.

Hormone-disrupting phthalates can be found in everything from plastics and household goods to personal care products. Studies reveal they are harmful to a women’s reproductive system. Phthalates are used in  products to make them more flexible, resilient — and aromatic. The phthalates escape from these products as vapors or particles and are found in the urine of nearly every American, as well as in blood, sweat, breast milk, semen, and ovarian fluids.

Fighting the Fight Against Toxic Chemicals

Jodi Flaws, Ph.D., a Professor and Director of the Interdisciplinary Environmental Toxicology Program at the University of Illinois shared, “Phthalates are well-known hormone-disrupting chemicals. They can interfere with the production, elimination, or binding of any hormones in the body. And the reproductive system in particular is extremely sensitive to these compounds.”

The hormone-disrupting chemicals change how reproductive organs develop in the womb in animal studies. Scientists think prenatal exposures to phthalates may set the stage for PCOS and other disorders —which can impair fertility.

Studies by Dr. Flaws and her colleagues over the past few years have shown that female mice exposed in the womb to the same phthalate mixtures detected in pregnant women are born with fertility problems that they pass on to their female offspring. “Some problems will be evident at birth and some might not show up until puberty or later in life,” Dr. Flaws stated. “We’re starting to think the same thing happens in humans.”

Studies on Phthalates

“The whole process of making eggs and sperm is completely controlled by hormones,” said Patricia Hunt, Ph.D., a reproductive biologist at Washington State University. “In experiments, we can screw things up really, really badly with toxic exposures in developing males and females and permanently change an animal’s reproduction.”

Studies of phthalates effects on women have found problems. A 2018 study indicated an association between phthalate exposure and poor egg and embryo quality in women undergoing fertility treatments.

“It’s hard for an individual to stop all their phthalate exposures because they’re so pervasive,” stated Dr. Woodruff, Ph.D., Director of the Program on Reproductive Health and the Environment at the University of California, San Francisco.

Doctors advised to make small changes, including reducing exposure by choosing ‘phthalate-free’ personal care products and avoiding scented soaps, air fresheners, fabric softeners and other cleansers. Cutting down on takeout food can also reduce exposures. “If you eat a higher diet of food prepared outside the home, you’re going to have higher exposure to phthalates,” Dr. Woodruff stated. “It’s not clear whether the chemicals are leaching from processing equipment, packaging materials or food-handling gloves, she added, “but it’s better to eat fresh fruits and vegetables prepared in your home.”

Fertility and Toxins

Women undergoing IVF with higher phthalate levels had a lower number of retrieved eggs, lower pregnancy rates, and higher risk of early pregnancy loss before 20 weeks gestation. In men, phthalates can cause sperm damage, and is associated with abnormal sperm parameters like motility.

Environmental toxins cause infertility in basically four ways:

  • Endocrine disruption
  • Damage to the female reproductive system
  • Damage to the male reproductive system
  • Impaired fetal viability

This damage not only decreases natural fertility but also makes in vitro fertilization (IVF) less likely to succeed. More studies are needed, as fertility specialists are just getting to the tip of the iceberg of understanding toxin-induced infertility.

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