Some chemicals may make it harder to have kids

Nearly seven million American women are struggling to get pregnant.

It can be difficult to figure out exactly why a woman is having trouble conceiving. For one-third of couples experiencing infertility, complications can be traced to the man. In another third of cases, complications can be traced to the woman. And for the remaining cases, infertility complications can be traced to both or are simply unknown. Uncertainty adds to the frustration, and can make women and men feel inadequate or blame themselves.

Emerging research suggests that some chemicals found in products we use every day may be contributing to difficulties conceiving. We use scented laundry detergent and air fresheners or handle cash register receipts without realizing we are exposing ourselves to chemicals that might interfere with our ability to have children.

Low levels can affect our health

Certain chemicals can fool our bodies by mimicking natural hormones like estrogen. These chemicals can disrupt the normal function of our hormones (the endocrine system). Scientists call these hormone-mimicking chemicals “endocrine disruptors.” Research suggests that certain endocrine disruptors can throw off our hormones in ways that contribute to reproductive problems and reduced fertility.

Even if you avoid high levels of exposure to endocrine disruptors, you may still be at risk from low-level exposures. Animal studies have revealed that even very small amounts of endocrine-disrupting chemicals can seriously disrupt endocrine system function with damage equal to, and in some cases greater than, that caused by higher amounts. For example, a study in mice found that the endocrine disruptor bisphenol A (BPA)—found in water bottles, food can linings, and receipt paper—can damage the reproductive tract even when only a very small dose of BPA is administered. During critical periods of development, exposure to BPA can have serious adverse effects.

Exposure during pregnancy

One of the most worrisome findings from research on endocrine disruptors is that early life exposures to such chemicals can result in long-term damage.

Indeed, these chemicals can have some of their worst consequences when exposure to them occurs prenatally. Even before a baby girl is born, the chemicals she is exposed to through her mother have potential to influence whether she’ll suffer from fertility problems when she grows up.

In animal studies, prenatal exposure to BPA can lead to physical defects in the uterus of the developing female fetus. Uterine damage can lead to infertility later in life.

Animal studies also have found that certain phthalates (used in plastics and personal care products) can disrupt normal male reproductive developmental and lead to decreased fertility. Other studies link certain phthalates to spontaneous abortions, birth defects and premature births.

Toxic chemicals are unavoidable

Unfortunately, it is an impossible challenge for each of us personally to try to avoid chemicals that may harm our fertility. Should we really be expected to learn and know which products contain hazardous chemicals? And even if we could avoid chemicals that scientists know are problematic, we’d still run the risk of exposing ourselves to any of the thousands of chemicals that have not been adequately assessed.

It may be too late to protect current generations of women (and men) from endocrine disruptors or other exposures they may have experienced before they were born, but there’s still time to protect the children they hope to have.

Why are we in this situation?

The Toxic Substances Control Act was enacted in 1976. It’s one of our oldest and least effective environmental laws and desperately needs to be reformed. When it was passed, it grandfathered in 60,000 already-existing chemicals without requiring that they be assessed for safety. Since then, EPA has only been able to require testing of a few hundred of those chemicals. TSCA lets companies introduce new chemicals — more than 20,000 such chemicals have entered the market since TSCA was passed — into products used by millions of people without requiring any assurance of safety.