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The Scary Ways Pollution and Other Toxins Can Damage Female Fertility

The causes of female infertility can be difficult to pinpoint. For some, infertility is a result of genetics and for others it is a matter of injury or disease. However, recent research has shown that there may be another possible reason for a global rise in infertility: environmental contamination. 

March 10, 2021
Nora Tomer

The causes of female infertility can be difficult to pinpoint. For some, infertility is a result of  genetics and for others it is a matter of injury or disease. However, recent research has shown that there may be another possible reason for a global rise in infertility: environmental contamination. 

Environmental contamination is the accidental or deliberate spread of harmful chemicals. It most often occurs as a result of human endeavors. Common types of environmental contamination include pesticides, waste products, heavy metals, and other toxins. Studies in animals and humans have shown a strong connection between the ingestion of these contaminants and a decrease in fertility. This link between pollutants and infertility may be because many of these chemicals damage the endocrine system.

A woman's torso is shown. She is wearing a long sleeved white shirt and has one wrist folded over the other.
The endocrine system is responsible for growth, movement, reproduction, and more. A faulty endocrine system can mean pain, fatigue, and even infertility.

What is The Endocrine System and How Do Pollutants Affect It?

The endocrine system is studied in most middle school health classes, yet we tend to forget exactly where it is and what it controls. Let’s have a quick refresher before we dive in.

The endocrine system is a series of glands that distribute hormones throughout the body. They are located in the brain, the throat, near the pancreas, and in the genitals. These glands control a wide variety of bodily functions, including:

  • Metabolism
  • Growth
  • Sexual maturation
  • Reproduction
  • Respiration
  • Movement

The hormones secreted by these glands are spread via the bloodstream. The hormones then seep into tissues, providing the body with important messages and signals. The ovaries and testes are components of the endocrine system. 

However, endocrine disruptors work to distort all the hard work done by the endocrine system. Endocrine disruptors are chemicals both natural and manufactured that influence the body’s natural endocrine rhythm. These chemicals may impersonate, confuse, or block certain hormones in the body. 

Some endocrine disruptors are organic compounds, but many were developed in the throes of WWII when chemical production became a lucrative industry. Now, endocrine disruptors are all around us. They are present in cosmetics, plastic bottles, flame retardants, toys, etc. They have also been cited as the cause of certain developmental, reproductive, neurological, and immune disorders. 

Examples of Common Endocrine Disruptors

95% of people have endocrine disruptors present in their bodies. To some, this may not seem very serious, but to those facing infertility any risk can be too great. So, in order to limit interactions with endocrine disruptors, we should know where they hide in our homes. 

The most common endocrine disruptor chemicals (EDCs) are:

  • Bisphenol A aka BPAs (found in certain plastics and resins)
  • Dioxins (a byproduct of herbicide and paper bleaching)
  • Parabens (chemicals used as preservatives in skin care products)
  • Perchlorate (a byproduct of the weapon, aerospace, and pharmaceutical industries often found in drinking water and fireworks)
  • Perfluoroalkyl and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances aka PFAS (found in non-stick kitchenware, textile coatings, and flame retardants)
  • Phthalates (a chemical designed to make plastics flexible and durable)
  • Phytoestrogens (natural endocrine disruptors found in plants like tofu and soy milk)
  • Polybrominated diphenyl ethers  (found in flame retardants and furniture foam)
  • Polychlorinated biphenyls (present in lubricants, plastisizers, and electrical equipment)
  • Triclosan (active in some liquid body washes)

You may also come into contact with endocrine disruptors through the air, water, or exposure to pesticides. Many of the individual EDCs listed above have been connected to various fertility disorders in animals and humans, from lower rates of implantation to epigenetic defects. There is also evidence that the influence of EDCs a mother comes into contact with during her pregnancy may follow her child throughout their life in the form of lower immune response and decreased fertility in their own adulthood. 

But EDCs are not the only environmental contaminant that is threatening your fertility. In fact, the problem goes much deeper.

An industrial work site is shown against a blue sky from an upward angle.
Industrial practices like fracking lead to the destruction of land and the release of pollutants into the earth, water, and air.

Pollution and Your Fertility

Research has shown that as the amount of pollutants and toxins in air, water, and food have risen, the rate of fertility has decreased on a global scale. These toxins often affect fertility in four distinct ways: 

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

Specific instances of infertility caused by environmental toxins include absence of ovulation, lack of implantation, impaired fetal development, and sperm immobility. Furthermore, while these pollutants can damage a person’s ability to conceive naturally, their chances of successful conception via IVF treatment also become more limited. As Dr. Joseph Pizzorno writes, “In women undergoing IVF, those with the top 25% body load of BPA levels were 211% more likely to have implantation failure.” In layman’s terms, this means that women with high levels of endocrine disruptors and pollutants are at extreme risk for continual infertility despite IVF. 

Individuals are exposed to pollutants in a variety of ways. Some, such as farmers, encounter pesticides like dicamba, glyphosate, organophosphates, and thiocarbamates on a daily basis, leading to a proportional decrease in fertility. But even those not in careers with frequent 

chemical interactions are at risk. Studies have shown that something as simple as living by a busy road can lead to a drastic decrease in fertility due to the inhalation of exhaust fumes. Air pollution may also cause certain hypertensive disorders in pregnant women. These conditions, like high blood pressure and organ damage, are the leading cause of maternal death. 

Additionally, we often encounter pollutants in food and drink. Pesticides and chemicals used in fracking contaminate water systems. These chemicals can seep directly into the water table and are not always filtered from drinking water. In other cases, toxic water may be consumed by livestock or used to water crops. We then buy meat or produce at the grocery store, leading to the more unwitting consumption of pollutants. 

Ways to Avoid EDs and Other Contaminants 

Thanks to destructive industrial practices, it is impossible to completely avoid the contaminants that threaten fertility. But, there are some small everyday practices anyone can adopt that will reduce the pollutants and EDCs we face on a daily basis. Here is a list to get you started:

  • Wash fruits and veggies to remove any lingering pesticides
  • Read the labels on foods to see if they contain harmful preservatives or additives
  • Check plastic items, like tupperware or water bottles, for BPA warnings
  • Know that seafood like tuna, salmon, and sardines have higher levels of EDCs due to ocean pollution
  • Heat and store food in glass containers since tin foil, cling film, and takeaway containers can leech EDCs into food 
  • Avoid soft plastics as they often contain phthalates. Opt for a hard plastic or metal refillable bottle instead.
  • Shiny sales receipts and coupons are a surprising source of EDCs so they should be thrown into the trash or recycling 
  • Perfumes, hair sprays, air fresheners, bug sprays, and many other aerosols contain EDCs
  • Household cleaners frequently use EDCs. Research green, chemical free products for use in your home
  • Check your beauty products for parabens
  • Campaign against industrial practices that create pollution like fracking
  • Reduce, reuse, and recycle whenever possible
A woman with her back facing the viewer stands outdoors near a pine forest. She is wearing a light blue backpack, a purple shirt, and a black beanie.y
Protecting nature isn’t just a way to protect our own health. It’s also a way to protect the health and happiness of our descendants.

Looking Forward

Rachel Carson told the world in Silent Spring that the continual contamination of the earth would lead to an absence of birth and regrowth. Over 50 years since the publication of her book, her words ring truer than ever. Our fertility and how we treat the Earth are deeply connected, and so are the issues of environmental justice and reproductive rights. 

The everyday ways of eliminating environmental contaminants are a good place to start, but it is important to push further by staying informed and active in matters concerning pollution and fertility. After all, one of the main outcomes of strong fertility is children and the least we can do is have a clean, green world waiting for them when they arrive.

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