We are exposed to a soup of chemical toxicants daily. Going through a regular day, the average person encounters a constant stream of toxic chemicals from personal care products, food, water, canned goods, plastic water bottles and food containers, air fresheners, perfumes, cleaning products, scented laundry products, diesel exhaust …. And this is just the start. And unfortunately there is a significant body of research showing that these chemicals do have numerous negative health impacts, including significant impacts on fertility and reproductive health as well as the health of the fetus and future generations.
In fact, we have so much research backing this up that in October 2013, The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists and the American Society for Reproductive Medicine issued a joint statement that “Patient exposure to toxic environmental chemicals and other stressors is ubiquitous, and preconception and prenatal exposure to toxic environmental agents can have a profound and lasting effect on reproductive health across the life course.”
So how can toxic chemicals that a mother and father are exposed to affect their fertility and the health of their future baby? Firstly, many of the chemicals can damage the health of the egg and sperm and can be passed from mom to baby via the placenta and breastmilk. In fact, we know that babies are born pre-polluted. In 2004 and 2009 the Environmental Working Group conducted studies in which they tested the umbilical cord blood of babies and they found on average that the umbilical cord blood contained at least 230 industrial chemicals including known carcinogens. And, many of these chemicals are what we call endocrine disrupting chemicals.
What are endocrine disrupting chemicals?
Endocrine disrupting chemicals, or EDCs for short, are chemicals that can mess with our bodies’ endocrine system – what many know of as the hormone system. Under the guidance of the endocrine system, our bodies produce and are regulated by very specific amounts of low doses of hormones released at specific times that bind to specific receptors throughout the body to trigger cellular responses. Our natural hormones are responsible for numerous functions in the body including sexual development, pregnancy, thyroid function, hunger, weight regulation, and growth amongst others.
When absorbed through our skin, breathed in or ingested through our food or drink, EDCs essentially mimic our body’s own hormones, causing hormonal signals that shouldn’t happen. They can dock onto cell receptors in our bodies reserved for our own hormones such as estrogen and cause the cells to behave as if real estrogen has docked and cause signals that shouldn’t happen. And, they can also block our own body’s hormones from docking onto receptors thus preventing the messages of our natural hormones, all altering complex reproductive and bodily functions. Basically causing big hormonal mess.
And because our bodies are naturally tuned to respond to really low levels of hormones, the chronic low doses of these endocrine disrupting chemicals we are exposed to actually make them more likely to cause disruption of our body’s hormonal signaling. In other words, they disrupt the endocrine system specifically because they are in low doses all the time since that is how the endocrine system works.
And unfortunately we all have EDCs in our bodies. The CDC has measured over 200 chemicals and their metabolites in the US population, and some of these chemicals, such as BPA, are found in 93-98% of the population. And almost every chemical grouping we are exposed to daily has been implicated in fertility-related endocrine disruption (including, for example, bisphenol-A and BPA alternatives, phthalates, parabens, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, pesticides, heavy metals, polybrominated diphenylethers, dioxins, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), perfluorinated compounds and triclosan). A growing number of research studies find that individuals who struggle to conceive have even higher levels of some EDCs and we know that higher levels of some EDCs are associated with a decreased chance of becoming pregnant among couples who use assisted reproductive technologies, like IVF.
BPA is one of the most ubiquitous chemicals and endocrine disruptors in our environment and it is one of the most researched EDCs in relation to fertility. As one example, in a study published in 2013 in the Journal of Reproductive Toxicology which analyzed the urine of 209 women undergoing infertility treatments at Massachusetts General Hospital Fertility Center demonstrated a significant trend of higher bisphenol A (BPA) levels associated with lower antral follicle count. In this study, those women with the highest documented urinary BPA levels showed a 17% decrease in antral follicle count (1). And another study published in 2016 in the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism examined 239 women who underwent IVF and found that the women with the highest exposure to BPA only had a 17 percent rate of pregnancy versus 54 percent of women who got pregnant with the lowest exposure of BPA (2). Additionally, both human and animal studies have strongly suggested a role of BPA in the development of polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS), one of the most common female endocrinopathies and a leading cause of female infertility (3-10). Several studies show that women with PCOS had higher bodily BPA concentrations, including in their follicular fluid, than healthy women (3-10).
Additionally, the embryo, fetus and infant are especially vulnerable to EDCs because they are undergoing critical developmental stages which are regulated by specific levels of hormones.
For example, phthalates, one of the EDCs which are ubiquitous in the environment – in every scented product and in most every plastic product — mimics estrogen, and in the developing male fetus, can actually lead to a cluster of symptoms called “phthalate syndrome” which includes cryptorchidism (undescended testicles), small penis, hypospadias (a birth defect when the urethra is in the wrong place and not at the tip of the penis but on the shaft) and a shorter anogenital distance, which is a marker of feminization. And boys that have this cluster of symptoms are more likely to develop testicular cancer in adulthood and are more likely to experience fertility problems and have poor sperm quality, lower sperm counts, and lower testosterone levels. Furthermore, exposure to EDCs in utero has also been linked to small gestational size, abnormal brain development, early puberty, PCOS, diabetes, obesity and even the development of heart disease later in life.
So if your goal is to improve your chances of becoming pregnant and protect the health of your baby, it is important to understand what you can do to reduce your exposure to EDCs. While it’s impossible to avoid endocrine disruptors completely, there are simple things you can do to greatly limit your exposure.
10 Simple Ways to Avoid Endocrine Disruptors
- Choose fresh, unpackaged foods and BPA-free cans. This will greatly reduce your exposure to BPA, phthalates, perfluorinated chemicals (PFCs) and other endocrine disruptors from food processing and packaging.
- Avoid plastic food containers and drinking bottles. Plastic Tupperware, plastic takeaway containers, cling wrap, and foil also contain EDCs that leach into food, especially if heated or if the food is fatty or acidic. So choose glass Tupperware and storage containers and never heat food or drink in plastic Tupperware or baby bottles. Even BPA-free plastic contains other EDCs such as BPS (Bisphenol S), which can be just as or more harmful.
And plastic water bottles and other soft plastic bottles contain EDCs and plasticizers that leach into the liquid and even more so when hot (you can taste the plastic in a water bottle that has been left in a hot car). So instead, drink from glass or stainless steel bottles and take your stainless steel mug with you for your daily coffee or tea.
- Cook with stainless steel, cast iron, titanium or ceramic pans rather than non-stick. Not only are these pans free of perfluorinated chemicals (PFCs), but they often last longer and give you better tasting foods.
- Buy organic produce when possible, following Environmental Working Group’s guidelines. This will help limit your exposure to endocrine-disrupting pesticides and herbicides. Follow EWG’s “Dirty Dozen” list found here to guide you in which produce items are more important for buying organic.
- Choose fragrance-free and paraben-free cosmetics and beauty products and avoid perfumes. This will reduce your exposure to phthalates, parabens and other endocrine disruptors. Products naturally scented with essential oils are likely to be endocrine disruptor-free, but double check to make sure that the fragrances are from pure essential oils. And definitely avoid commercial perfumes which are full of phthalates and hundreds of other EDCs and toxicants that the manufacturers don’t even have to disclose!
- Choose safer household cleaning product and avoid air fresheners. Many household products such as soaps, detergents, hand soaps, hand sanitizers, cleaning agents, laundry products and carpet cleaners, contain a plethora of EDCs and toxicants that can be released into the air. Reduce your exposure to EDCs by choosing safer products that are free of fragrances and harmful chemicals such as triclosan and quaternary ammonia compounds. Use the Environmental Working Group Guide for Healthy Cleaning for a list of their Top Green Cleaning Products at https://www.ewg.org/guides/cleaners/content/top_products or follow their suggestions to make your own cleaning products.
- Filter your water and consider using a reverse osmosis filter. Filtering your water with an activated carbon filter, such as Brita or Pur, will reduce arsenic, atrazine, lead and the presence of other endocrine disrupting metals. If you can go the extra step and invest in a reverse osmosis filter, you will reduce perchlorate content, as well.
- Vacuum your house with a HEPA filter. Since so many endocrine disruptors are found in dust, a HEPA filter on your vacuum cleaner can help reduce dusty toxins in your home. Keeping your home clean and tidy on a regular basis will also help your air stay cleaner and healthier.
- Buy fewer plastics. BPA and other endocrine disruptors can leach out of any kind of plastic, including children’s toys, plastic wrap and all the various plastic recyclables, especially plastics with the symbol #3, #6 and #7. Remember that your skin is an organ, so holding, touching and using plastics will increase your exposure to the various endocrine disruptors. Try to buy wooden and cloth toys for kids.
- Get rid of your receipts! The shiny surface covering many sales receipts (thermal paper) contains BPA, so avoid handling these receipts (especially with wet fingers), and throw out all those old copies in your wallet or at the bottom of your bag. And if you do touch them, be sure to wash your hands with soap and water and definitely don’t touch any food!
Lastly – check out the EWG’s Top Dirty Dozen Endocrine Disruptors list and the EWG website for more helpful and healthful information!!
Simple changes, like the ones here, can make a big difference in decreasing your daily exposure to EDCs. Knowing where harmful chemicals can be found and what you can do to avoid them is the first step towards improving your health, your fertility and the health of your future child.
I hope you feel empowered to make some healthy changes with these tips under your belt!
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