“I feel like a total basket case. I feel so insecure about myself, like I am defective or something. It’s gotten to the point where I don’t feel like being around people anymore.”
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 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.
Some chemicals can affect our biology even in tiny amounts
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.
Chemicals can affect our health even before we’re born
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.
The problem of phthalates
Endocrine disruptors are found just about everywhere. Members of the phthalates chemical group are found in medical supplies, plastic wrapping, varnishes, paints, cosmetics and more. In animal studies, certain phthalates have been shown to cause a number of male reproductive developmental effects that lead to decreased fertility. In other animal studies, certain phthalates have lead to spontaneous abortions and birth defects.
Scientists, can't, of course, intentionally expose pregnant women to these chemicals to confirm that the same effects occur in us. But when researchers look at what's already happening in the human population, they see troubling corroboration of the damage seen in controlled studies with laboratory animals.
Prenatal exposure to certain phthalates has been linked to reproductive defects in boys, such as impaired testicular descent. Exposure to the phthalate DEHP (Bis (2-ethylhexyl) phthalate)—found in plastics used in floor coverings, furniture upholstery, and shower curtains to name a few products—is associated with greater frequency of cesarean section delivery.
If that weren’t troubling enough, everyday chemicals might also be interfering with pregnancies in their later stages. Certain phthalates have been linked to premature birth.
The law doesn’t work — toxic chemicals have become impossible to avoid
Unfortunately, it is an impossible challenge to avoid chemicals that may harm our fertility. How can you 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.
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 around 200 of those chemicals. TSCA lets companies introduce new chemicals — 20,000 such chemicals have entered the market since TSCA was passed — into products used by millions of people without requiring any health and safety data of them.
We need better legal protection
New legislation is under consideration that will protect against endocrine disruptors and other toxic chemicals: The Safe Chemicals Act of 2011. If passed, this legislation would require manufacturers to submit a minimum data set on all chemicals, including new chemicals before they show up in the market and our homes.
Six million American women are having difficulty conceiving a child. It is 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.
Some industry lobbyists are working hard to weaken or stop the Safe Chemicals Act, but if enough voters speak up, we can still get it passed.
Tell your Senators now to support the Safe Chemicals Act and help eliminate harmful chemicals that show up in products we buy.
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