Research Shows Reproductive Diseases Linked to Environmental Contaminants
New research is adding to the evidence that some pesticides and industrial chemicals may increase women’s risk of uterine and ovarian diseases, such as endometriosis. The research supports the decades-old theory that hormone-mimicking chemicals impact human reproductive systems.
Scientists have long suspected a link between estrogen-mimicking pollutants and gynecological diseases. According to Environmental Health News, research investigating a link between hormone-disrupting chemicals in the environment and gynecological diseases has had mixed results. But a new study, Persistent Lipophilic Environmental Chemicals and Endometriosis: The ENDO Study, from researchers at the National Institutes of Health and others, found that two groups of women in the Salt Lake City and San Francisco areas—one group with pelvic pain and the other with no symptoms—were more likely to be diagnosed with endometriosis if they had high blood levels of the estrogen-like pesticide hexachlorocyclohexane (HCH) than women with low levels.
HCH, a persistent organic pollutant (POP), and a byproduct of the production of the insecticide lindane (head lice treatments), has been banned as a crop pesticide in the U.S. but it persists in the environment and remains in some food supplies. Endometriosis is a female health disorder that occurs when uterine tissue grows in the ovaries or other parts of the body, often causing pelvic pain and infertility. It affects approximately 10 percent of women of reproductive age.
Similarly, in Italy, women had endometriosis more often if they had higher levels of two chlorinated chemicals that can disrupt hormones—polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) or residue of the insecticide DDT, according to a 2009 study, Endometriosis and Organochlorinated Environmental Pollutants: A Case–Control Study on Italian Women of Reproductive Age, which looked at exposure to organochlorine persistent pollutants as a risk factor for endometriosis.
Recent research has uncovered links to other gynecological problems. Women in Greece diagnosed with polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS)—which causes irregular menstrual periods, infertility, weight gain and excessive hair growth—were more likely to have higher blood levels of the estrogen-mimicking chemical bisphenol A than women without the disease, according to a study published last year.
Another recent study, Environmentally Induced Epigenetic Transgenerational Inheritance of Ovarian Disease, found that female rats exposed in the womb to high doses of several chemicals, including pesticides and plasticizers, develop cysts resembling human polycystic ovarian syndrome and premature menopause. These changes are passed down through three generations—great-granddaughters of the exposed rats also developed cysts and other ovarian problems, even though they were not directly exposed. In this study, vinclozolin, a fungicide commonly used in the wine industry, reprogrammed genes as the rat fetuses developed according to DNA analysis. Other chemicals in this study that caused multi-generational effects were dioxins, a pesticide mixture including permethrin and DEET and a plastic mixture including BPA and two widely used phthalates.
Exposure to many hormone-disrupting chemicals starts in the womb, and some scientists suspect the timing may be important in determining reproductive disease risk later in life. But because decades can pass between exposure during fetal development or early childhood and the manifestation of the disease in adult life, it can be difficult to nail down a link.
Some studies have found no connection between women’s exposure to environmental chemicals and gynecological disease. For instance, among several hundred women in Italy highly exposed to dioxins from a 1976 factory explosion, UC Berkeley scientists found no significant increase in endometriosis linked to their contaminant levels. However, emerging data is beginning to paint another picture regarding environmental contaminants and reproductive health. Previous research documented by Beyond Pesticides has shown that women who drink water containing the widely used herbicide atrazine may be more likely to have irregular menstrual cycles and low estrogen levels, even at concentrations far below federal drinking water standards considered safe by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
The danger of estrogen-like chemicals already has been well-documented with DES, or diethylstilbestrol, a drug that was prescribed to millions of women at risk of miscarriages from 1940 through 1971. Daughters and granddaughters of the pregnant women who took the potent estrogenic drug had an increased risk of endometriosis, uterine fibroids and rare reproductive cancers. In the case of uterine fibroids, the body’s natural estrogens turn genes on and off in the smooth muscle of the uterus that allow the tumors to grow, according to researchers. Investigations are underway to determine whether estrogen-mimicking chemicals in the environment affect these same genes.
“We know from animal models that there are critical periods during early development when cells are rapidly dividing and forming the circuitry through which cells will communicate with each other to form various tissues of the body,” said Retha Newbold, PhD, a reproductive biologist at the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences in North Carolina. “When chemicals alter this set-up, the changes may not be reversible.”
Pesticides have been linked to a host of diseases and other adverse effects like cancer, Parkinson’s disease and birth defects. Beyond Pesticides’ Pesticide Induced-Disease Database documents these outcomes.
By Gwen Ranniger
Fertility issues are on the rise, and new literature points to ways that your environment may be part of the problem. We've rounded up some changes you can make in your life to promote a healthy reproductive system.
Infertility and Environmental Health: The Facts<ul> <li>Sperm count is declining steeply, significantly, and continuously in Western countries, with no signs of tapering off. Erectile dysfunction is on the rise, and women are facing increasing rates of miscarriage and difficulty conceiving.</li><li>Why? A huge factor is our environmental health. Hormones (particularly testosterone and estrogen) are what make reproductive function possible, and our hormones are increasingly being negatively affected by harmful, endocrine-disrupting chemicals commonplace in the modern world—in our homes, foods, and lifestyles.</li></ul>
What You Can Do About It<p>It should be noted that infertility can be caused by any number of factors, including medical conditions that cannot be solved with a simple change at home.</p><p><em>If you or a loved one are struggling with infertility, our hearts and sympathies are with you. Your pain is validated and we hope you receive answers to your struggles.</em></p><p>Read on to discover our tips to restore or improve reproductive health by removing harmful habits and chemicals from your environment.</p>
Edit Your Health<ul><li>If you smoke, quit! Smoking is toxic, period. If someone in your household smokes, urge them to quit or institute a no-smoking ban in the house. It is just as important to avoid secondhand smoke.</li><li>Maintain a healthy weight. Make sure your caloric intake is right for your body and strive for moderate exercise.</li><li>Eat cleanly! Focus on whole foods and less processed meals and snacks. Studies have found that eating a Mediterranean-style diet is linked to increased fertility.</li><li>Minimize negative/constant stress—or find ways to manage it. Hobbies such as meditation or yoga that encourage practiced breathing are great options to reduce the physical toll of stress.</li></ul>
Edit Your Home<p>We spend a lot of time in our homes—and care that what we bring into them will not harm us. You may not be aware that many commonly found household items are sources of harmful, endocrine-disrupting compounds. Read on to find steps you can take—and replacements you should make—in your home.</p><p><strong>In the Kitchen</strong></p><ul> <li>Buy organic, fresh, unprocessed foods whenever possible. <a href="https://www.ehn.org/clean-grocery-shopping-guide-2648563801.html" target="_blank">Read our grocery shopping guide for more tips about food.</a></li><li>Switch to glass, ceramics, or stainless steel for food storage: plastics often contain endocrine-disrupting chemicals that affect fertility. <a href="https://www.ehn.org/bpa-pollution-2645493129.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Learn more about the dangers of plastic here.</a></li><li>Ban plastic from the microwave. If you have a plastic splatter cover, use paper towel, parchment paper, or an upside-down plate instead.</li><li>Upgrade your cookware: non-stick may make life easier, but it is made with unsafe chemical compounds that seep into your food. Cast-iron and stainless steel are great alternatives.</li><li>Filter tap water. Glass filter pitchers are an inexpensive solution; if you want to invest you may opt for an under-the-sink filter.</li><li>Check your cleaning products—many mainstream products are full of unsafe chemicals. <a href="https://www.ehn.org/how-to-shop-for-cleaning-products-while-avoiding-toxics-2648130273.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Check out our guide to safe cleaning products for more info</a>.</li></ul><p><strong>In the Bathroom </strong></p><ul> <li>Check the labels on your bathroom products: <em>fragrance-free, paraben-free, phthalate-free</em> and organic labels are all great signs. You can also scan the ingredients lists for red-flag chemicals such as: triclosan, parabens, and dibutyl phthalate. Use the <a href="https://www.ewg.org/skindeep/" target="_blank">EWG Skin Deep database</a> to vet your personal products.</li><li>Ditch the vinyl shower curtain—that new shower curtain smell is chemical-off gassing. Choose a cotton or linen based curtain instead.</li><li>Banish air fresheners—use natural fresheners (an open window, baking soda, essential oils) instead.</li></ul><p><strong>Everywhere Else</strong></p><ul><li>Remove wall-to-wall carpet. If you've been considering wood or tile, here's your sign: many synthetic carpets can emit harmful chemicals for years. If you want a rug, choose wool or plant materials such as jute or sisal.</li><li>Prevent dust build-up. Dust can absorb chemicals in the air and keep them lingering in your home. Vacuum rugs and wipe furniture, trim, windowsills, fans, TVs, etc. Make sure to have a window open while you're cleaning!</li><li>Leave shoes at the door! When you wear your shoes throughout the house, you're tracking in all kinds of chemicals. If you like wearing shoes inside, consider a dedicated pair of "indoor shoes" or slippers.</li><li>Clean out your closet—use cedar chips or lavender sachets instead of mothballs, and use "green" dry-cleaning services over traditional methods. If that isn't possible, let the clothes air out outside or in your garage for a day before putting them back in your closet.</li><li>Say no to plastic bags!</li><li>We asked 22 endocrinologists what products they use - and steer clear of—in their homes. <a href="https://www.ehn.org/nontoxic-products-2648564261.html" target="_blank">Check out their responses here</a>.</li></ul>
Learn More<ul><li>For more information and action steps, be sure to check out <em>Count Down: How Our Modern World Is Threatening Sperm Counts, Altering Male and Female Reproductive Development, and Imperiling the Future of the Human Race</em> by EHS adjunct scientist Shanna Swan, PhD: <a href="https://www.shannaswan.com/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">available for purchase here.</a></li><li><a href="https://www.ehn.org/st/Subscribe_to_Above_The_Fold" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Sign up for our Above the Fold Newsletter </a>to stay up to date about impacts on the environment and your health.</li></ul>
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