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Did you know that pregnancy is a time when a woman's body can dump stored toxins onto the developing fetus?
Studies have shown that the increased metabolism during pregnancy causes toxins to move from their storage site (like bones and fat) into the mother’s blood circulation. This movement then results in fetal exposure to toxins.
Understanding the different fertility toxins and how they can be prevented, is one way to change your fertility journey. Based on research and experience, I have compiled information and tips that you will be able to apply immediately.
In a study that included over 1600 mother-child pairs in Mexico, where the mothers were recruited during pregnancy or delivery, it was found that maternal bone is a source of fetal lead exposure.
So let’s first talk about lead as a fertility toxin and how it can impact pregnancy and baby.
Fertility toxin # 1: Lead
In that large Mexican study, it further stated that fetal lead exposure resulted in
- Increased risk of pregnancy loss
- Low birth weight of the baby, and
- Smaller head circumference of the baby
Furthermore, early life exposure to lead was associated with learning and behavioral problems, high blood pressure and lower weight of the child during childhood.
Common sources of lead
To avoid a fertility toxin, we need to know its sources. According to ATSDR (Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, which is a public health agency in the United States), here are some common sources of lead exposure:
- Lead-based paints from walls
- Lead contaminated dust on the floor of a home
- Lead exhaust from leaded gasoline
- Lead contaminated water from lead-containing pipes and faucets is frequently found in plumbing of buildings built before 1978
- Lead from exposure to cigarette smoke (including secondhand tobacco smoke exposure)
- Lead in soil, air, and water, especially near sites of prior or ongoing mining operations
- Lead in cosmetic products (lipsticks)
How to avoid Lead
Aside from avoiding lead-contaminated products, using a wet cloth or mop to clean floors can help rid lead present in dust. This is particularly helpful given that lead from contaminated dust is the most common source of lead exposure. However, do refrain from sweeping and dusting with a dry cloth, as that can spread lead-contaminated dust into other areas instead of removing it.
For couples trying to conceive they should also avoid other fertility toxins besides heavy metals. In an updated 2021 report put forth by the American College of OBGYNs, the authors noted avoiding other toxic agents such as solvents, phthalates, and bisphenol-A (BPA). So, now let’s take a look at solvents.
Fertility toxin # 2: Solvents
Solvents are usually liquids that dissolve other materials to form a solution. An example of a solvent is toluene, a clear and colorless liquid with a distinctive smell you can sense when you walk into a nail salon.
Not surprisingly, toluene is commonly found in nail polishes, nail hardeners, and nail polish removers. But it can also be found in paint thinners, paint brush cleaners, glues, stain removers, and even rubber.
Per ATSDR, toluene can be released into the air, water, and soil. In fact, it is commonly found in the air, especially in heavy car traffic. Indoor areas where paints are stored, such as in a garage, can also have higher levels of toluene.
Workplace exposures to solvents are higher in painting, dry cleaning, shoe manufacturing, beauty salons, and custodial and cleaning services.
Solvents and negative outcomes for pregnancy and baby
Studies show that women exposed to solvents have a much higher pregnancy loss rate.
Not only should the mother-to-be avoid solvents, but the father’s-to-be should also. Studies have shown a higher risk of congenital disorders in children of male painters and an association between pregnancy loss of wives of men exposed to solvents at work.
Similar to exposure to lead, babies exposed to toluene have many negative results. These include being born premature and/or delayed in growth, having a smaller face and jaw, and urinary tract abnormality.
Easy ways to avoid solvents
- Avoid/minimize the use of products high in solvents, such as nail polishes
- Avoid/minimize the use of dry cleaning.
- Use simple, inexpensive, and effective cleaners such as baking soda and vinegar.
- When you do have to use products that have solvents, make sure you have good ventilation.
Even for clothes labeled “dry clean only,” it can be possible to wash them with simply water. A quick Google search will find many articles on how to clean such clothes at home!
Okay, let’s now turn our attention to phthalates.
Fertility toxin #3: Phthalates
Phthalates are chemicals used in the production of plastics. It can comprise up to 80% of the final product of flexible plastics like polyvinyl chloride.
Some phthalates have been classified as “endocrine disrupting chemicals,” which means these chemicals wreak havoc with our hormones.
Phthalates are widely found in food and drink containers that are made of plastic. Phthalates are also often used to fix fragrance to the user’s skin and hold color. As such, phthalates are commonly found in personal care products such as lotions, perfumes, shampoos, deodorants, hair sprays, and makeup. Given that women use more personal care products, they are generally more exposed to phthalates compared to men.
Phthalates have been found in many human tissues, including follicular fluid, which is the fluid that surrounds the developing egg cell in the ovary. The presence of phthalates in the ovaries means exposure is life-long, starting even before fetal life.
Hairdressers have exceptionally high work exposure to phthalates.
Effect of phthalates as a fertility toxin
High urinary phthalate levels in women have been linked to a longer time to pregnancy, increased pregnancy loss rates, pregnancy complications, earlier menopause, and diminished ovarian reserve.
Research also links certain phthalates with conditions that can negatively impact fertility, such as endometriosis, uterine fibroids, and polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS).
The impact of phthalates on male fertility is even more researched. Many publications have recognized that phthalates have estrogenic and anti-androgenic properties. A review of papers also confirms that phthalates can cause diminished sperm count, increased DNA damage in the sperm cells, and interference with sperm’s ability to fertilize an egg.
The effects of phthalates on the developing baby can also be profound. Phthalates may lead to a birth defect, growth restriction, delay in sexual development, and diminished semen quality of the offspring.
How to avoid phthalates
Even though phthalates are everywhere, you can start avoiding phthalates by
- Avoiding touching plastic products
- Avoid the use of shrink wraps on food
- Buy “fragrance-free” products instead of scented household cleaning or personal care products.
My personal recommendation for safer personal care products
Many people have asked me how to avoid fertility toxins in their cosmetic and personal care products. After much research, I now recommend BeautyCounter as a one-stop shop for such products.
One reason why I love Beauty Counter is that this company proactively bans about 1800 harmful or questionable ingredients from their product formulations, whereas the U.S. government only bans about 30 ingredients. Among the ingredients they ban are phthalates and toluene. I personally have used BeautyCounter products for a couple of years now, and love that their products are high performing, feel light on the skin, and are great for people who have sensitive skin.
If you like to know what are my favorite BeautyCounter products, or want to know how to get deals on BeautyCounter products, you can send me a message via my Contact Us page.
The final fertility toxin we will review in this article is bisphenol-A (BPA).
Fertility toxins # 4: BPA
BPA is a fertility toxin that is found in abundance in our modern-day environment. It is one of the most researched hormone-disrupting chemicals. It is commonly found in plastic bags, bottles, and packaging. Water and milk bottles, coated cans, and microwave ovenware are other common BPA sources.
People are mostly exposed to BPA through their diet. This is because BPA, as part of the food container and packaging, can leach into food products, especially after heating.
Effect of BPA
BPA can also mimic estrogen and stimulate estrogen function. Studies have shown that BPA can disrupt the maturation of egg cells. Given that proper maturation of egg cells is essential for egg quality, it is not surprising that BPA can disrupt female fertility.
Like phthalates, there are studies in animal models that report the occurrence of endometriosis-like lesions after BPA exposure. And BPA exposure has been noted to promote hormonal imbalances seen in polycystic ovarian syndrome.
Effect of BPA on Offspring
A baby’s exposure to BPA while still in the mother’s uterus can disrupt the offspring’s ovarian development and function. It also has been noted that a mother’s exposure to BPA during pregnancy may lead to the development of PCOS in the offspring.
There is also a concern about the cross-generational effect of BPA. In animal models of mice, we have seen that in utero exposure to BPA can result in lower fertility that persists into the second and third generation of mice.
Interestingly some of the most pronounced effects were measured in mice whose progenitors received the lowest dose of BPA. While this may seem counterintuitive, with hormone-disrupting chemicals, it is sometimes the low doses that cause the most significant effects.
Easy ways to avoid BPA
- Avoid plastic bottles and packaging for food
- Use glass or stainless steel containers instead
- Avoid frequently eating from canned foods
There are many more fertility toxins, but I believe we have a good start here.
Given how fertility toxins can have a significant negative impact on a couple's fertility potential, in my telemedicine wholistic fertility clinic, I always ask about toxin exposure as part of my initial evaluation of both the man and the woman.
Certainly, different people can have different outcomes despite having similar toxic exposures. This is due to each person’s ability to detoxify chemicals. Some people who are particularly sensitive to smells such as perfumes can be poor “detoxifiers” and therefore need extra help.
Important to remove the existing toxic burden
While minimizing fertility toxins is a very good first step, in my wholistic fertility clinic, I frequently recommend couples undergo a detox program to remove existing toxic burdens from their bones and fat storage. This step is crucial yet often missed.
But it is imperative to note that I only recommend doing a detox program BEFORE trying to conceive. Even while a woman is at a very early stage of pregnancy, doing a detox program can cause harm to the fetus by exposing that fetus to the mobilized fertility toxins. Therefore NEVER start a detox program while pregnant or actively trying to conceive.
I hope this article provides you with many tips you can use immediately.
If you live in California, and want more personalized guidance in your fertility journey, I invite you to schedule a 30-minute Fertility Insight Session with me. During this Zoom session, I will do my best to answer your #1 question about fertility and provide you with some insights into your fertility.
- ATSDR Education: “Principles of Pediatric Environmental Health-- Preconception Exposures and In Utero Exposures.
- Silbergeld EK. Lead in Bone: implications for toxicology during pregnancy and lactation. Environ Health Perspectives. 1991.
- Perng W et al. Early Life Exposure in Mexico to ENvironmental Toxicants (ELEMENT) Project. BMJ Open. 2019.
- American College of OBGYNs Committee Opinion #832: Reducing Prenatal Exposure to Toxic Environmental Agents. 2021.
- Kyyronen P et al. Spontaneous abortions and congenital malformations among women exposed to tetrachloroethylene in dry cleaning. J Epidemiol Community Health. 1989.
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- Kumar S et al. Environmental and occupational exposure and female reproductive dysfunction. Indian J Med Res. 2019.
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- Khasin LG et al. The impact of Di-2-ethylhexl phthalate on sperm fertility. Front Cell Dev Biol. 2020.
- Dobrzynska MM. Phthalates- widespread occurrence and the effect on male gamates. Rocz Panstw Zakl Hig. 2016.
- Pivonello C et al. Bisphenol A: an emerging threat to female fertility. Reproductive Biology and Endocrinology. 2020.
- Rutkowska A et al. BPA and its potential role in the pathogenesis of PCOS. Gynecol Endocrinol. 2014.
- Larsen GD. Transgenerational effects of BPA. Lab Animal. 2015.
- Nesan D et al. Gestational low-dose BPA exposure impacts suprachiasmatic nucleus neurogenesis and circadian activity with transgenerational effects.