There’s something we need to talk about. Exposures to environmental toxicants may be wreaking havoc on your fertility and changing how your genes are expressed - changes that can be passed on to your baby and can last for generations. According to guidelines by the American Society of Reproductive Medicine, an environmental history should be part of the assessment for every person dealing with infertility (1). They note that the relative risk of infertility is 40% higher when exposed to environmental toxicants (2).
If you think the problem isn’t widespread or only affects a few people, think again.
Male reproductive problems alone due to routine exposures to endocrine disrupting chemicals from pesticides and personal care products are estimated to cost Nordic countries EUR 36 million per year of exposure (3). This number only looks at men and doesn’t take into account the health impacts for future generations. It’s just one of many statistics out there describing a big problem that isn’t effectively being addressed.
So what do you do about it?
Reducing exposure to these chemicals in your environment is the best thing, but it isn’t always easy. Many people don’t know where to look or are overwhelmed when they realize how prevalent chemicals are. I still work on getting better at it all the time.
There are few steps you can start with that don’t require too many day-to-day habit changes and can significantly decrease exposure to some of the most harmful chemicals for your fertility and the health of your growing family.
1. Get A Really Good Water Filter
Municipal water supplies are commonly not up to code on what they are supposed treat for and remove from your drinking water. Think Flint, Michigan where they STILL don’t have the lead issue under control.
Many chemicals like pharmaceuticals and manufacturing chemicals are simply not regulated at all in public drinking water.
Some chemicals used to treat the water are in and of themselves harmful. Chlorine for example is linked to hypothyroidism, which is a known cause of recurrent miscarriage and infertility.
Sometimes harmful compounds (like lead) can come from the pipes between the treatment center and your home or workplace, so you would never know it’s there unless you have water tested at the faucet regularly.
Bottled water is regulated by different standards than municipal supplies and has many of the same issues.
What to do:
A high quality whole house reverse osmosis filter with a carbon component and remineralization would be ideal. Unfortunately, this is not in many people’s budget.
A Berkey water filter paired with a chlorine filter for the shower is a great alternative.
For more info about your specific water supply, check out www.ewg.com/tapwater
2. Eat Organic Whenever Possible (4)
One study showed that men at a fertility clinic who consumed 1.5 servings of high pesticide fruits and veggies/day had 49% lower total sperm volume and 31% lower morphology!
Several studies show decreased male fertility in relation to level of organophasphate exposure - a very common group of pesticides including decreased sperm concentration, motility, and chromosomal abnormalities.
Many pesticides are also potent neurotoxins that can impact a developing baby. Some are also linked to cancer through dietary exposure.
What to Do:
Eat more meals at home and purchase organic food whenever it is available. This is particularly important for animal products which can concentrate some chemicals.
You don’t have to be 100% perfect: A diet consuming over 50% organic foods was associated with higher sperm counts. Only that previous year of exposure was relevant. That means it’s not too late to make a change!
3. Replace Your Personal Hygiene Products with Safer Versions
Everything you put on or near your body and anything with fragrance added is likely to contain endocrine disrupting and fertility harming chemicals. Phthalates and parabens are some of the most common offenders. They do everything from causing hormone imbalance to damaging DNA and decreasing sperm quality (5).
Yes, you do absorb phthalates and parabens through your skin.
The good news is that many of these chemicals will decrease significantly in your body after only a few days of making a change (6)!
What To Do:
Use resources like the Think Dirty App, EWG’s Skin Deep database, and the Detox Me App to check the toxicity of products you use and find safer alternatives
Replace all soaps, shampoos, conditioner, shaving cream, lotions, hair products, make-up, detergents, perfumes, etc. with safer options.
A great all-purpose cleaner for the house is 1 part distilled vinegar to 2 parts water with several drops of orange essential oil.
4. Replace All Plastic Food Containers and Utensils with Glass or Stainless Steel
All plastics contain endocrine disrupting compounds and other harmful chemicals. In many cases, these chemicals are not actually bound to the plastic and leach easily into food and liquids (7,8).
Phthalates and BPA are the best known of these compounds and can cause significant damage to egg and sperm quality, decrease the likelihood of success of IVF and, and perhaps even cause infertility in an unborn child (9).
What to Do:
If you MUST store food in plastic occasionally, never heat it or freeze it in that container
Replace all plastic food containers with glass or stainless steel.
BPA and phthalate free plastic does NOT equal safe. Typically this means they have included BPF or BPS instead which are likely worse (10).
These steps should get you started to reducing your exposure and protecting both your fertility and the health of your child. Reducing toxic exposure likely needs to be a lifelong undertaking for us all, but these are high yield places to start the journey. Decreasing your exposures might not completely resolve your fertility struggle, but it will likely help everything else you’re doing work better. It also means that when you do get pregnant you’ll be less likely to pass on changes in gene expression that lead to chronic illness. If you’re looking for a deeper dive into other steps you can take, feel free to download my free handout here: www.wellconceivedhealth.com/toxic
About the Author
Erin Westaway, ND is a naturopathic doctor who works both in person and virtually from Seattle, WA with couples who are looking to optimize their fertility while building the foundation to pass on a legacy of health for their growing family.
She works with couples and individuals who want to prepare themselves to get pregnant with less medical intervention. Some couples are just preparing to start trying to grow their families and others have been in the thick of struggling with infertility. Her goal is to work compassionately with you wherever you’re at to help you grow your family from a place of health and empowerment.
Dr. Westaway graduated from Bowdoin College before earning her Doctor of Naturopathic Medicine through Bastyr University. She completed a residency in naturopathic family medicine and worked as a primary care physician in WA state for several years, before narrowing her practice to focus on fertility and preconception care. She completed extra training in environmental medicine and natural fertility support. Join her (brand new!) Facebook group.
American Society of Reproductive Medicine. Diagnostic Evaluation of the Infertile Male: A Committee Opinion; Diagnostic Evaluation of the Infertile Female: A Committee Opinion. Fertility and Sterility 2015.
Hruska K, Furth P, Seifer D, Sharara F, Flaws J. Environmental factors in infertility. Clin Obstet Gynecol 2000;43:821–9.
Olsson I, et al.: The Cost of Inaction: - A Socioeconomic analysis of costs linked to effects of endocrine disrupting substances on male reproductive health. Nordic Council of Ministers; 2014
Crinnion, Pizzorno. Clinical Environmental Medicine. Elsevier. 2018 (p493)
Crinnion, Pizzorno. Clinical Environmental Medicine. Elsevier. 2018 (p293)
Romero-Franco, M., Hernandes-Ramires, R.U., Clafat, et al. Personal Care product use and urinary levels of phthalate metabolites in Medican women. Environment International. 2011
Sathyanarayana, S., Alcedo, G., Saelens, B.E., et al. Unexpected results in a randomized dietary trial to reduce phthalate and bisphenol A exposures. Journal of Exposure and Science and Environmental Epidemiology. 2013.
Wilson, N.K., Chuang, J.C, Morgan, M.K, et al. An observational study of the potential exposures of preschool children to pentachlorophenol, bisphenol_A, and nonylphenol at home and daycare. Environmental Research. 2007
Ehrlich, S., Williams, P.L., Missmer, S.A, et al. Urinary bisphenol A concentrations and early reproductive health outcomes among women undergoing IVF. Human Reproduction. 2012
Crinnion, Pizzorno. Clinical Environmental Medicine. Elsevier. 2018 (p285)