How Environmental Toxins Harm Women's Reproductive Health

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Two leading groups of doctors and researchers on reproductive health say toxins in the environment are harming women's ability to have children.

The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists and the American Society for Reproductive Medicine issued a joint committee opinion today (Sept. 23) calling for U.S. government policy changes, and urging greater action by physicians to help prevent chemical exposure during pregnancy.

"An overwhelming amount of evidence has accumulated in the last five to seven years that points to the fact that environmental contaminants can adversely affect reproductive health," said Dr. Linda Giudice, president of the American Society for Reproductive Medicine, an organization with more than 7,000 health professionals and researchers.

If patients and themedical and nursing communityies [1] are more aware that environmental exposures can be harmful and potentially long-lasting to reproductive health, the hope is that they could be avoided or minimized, Giudice said. [7 Ways Pregnant Women Affect Babies]

"Prevention is an important part of reproductive environmental health," she said,because toxic agents can be passed on to future generations.

The committee reviewed the scientific evidence on toxins for two years before drafting their opinion, which outlines their environmental health concerns and also suggests action on an individual, health professional and governmental level.  

The opinion paper will be published in the October issues of the journals Fertility and Sterility, and Obstetrics and Gynecology.

Calls to action

"We know that pregnancy is a particularly vulnerable time, when women need to be cautious about their potential environmental exposure," said Dr. Jeanne Conry, president of The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, a group representing some 57,000 physicians.

More than 84,000 chemical substances are now used in manufacturing or processing, and roughly 700 new chemicals are introduced to the United States each year, Conry said. This is occurring against a backdrop in which a number of disease processes, such as birth defects, autism and breast cancer rates are increasing, she said.

"We can't really say that genetics has changed in the last 30 to 40 years, so it's likely environmental," Conry said. Many of the chemicals are being introduced into the environment without adequate research done on their health effects before they are released, she said.

Because these chemicals are in the air, water, soil, food and consumer products, it can be hard for people to limit their exposure. And some groups of people are more vulnerable to these toxic risks than others, such as people in jobs at workplaces with high exposures to pesticides or industrial chemicals, or people living in areas with high levels of air pollution or indoor contaminants such as lead.

Minimizing exposures

In addition, chemicals, such as mercury from fish, can cross the placenta and build up in the developing fetus.We've [2] Researchers have known for many years that mercury can have behavioral impacts on children, Conry said.

That's why women who are considering having a baby, as well as those who are pregnant or breast-feeding, should avoid eating fish such as shark, swordfish, tilefish and king mackerel, which are high in mercury content, and instead choose seafood low in mercury.

Women in this group should also wash fresh fruits and vegetables before eating them to reduce exposure to pesticides, which have been linked with an increased risk of childhood cancers.

By reading labels, women can also avoid or choose products free of Bisphenol A, (BPA), a common hormone disruptor found in the plastic lining of some canned foods and in many household items.

"We want to contribute to consumer awareness without causing alarm," Conry said.

The opinion paper also encouraged health professionals to take an environmental exposure history of patients before they become pregnant, or during their first prenatal visits. This questionnaire would help doctors and nurses to educate women on how to avoid exposure to toxins at home, at work or in their communities.

"If we can raise awareness to minimize environmental exposure, and maximize reproductive health, then I think we will have accomplished a major goal," Giudice said.

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Live Science Contributor

Cari Nierenberg has been writing about health and wellness topics for online news outlets and print publications for more than two decades. Her work has been published by Live Science, The Washington Post, WebMD, Scientific American, among others. She has a Bachelor of Science degree in nutrition from Cornell University and a Master of Science degree in Nutrition and Communication from Boston University.