How Everyday Products Can Affect Your Fertility
An expert in environmental health shares what you may want to do to limit your exposure to the hormone-disrupting chemicals in our households.
This morning started the same as usual: I opened a plastic packet of Ovasitol, a supplement recommended by my naturopath to help regulate my period, and poured it into a glass. I grabbed my plastic Brita water jug and filled up the glass. Then I prepared a yogurt parfait by pouring organic blueberries out of a plastic package into a bowl, and topping them with hormone-regulating seeds, homemade organic granola and a scoop of organic Greek yogurt out of a plastic container. Then, I sat down in front of my three monitors to write a piece about how plastics in our everyday products can disrupt our hormones, causing a decline in fertility rates and an increase in the risk of miscarriage for women.
I learned about the issue in a recent interview on The Guardian with Shanna Swan, a professor of environmental medicine and public health in New York City, and the author of Count Down, a new book about how the modern world threatens our reproductive health. Swan studies trends in fertility and warns there’s a “reproductive health crisis” that’s not solely due to delayed childbearing, but also to the chemicals we’re exposed to on a daily basis that may hinder our chances of conceiving.
“[Certain chemicals] can interfere with or mimic the body’s sex hormones–such as testosterone and estrogen,” says Swan in the article. “They can make the body think it has enough of a particular hormone and it doesn’t need to make any more, so production goes down.” Studies show the risk of pregnancy loss has been increasing in the U.S., and that women are at a greater risk than men of reproductive problems due to exposure to chemicals like Teflon (which is used to make products—from cookware to cosmetics—waterproof). Bisphenol A (known commonly as BPA, and found in plastics including food packaging) affects both female and male reproductive health by impacting fertility, decreasing sperm count and increasing the rate of erectile dysfunction, says Swan.
So, how can we limit our exposure? It’s not easy. “The chemical industry must start producing chemicals that can be used in everyday products that are non-hormonally active,” says Swan. There are, however, a few things we can do to help protect ourselves individually. I spoke with Miriam Diamond, a professor in the Department of Earth Sciences and School of the Environment at the University of Toronto, to learn more about the “reproductive health crisis” and what we can do to limit our exposure to hormone-disrupting chemicals.
Best Health: How do these chemicals affect our hormones exactly?
Miriam Diamond: As described by Swan in the Guardian piece and back in 1997 in Theo Coburn’s Our Stolen Future, certain chemicals mimic natural reproductive hormones. Every one of us in Western countries is exposed to a cocktail of these chemicals. The exposures that we’re most concerned about occur during fetal development, because that’s when the body is programmed and when the development occurs. If things are mucked up during fetal development it can be manifested later in life, for example, when someone gets an early period or has low sperm count.
BH: Does that mean the damage is already done?
MD: Most of the evidence is for fetal exposure, and there’s less evidence for kids’ exposure. Each one of us has been exposed for a really long time. Yes, if you’re thinking about getting pregnant, be particularly careful to limit your exposure, but there are things we in society need to do to protect future generations. Prevention is key.
BH: Which items should we limit our exposure to?
MD: It is really about achieving a healthy life and a more sustainable future for all our kids. That means using fewer products in general, because it’s about personal health but also planetary health. You don’t want to guilt anybody into avoiding certain things—these are just things that you can do moving forward:
Limit processed foods and meat consumption
Eating low on the food chain and reducing your consumption of meat and animal products reduces your intake of a bunch of these chemicals and also helps to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Try to limit your use of processed foods when you can.
Build boundaries around your tech
Limit your electronics, both by how many you have, and how much you use them. For example, don’t have a TV in your bedroom. Electronics give off a bunch of different chemicals including flame retardants, plasticizers, and the forever chemicals like Teflon.
Re-consider your cosmetics
PFAS—a particular group of very persistent chemicals, some of which have known toxic effects and some of which we have yet to figure out—aren’t labelled on cosmetics. They’re generally found in anything that’s waterproof or super long-lasting. We know from our product testing that non-waterproof products have less of these forever chemicals. In North America, we’ve been less aggressive in getting rid of hazardous chemicals, so European products are generally better. Also, watch out for natural products, which could be a bit of greenwashing.
Invest in safe cookware
We worry about Teflon, the chemical used to make nonstick pans (and many other products), because like other PFAS, it has been linked to immune dysfunction and changes in your metabolic system along with reproductive problems. I’d go with cast iron pans. Le Creuset are phenomenally expensive but durable. I bought my first set in 1976—and I still use it.
Clothing, furniture, kids toys, takeout food containers, receipts, dental floss—all these items have some elevated levels of these damaging chemicals. We need to spend more time outside to have time away from the many products indoors that emit these chemicals.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.