15 Ways Your Home Can Make You Infertile
Doctors can't explain what's wrong for about 10 percent of couples who can't conceive, and some experts suspect the culprit is where you'd least expect: in the home
Getting pregnant isn't always as easy as it looks on TV. Some 7.3-million American women have trouble becoming pregnant or staying pregnant. Doctors can't explain what's wrong for about 10 percent of the couples who can't conceive, and some experts suspect the culprit is all around us: environmental contaminants, particularly in the home.
That may help explain why male sperm counts are dropping, and it's a fact that the male contributes to infertility about 40 percent of the time. Toxins in your couch, vinyl floor, and other spots where you may have made attempts to expand your family could be throwing a wrench in your reproductive works. As much as we like to see home as a benevolent vessel of our dreams, the materials and chemicals they're made of and furnished with—from flame-retardant cushions to Teflon pans—can quash those dreams. Here's what to look for, and what you can do about it.
The chemical conveyors found in paints, varnishes, thinners, stains, resins, rubbers, lubricants, dyes, detergents, insulation, inks, films, cosmetics, cleaning products, spot removers, fingernail polish, and many other places can disrupt a woman's normal menstrual cycle or cause a miscarriage, and in men they can hamper semen quality. Bottom line: Don't use them more than you have to. If you haven't heard us say it before, buy no- or low-VOC paint and look for products certified by the Greenguard Environmental Institute.
Source: "Environmental Factors in Infertility," Clinical Obstetrics and Gynecology (December 2000)
Flame retardants are in the cushions of our couches and car seats, in carpet padding, and in the casings of many electronic devices (mattresses rely on a physical barrier to fend off flames). They're also found in our blood stream, and that's not a good thing. The chemicals can damage sperm. And in a recent study, women with high levels of flame-retardant compounds known as polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDE) in their blood took longer to get pregnant than women with lower levels—up to 50 percent longer in cases of high levels. The two most commonly used PBDEs were actually banned in 2004, but they're still in our homes.
Women should avoid areas where carpet is being removed, and it might be best not to reupholster your own furniture if you're trying to conceive. And when you buy new furniture, avoid anything with a tag that states "complies with California Technical Bulletin 117," the law requiring furniture to be flame retardant. Or look for furniture made of alternative nontreated materials, such as cotton, wool, and latex.
Source: "PBDE Concentrations in Women's Serum and Fecundability," Environmental Health Perspectives (May 2010)
Antibacterial soaps containing triclosan were designed to protect hospital patients vulnerable to infection, not to be slathered on like Old Spice on prom night. Also found in shampoos and certain toothpastes, triclosan is an endocrine disrupting chemical (EDC)—it messes with your hormones—that has been shown to interfere with reproductive systems in some freshwater fish. Specifically, it boosts levels of female hormones in male fish and decreases their sperm count. Fish are literally swimming in triclosan, which gets flushed down our drains and makes its way into streams. We, on the other hand, have a choice about whether to use such products. Though it hasn't been proved that triclosan impacts human fertility, ask yourself this: Do you want to volunteer for that study?
Source: "Triclosan Has Endocrine-disrupting Effects in Male Western Mosquitofish," Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry (June 2010)
Wittingly and not, we flush more chemicals down the toilet than anyone at the EPA can count, let alone regulate. But at least they have a name for them: Pharmaceuticals and Personal Care as Pollutants (PPCP). They come from the lotions and cosmetics we use, the drugs we take, and the hormones our livestock are fed. They make their way into streams, and, as endocrine disruptors, they do strange things to fish, like endow males with feminine characteristics. Now, nobody's managed to prove that the PPCPs that make it back into our bodies through drinking water affect our health, but some scientists think it's only a matter of time.
Source: "Something in the Water is Feminizing Male Fish. Are We Next?" Popular Science (November 2009)
If that hard-plastic water bottle the man of the house totes to the gym is stamped with a 7—indicating it contains bisphenol A (BPA)—he may be sinking his swimmers. Also found in the linings of food and beverage cans and baby bottles, the compound was recently linked with poor semen quality in a study of Chinese factory workers. The higher the levels of BPA in their urine, the lower their sperm count, concentration, vitality, and motility. If you think you have nothing in common with Chinese factory workers, keep in mind that even low levels of BPA—comparable with those in men in the general U.S. population—were associated with sub-par sperm.
So, should couples trying to conceive avoid eating and drinking from BPA containers? "Absolutely," says the study's lead author, epidemiologist De-Kun Li of Kaiser Permanente's Division of Research in Oakland, California. "It is not only bad for fertility; BPA could have adverse effects on the unborn fetus as well."
Source: "Urine bisphenol-A (BPA) level in relation to semen quality," Fertility and Sterility (October 2010)
You'd have to be a monk to completely escape contact with phthalates, the molecular secret sauce that makes PVC and other plastics flexible. Though these plasticizers are being phased out of many products, they're present in every room of the house in the form of nail polish, vinyl shower curtains, vinyl floor tiles, adhesives, building materials, plastic, caulk, and, ironically enough, sex toys. Turns out phthalates are also conspicuously present in men with low sperm counts and sperm with damaged DNA; in women, some scientists suspect they're linked to endometriosis, a condition that disrupts the menstrual cycle and can interfere with conception.
We ingest phthalates from dairy products, absorb them through the skin, and breathe them in as aging plastic off-gasses them into our cozy homes. What to do? Avoid buying products made with soft PVC, use glass instead of plastic in the microwave, and use glass or stainless steel for hot food and drinks (many aluminum drinking bottles have an imperceptible BPA lining). And, we're sorry to say, don't roll around in the buff on your vinyl floor.
Source: "The relationship between environmental exposures to phthalates and DNA damage in human sperm using the neutral comet assay," Environmental Health Perspectives (July 2003)
Oh, and by the way: If the man of the house is reading this from a laptop nestled on his thighs it's time to stand up! As you two sit there on the couch scaring yourselves with tales of infertility, your research effort itself may be undermining your ability to procreate. According to a study issued just last month, working with a laptop on its namesake perch throws off enough heat to raise the temperature of a man's scrotum by 2.56 degrees C. You'll recall from anatomy class that the biological reason for the scrotum's existence is to keep sperm away from your core body temperature—at a cooler, safe distance. It's well established that overheating the testicles can reduce sperm count, at least temporarily. Men who spread their legs or used a laptop pad merely delayed the overheating. Desktop, anyone?
Source: "Protection from scrotal hyperthermia in laptop computer users," Fertility and Sterility (November 2010)"]
The jury is still out on the health effects of soy and its attendant endocrine-bending isoflavones; some experts point to its association with decreased prostate cancer and others toward its link to decreased fertility in animal studies. Well, you may want to think twice before stocking the fridge with soy milk. Some evidence suggests that at high levels the plant-based estrogens in soy can disrupt the ovarian cycle. And according to a Harvard study of 99 men from an infertility clinic, those who knocked back the most soy products also had the lowest sperm count: 41 million sperm per milliliter fewer than men who didn't consume soy. That's one-half to one-third of the normal sperm count (80 to 120 million sperm per milliliter).
Source: "Soy food and isoflavone intake in relation to semen quality parameters among men from an infertility clinic," Human Reproduction (November 2008)
You know that trusty old Teflon skillet you break out for Sunday pancakes? Unlike newer versions, its non-stick coating contains perfluorinated compounds, which have been linked to reproductive problems. Women having trouble getting pregnant are more likely to have high levels of perfluorinated compounds in their blood compared with women who get pregnant the first month they try. And if the women with higher levels do get pregnant, their babies are less likely to meet important development milestones. These compounds were also used in the lining of microwave popcorn bags and products such as Scotchgard. Although manufacturers have been using different formulations for the past few years, perfluorinated compounds don't break down—they're still everywhere, from carpets to couches, so be careful where you sit.
Sources: "Maternal Levels of Perfluorinated Chemicals and Subfecundity," Human Reproduction (January 2009)
Mercury is toxic in tiny concentrations and can be found around the home in thermostats, thermometers, fluorescent bulbs, button batteries (like those used in watches and hearing aids), fire-alarm switches, and, of course, your refrigerator. Pregnant women know to avoid eating too much fish so that they don't accumulate mercury in their system, but that advice may extend to those trying to get pregnant as well—and for both halves of the couple.
Mercury is so well known for its toxic effects on neurodevelopment that it seems almost beside the point to consider how it might impact conception in the first place. But according to at least one case study among in vitro fertilization (IVF) patients, however, there does seem to be a link. Infertile couples tended to have higher concentrations of mercury in their blood and had consumed more seafood. There was also a correlation between infertile men with abnormal semen and high mercury concentrations in the bloodstream.
Source: "Infertility, blood mercury concentrations and dietary seafood consumption: a case-control study," BJOG: an international journal of obstetrics and gynecology (October 2002)
"Just their size makes intercourse difficult," says doctor Margaret Graf Garrisi, medical director of The Institute of Reproductive Medicine & Science at Saint Barnabas Hospital, in New Jersey. Scientifically, being overweight can hamper a woman's ability to ovulate, and in men it can create a low sperm count. That's because fat cells convert male hormones to estrogen. "I'd say it's one of our biggest problems," Garrisi says.
Often overshadowed by lead's well-deserved reputation for causing learning disabilities, seizures, and death is a fact we've known since Roman times: It impairs fertility. In the home, lead can be found in the old paint of houses built before 1978; the cartoon characters and other graphics on drinking glasses; vinyl products; certain folk remedies; metal trinkets; contaminated soil; and in the solder of old plumbing fixtures. It's a toxic heavy metal that can cause miscarriages and collect in the male reproductive system and create abnormal sperm. Some studies put lead as the culprit in up to one-fifth of unexplained cases of infertility.
Source: "Increased seminal plasma lead levels adversely affect the fertility potential of sperm in IVF," Human Reproduction (February 2003)
Though much of the science we have about the effects of pesticides comes from studies on agricultural workers, these chemicals are plenty common around the home. They can be found out in the yard, in the garage, along the baseboards, and even on the plate of food on your dining table. The ways these toxins can impair fertility range from warping sperm DNA to causing miscarriages.
The best way to beat them is to avoid them. Flea and tick collars can be a source of insecticides that make their way wherever your pet goes—like your pillow. Look for natural alternatives, and bathe your pet and its bed often. Try organic options for lawn care and cleaning supplies. Keep critters out by keeping your house tight and tidy. If you do get an infestation, try baits and traps rather than chemicals. If it comes to needing an exterminator, be sure to find a licensed one, and ask about non-toxic options.
Source: "Proceedings of the Summit on Environmental Challenges to Reproductive Health and Fertility: executive summary," Fertilty and Sterility (February 2008)
Not all old wood is charming. Say you're installing a new window and you come across some pressure-treated framing you'd like to replace. If it was made before they stopped injecting the lumber with arsenic as a preservative, don't touch the stuff—at least not with your bare hands. And no, it's not a good idea to cut it up and burn it in the fireplace. If the animal studies are any indication, it's not worth the risk. Though arsenic is mainly known for causing developmental problems, it also has a lengthy track record for causing miscarriages and stillbirths.
Source: "Developmental and reproductive toxicity of inorganic arsenic: animal studies and human concerns," Journal of Toxicology and Environmental Health (July–September 1998)
Walk into a fertility clinic and ask for help conceiving, and one of the first questions the doc will ask is: Do you smoke? That goes for men and women. You don't need us to tell you that cigarettes contain hundreds of chemicals and that nicotine constricts blood vessels, which can impair the ability of the fertilized egg to implant. Smoking and exposure to second-hand smoke interfere with a couple's ability to conceive, as well as the ability to carry the baby to term. In the event that in vitro fertilization (IVF) works, smokers require twice as many treatments. And exposing a fetus to smoke in utero can harm your shot at having grandkids some day.
Source: "Smoking and infertility," Fertility and Sterility (November 2008)