Does the Environment Affect Fertility?

The environment in which we live has gained more attention in the last few decades. Since the middle of last century, there has been a significant increase in the human reproduction problems worldwide.

Many studies have reported a decline in fertility and increasing access to the fertility treatments, such IVF or ICSI. The decrease in human reproduction has happened within a short period in the context of human evolution. So, this is less likely to be related to the genetic changes and more likely to be environmental. During the period of industrial revolution, many chemicals have pervaded into our daily lives. These are not only in air, water and soil but also in many consumer products.

It is also known that both persistent and non-persistent chemicals in our environment. These are called endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDC). These chemicals can disrupt the delicate hormone systems in the human body. Some studies now show that they can also lead to epigenetic changes and affect the next generation. The persistent chemicals are present in air, water or soil for long periods of time. But there are some that may be present for much shorter periods of time.

Bisphenol A and Phthalates are two commonly studied EDC’s that are widely prevalent in our day to day environment. Bisphenol A (BPA) and Phthalates are present in many consumer goods such as water bottles, eyeglasses frames, dental sealants, thermal receipts, flooring, reusable food and drink containers. BPA can leach into the food products and water. But, the large proportion of our exposure is from the food and drinks.

There is a substantial evidence that these endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDC) can affect both male and female fertility. The exposure to high levels of BPA and phthalates can lead to almost twenty percent reduction in a couple’s chances of conceiving. In women, these chemicals interfere with the female hormones such as follicle stimulating hormone (FSH) or Inhibin B.

In men, BPA and phthalates can lead to low levels of free testosterone, low sperm count, low sperm motility and morphology. They have also been shown to cause high sperm DNA fragmentation Index or Sperm DFI or damage to the genetic material of the sperm cells. In women going through IVF treatments, if they have elevated levels of BPA they are subjected to have low numbers of eggs collected. This may affect the cell division of the eggs and the fertilisation rate. Thus, affecting the IVF success rate.

Despite the vast amount of evidence, it is difficult either to prevent or reliably measure the exposure to these chemicals. But, what you can do is to try and reduce the level of exposure to these agents. There are many ways you can try to minimise the exposure.

  • You may choose foods with less exposure to chemicals such as organic fruits, vegetables, fish and meat products.
  • You may also avoid tinned food, ready to eat meals or processed foods as much possible. The deep sea fish has high mercury levels. So, try to avoid frequent consumption of deep sea fish when you are trying to conceive. These include shark, swordfish, king mackerel or tilefish.
  • You may also make note of what you eat, and also of the chemicals in the surrounding environment, such as cleaning agents and other home products.

It is important to be aware and take note of the immediate environment to limit the exposure to such agents. But, it is also important to know that despite your best efforts, you will still be exposed to some of these chemicals from sources outside of your control.

If the level of exposure, domestic and / or workplace, makes you worry, and you have been experiencing difficulties in conceiving, then you should consider speaking to your Doctor or Gynaecologist or Fertility Specialist about how your environment affects fertility.