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Understanding the Impact of Environmental Toxins & Endocrine Disrupting Chemicals on Fertility

Environmental toxins and your fertility health. This is a huge topic and one that many of us will never be able to fully embrace. From the clothes we wear, to the cosmetics we use, to the food we eat and the water we get from the tap, environmental toxins or endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDCs) are in abundance in modern life.


There is still so much to learn about how our environment affects our health because a lot of these disruptors will have only been widely used from the 1950s onwards. Meaning that toxic load whilst originally minimal (and dealt with appropriately by the endocrine system) has been layered upon over the generations and years and we might only now be starting to see if correlation and causation are indeed the same.


I talk to my patients about environmental toxins when we have exhausted every other lifestyle change. Because the task is so exponentially large that it can lead to an analysis paralysis; and as I said above there are times when we just have to accept that the task is beyond us and weigh up the pros and cons of the stress that this subject might induce vs how much we need to reduce toxins in our life.


Reducing stress is going to trump environmental toxins everyday. So, if this feels like too much then don't read.


And if you have questions then hop in my emails and we can talk about it some more


Love Andrea, The Period Acupuncturist


 

What are endocrine disrupting chemicals ?


The endocrine system

The endocrine system is made up of a group of glands and tissues whose role it is to produce hormones . These hormones pass directly into the bloodstream to control metabolism, growth and sexual development.











The endocrine system consists of the following glands:

  • hypothalamus

  • pituitary gland

  • pineal gland

  • thyroid gland

  • parathyroid glands

  • adrenal glands

  • pancreas

  • thymus

  • testes (male)

  • ovaries (female)


And also tissues such as adipose tissue. Adipose tissue secretes a number of peptide hormones, including leptin, and also produces steroids hormones.


Endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDC's) are substances that cause adverse health problems by altering the function of the endocrine system.


These chemicals can be found in:


  • The food we eat or how it is packaged

  • Our cosmetics plus shampoos and conditioners

  • Cleaning products and room fresheners

  • The receipts we get from shops

  • And so much more


 

Why are endocrine disrupting chemicals a problem for fertility?

Humans may be unknowingly exposed to many endocrine disrupting chemicals in their daily lives including phthalates, BPA, pesticides, and persistent environmental contaminants such as PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyl) and TCDD (2,3,7,8-tetrachlorodibenzo-p-dioxin). We also understand that these toxins may persist in our environment for long periods of time due to their insolubility, leading to their ability to remain in soil.


This is concerning because EDCs are known to affect fertility and this effect may span generations.


In 2024 a study published in Toxicology Sciences found microplastics in every placenta tested. Whilst the sample size was small (62) it found that polyethylene was the most prevalent polymer (54% of samples) with polyvinyl chloride and nylon each representing approximately 10%.


The European Society of Human Reproduction and Embryology (ESHRE) estimates that 25 million people in the EU alone are affected by infertility. In a 2023 conference ESHRE looked specifically at the impact of the environment on human fertility and reproductive health with speakers from across the globe presenting their findings on the impact of environmental factors, with the aim of encouraging an open dialogue on related challenges and opportunities.


In the EU, there is a commitment to protecting citizens and the environment from hazardous chemicals by helping member states identify endocrine disruptors in the areas of pesticides and biocides.


In the UK, when part of the EU, these chemicals are banned however DEHP (a phthalate), for example, from 2023 was allowed in medical devices such as:


  • intravenous (IV) tubing

  • umbilical artery catheters

  • blood bags and infusion tubing

  • enteral nutrition feeding bags

  • nasogastric tubes

  • tubing used in cardiopulmonary bypass (CPB) procedures

  • tubing used in extracorporeal membrane oxygenation (ECMO)

  • tubing used during haemodialysis

  • tubing used during peritoneal dialysis


Bisphenol A (BPA) is also under review, in the UK, with tolerable daily intake (TDI) being evaluated in relation to BPA in food


So, is the UK turning its back on the EU intervention when it comes to EDCs?


Phthalates

Phthalates are a chemical which are used to make plastics more flexible and can be found in food containers, shampoos and other household containers. They can also be found in colognes, perfumes, nail varnish and some adhesives.


Phthalates have been shown to negatively affect both male and female fertility.


In women:

  • increased exposure to monoethyl phthalate increased time to pregnancy.

  • high sum of phthalate metabolites found in personal care products was associated with an increased risk of experiencing hot flashes

In men


Phthalates may also have a trans-generational impact on fertility with some animal studies showing that the exposure influences

  • Delays in puberty for men

  • Decrease in sperm count

  • Impacting normal ovarian function



Bisphenol A (BPA)

This chemical can be found in some types of plastic where it mimics oestrogen and disrupts its metabolism. BPA is found in many products, including food containers, baby bottles, food and beverage can liners, and thermal receipt papers.


BPA can impact:


And in animal studies they found that BPA:


  • prenatal exposure to BPA decreased prenatal follicle numbers and estradiol levels

  • severely reduced fertility

  • decreased testosterone levels

  • increased sperm defects and

  • decreased sperm counts


Pesticides

Pesticides include herbicides, insecticides, fungicides and rodenticides meaning that humans are exposed daily via inhalation and ingestion. Several pesticides have been shown to impact reproduction, including atrazine, methoxychlor, dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane (DDT), p,p′-dichlorodiphenoxydichloroethylene (DDE), and vinclozolin.


Atrazine, a herbicide, can be inhaled in the air and ingested through the soil and our waterways and exposure can affect fertility in both females and males.


For women it has been linked to an increase in menstrual cycle irregularity and in animal studies, atrazine:

  • delayed vaginal opening

  • decreased sperm motility


Parabens

Parabens are preservatives used in many cosmetics, beauty products and food which prevent the growth of microorganisms, such as bacteria, allowing a longer shelf life. However they may also be EDCs which disrupt oestrogen receptors.


In a 2023 animal study they found that


Parabens could disturb the endocrine system by activating the ERs (estrogen receptors) and disrupting the steroid hormone synthesis and secretion, suggesting their potential deleterious risks to the environment and human health.


 

The impact of environmental toxins on our health

Environmental toxins are not only critical for fertility but also for our general health. There are organisations including Breast Cancer UK and Surfers Against Sewage who prominently discuss the health impacts of these toxins.


Breast Cancer

Some EDCs can act as oestrogen mimickers and this artificial increase in oestrogen may increase breast cancer risk in both men and women.


The Breast Cancer UK website has a number of great resources on various EDCs including:


To this date, studies on humans are too limited to say if there is a conclusive link between parabens and breast cancer. However, studies on cells and animals suggest that this association is possible. Parabens may be involved in various stages of tumour formation and growth and may contribute to the spread of cancer cells to other parts of the body.

Evidence suggests that a long-term, low-level exposure to environmental chemicals, including bisphenols, could increase breast cancer risk. 

A large study that has looked at all the available evidence on PFAS to date, has found that exposure to some PFAS (PFOA and PFHxS) may increase breast cancer risk, whilst the chemical PFNA may reduce risk. Another forever chemical, PFOS, currently has no link with breast cancer. Overall, the evidence suggests that exposure to certain PFAS may increase breast cancer risk.

Endometrial Cancer

In this paper published in 2024 they


evaluated serum total xenoestrogen burden in relation to endometrial cancer risk and found an inverted-U risk trend across increasing categories of exposure.


Heart Attack

In a paper published in 2024 they found that in over 200 people undergoing surgery nearly 60% had microplastics in a main artery and..


Those who did were 4.5 times more likely to experience a heart attack, a stroke or death in the approximately 34 months after the surgery than were those whose arteries were plastic-free.



 

What should I be looking for in my shopping?

Breast Cancer UK has an amazing resource for understanding EDCs and which products they may be found in our every day items.


Particular endocrine disrupting chemicals you can look for in labels are:


Shampoo & body wash

  • Cyclosiloxanes

  • Methylisothiazolinone (MIT) 

  • Methylchloroisothiazolinone (MCIT) 

  • Formaldehyde and formaldehyde releasing preservatives

  • Parabens (methyl, ethyl, propyl or butyl paraben)

  • Lilial

  • Benzyl benzoate


Lipstick

  • Butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT)

  • Benzyl benzoate

  • Octinoxate


Makeup

  • Diethyl phthalate

  • Galaxolide (HHBC)

  • Parabens (methyl, ethyl, propyl or butyl paraben)

  • Butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT)


Nail polish

  • Formaldehyde and formaldehyde releasing preservatives

  • Lilial

  • Diethyl phthalate

  • Benzyl salicylate

  • Benzyl benzoate

  • UV filters (e.g. benzyl benzoate)


Creams and moisturisers

  • Butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT)

  • Formaldehyde and and formaldehyde releasing preservatives

  • Parabens (methyl, propyl, butyl or ethyl paraben)

  • UV filters (ethylhexyl salicylate, benzophenone)


Deodarants

  • Triclosan

  • Parabens

  • Aluminium salts (anti-perspirants)

  • Cyclosiloxanes


Kitchen plastics

  • Don’t let PET bottles (recycling code 1) get warm for long periods as they may release antimony, a metalloestrogen

  • Avoid plastics marked:

  • Polyvinyl chloride (PVC) recycling code 3

  • Polystyrene (PS) recycling code 6

  • Other recycling code 7


Cleaning

  • Use eco-friendly products, free from harmful chemicals

  • Avoid cleaning products that contain biocides, such as triclosan or triclocarban in spray cleaners

 

What are the alternatives?

To tackle this task in one attempt is often too vast and too costly. I have listed 10 ways that you can reduce the number of endocrine disrupting chemicals whilst trying for a baby. For both you and your male partner.


But my guidance is that if you finish a cleaning product, consider alternatives. Or maybe wear nail polish occasionally instead of every week. Make change when you are able and choose one thing at a time.


If you are based in Hitchin I recommend visiting Wholesome Weigh or if you are in Ware you can try Sugar and Scoop.


  1. You can download apps such as Yuka or take a look through the Environmental Working Group (EWG) website to allow you to navigate your daily life and lifestyle when it comes to consumables, food etc

  2. Consider swapping some foods for organic. Whilst, unfortunately, organic doesn't necessarily mean pesticide free it does mean you have a lower dietary exposure with no detectable pesticide residue present on organic produce. EWG publish two lists each year called the Clean Fifteen and Dirty Dozen foods. In 2024 the "Dirty Dozen" which are the foods with the most pesticide contamination are:

    1. Strawberries

    2. Spinach

    3. Kale, collard and mustard greens

    4. Grapes

    5. Peaches

    6. Pears

    7. Nectarines

    8. Apples

    9. Bell and hot peppers

    10. Cherries

    11. Blueberries

    12. Green beans

  3. Reduce the use of room sprays/diffusors/scented candles/perfumes/cologne

  4. Filter tap water with a glass filter and do not drink water from plastic bottles

  5. Reduce the number of ready meals which come in plastic containers

  6. Look at your household cleaning products and check for their EDC ingredients

  7. Look at your skincare and shampoo and conditioner and reduce your paraben exposure

  8. Use glass containers to store food

  9. Change your cookware

  10. Check (and maybe change) your menstrual products:

    1. Some period pants can contain PFAS

    2. Some menstrual products have been found to be a considerable source of exposure to endocrine disrupting chemicals such as phthalates, bisphenols and parabens for women

    3. Synthetic fragrances including those added to period products can contain a cocktail of up to 3,000 chemicals

    4. One of the raw materials used to make menstrual products – chlorine and dioxin (one of the most toxic substances known to humankind) can still be found in menstrual pads and tampons


I realise the vastness and magnitude of this topic. As I mentioned at the very beginning I want to exhaust most other lifestyle factors before we start approaching endocrine disruptors. Because stress is possibly already a factor when trying for a baby and EDCs are very often the straw that can break the camels back.


But it would be negligent if I didn't talk to my patients about this. Especially for the following people:


  • Unexplained infertility

  • People who have been diagnosed with PCOS

  • People who have been diagnosed with endometriosis

  • People who have been diagnosed with autoimmune conditions


Because I want you to achieve your end goal. A successful and healthy pregnancy. And EDCs might be the missing piece of jigsaw that is hindering you.


So, if you are looking for fertility acupuncture support in Hertfordshire then feel free to message me or book online.













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