Are Everyday Chemicals Causing Infertility?

Researchers say chemicals found in products we use every day are affecting hormones and our ability to reproduce

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Like 1 in 8 U.S. couples, Zeina Alkhalaf struggled to get pregnant. 

"I was very confused, I felt like my body had failed me," she first told NBC Washington.

Alkhalaf was diagnosed with polycystic ovary syndrome, a condition that affected her hormones. 

She turned to in vitro fertilization to have her daughter. Years later, she tried fertility treatments again. She got pregnant but suffered a late-term miscarriage and was hospitalized.

Wanting to take control of her health, Alkhalaf started doing research -- reading medical journals about the chemicals in our personal care products, household cleaners and food.

Couples dealing with infertility should know they might have treatment options, and it's OK to talk about their issues openly. OB/GYN and fertility expert Dr. Zaher Merhi joined NBCLX during National Infertility Awareness Week.

She switched to toothpaste, deodorant and makeup with fewer chemicals, and started eating an organic diet. She said her menstrual cycles regulated and her hormones leveled off.

“I could not believe that there was such a huge change in just small things that I was, you know, switching in my house," Alkhalaf said.

The biggest surprise? She got pregnant -- naturally.

Alkhalaf is certainly not alone in her struggles to conceive.

Shanna Swan, a leading environmental and reproductive epidemiologist, says endocrine-disrupting chemicals (EDC’s) found in everyday products, including plastic and electronics, are lowering fertility in men and women. She says EDC’s interfere with normal hormonal function, including testosterone and estrogen. 

In a study, Swan found sperm counts have plummeted over the last four decades, and based on those findings, she hypothesizes men will no longer produce sperm by 2045. She authored the book “Count Down” on the subject.

Regarding Swan’s work, Dr. Brooke Friedman with the San Diego Fertility Center said, “There’s enough accumulating evidence that I do believe we should be alert. I think that we should be concerned, but I don't think it's time to panic.”

After studies connecting a number of chemicals used in personal care products to disease and birth defects, California legislators set out to eliminate those toxic ingredients. They faced a formidable opponent in the personal care products industry, but this year passed a landmark piece of legislation that could be followed in other states.

Friedman believes more research on the subject is needed.

“The European Union is a few steps ahead of us and has actually taken some steps to ban these classes of phthalates because of their concerns for reproductive harm," Friedman said. "Again, we have enough accumulating evidence that makes sense for us as individuals to decrease our exposures. We don’t have enough information to draw a direct line between some of these exposures and infertility.”

Friedman says we can decrease our exposure to EDC’s by avoiding heating food in plastic containers, as well as limiting processed foods and exposure to pesticides. 

“Some of these endocrine-disrupting chemicals are in plastics. So they are in plastics, personal care products, they are in household cleaning products, so they are fairly prevalent in our environment,” Friedman said.

She says to also avoid personal care products that are heavily fragranced or perfumed. 

The personal care product industry insists the amounts of chemicals used in our everyday products like shampoo, lotion and deodorant are very small and the products are safe.

Meanwhile, Alkhalaf says it's not clear if she got pregnant because of the changes she made to her personal care products or diet, or if it was something else entirely. But, if it was due to the shift, she hopes the advice can help others, too.

"I was like, I need to be able to share this information with everyone that I can. They need to know about what's going on.” 

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