Fertility on the Brink

I lost both parents to cancer. Dad was 66 and died in 1998 and my mom passed away in 2002 at 69. They didn’t have lifestyles that are sometimes associated with a proclivity to being diagnosed with cancer. They didn’t smoke, rarely drank, were not obese, and did not have a genetic predisposition for cancer.

What they did share was a lifetime of living in the Ohio River Valley during the era when steel was king and coal was the main power source. The valley was a hotbed of other polluting industries as well. Blue skies were not the norm as factories spewed pollutants into the air as well as the water. Steubenville, my home town, had the dubious title of “Dirtiest City in the USA.” It was part of the now famous “Harvard Six Cities Study.”. My sister and I both had college internships working on that study during our junior year in 1976.

We learned a lot from that on-going study; specifically, exposure to air pollution contributes to excess mortality. When many of the steel mills and factories closed in the late 1980s, the skies became clear and the death rates dropped. Sadly, the valley now faces another threat to health as the fossil fuel industry gears up to promote plastics and petrochemicals to compensate for a decline in fuel demands. If developed, the Appalachian Storage Hub will create a new “cancer alley” in the Ohio River Valley.

You do not have to live in an area that is heavily polluted to be exposed to compounds that could be carcinogenic or endocrine disruptors. Research now shows that the “forever compound” used to make Teflon pans and stain resistant carpeting is in the blood of 99.7 percent of Americans. The face cream in your bathroom or the plastic package your take-out food was stored in could be contributing to the “toxic cocktail” of chemicals in your life.

Every day we are exposed to thousands of chemicals in our personal care products, foods, cleaning products, clothing, furniture, electronics, and food packaging. Do not assume these chemicals have been tested for safety and health effects. Most chemicals have had little to no testing done before they can be used in commerce. According to Dr. Shanna Swan, author of the book Count Down, less than 250 of the over 60,000 chemicals used in commerce in the USA have been adequately tested for health effects or endocrine disruption.

The Toxic Substance Control Act, passed in 1976, fails to protect consumers as it allows thousands of chemicals manufactured pre-1976 to remain in the marketplace without toxic assessment. Even when testing is performed, synergistic effects are not considered and impacts on the endocrine system are rarely investigated.

Between 1970 and 1995, the volume of synthetic organic chemicals produced in the USA increased from 50 million tons to 150 million tons. We are paying for the convenience of single-use plastics and untested commercial chemical compounds with our health, and as Dr. Swan points out in her book, with our fertility.

The association of synthetic organic compounds with health effects and reproductive issues is not a new discovery. In 1991, Wingspread, a global conference of scientific researchers around the world, alerted us to the fact that “many compounds introduced into the environment by human activity are capable of disrupting the endocrine systems of fish, wildlife, and humans.” Some of the effects of exposures include: early puberty in girls, obesity and type II diabetes.

In 1993, Dr. Lou Guillette, an expert on sexual development, spoke before a congressional committee about the declines in sperm counts and warned the congressmen, “Every man sitting in this room today is half the man his grandfather was!”

I was fortunate to attend a conference and hear Dr. Guillette speak. He told the audience the story of Lake Apopka located in Central Florida. While studying alligators in the lake he noticed that many had deformities of the genitals and could not reproduce. The lake was the scene of a chemical spill of Dicofol and was also shown to be contaminated with DDE (the breakdown product of DDT) and other organochlorine compounds used in agriculture. Dr. Guillette and his team could not find any young alligators or any viable alligator eggs. He concluded that exposures to the compounds had caused male alligators to become sterile.

Another speaker at that conference, Dr. Theo Colborn, showed evidence of developmental problems in species around the Great Lakes region. She went on to author a book on fertility and chemical exposures titled “Our Stolen Future.” Both Drs. Colborn and Guillette made the connection between exposures to man-made chemicals, especially pesticides, and increases in reproductive issues.

I recently attended a webinar which featured Dr. Swan. She has also found declines in male fertility across the globe and explained how “endocrine disrupting chemicals act like hormone imposters.” They can bind to receptors sites in our bodies and either turn on incorrect responses or block the natural hormones from binding to a site.

One group of compounds known as phthalates can be found in things like plastics, vinyl flooring, toys, perfumes, soaps, shampoos and other personal care products. Some of these compounds can decrease the production of testosterone. Three of the most potent of these phthalates are now being phased out by the European Union, but not in the US. Female exposure to high levels of phthalates has been linked to a lack of egg release in the ovaries and polycystic ovary syndrome.

Bisphenol A was first synthesized in 1891 and found to be a potent estrogenic compound. Its commercial use began to increase dramatically in the 1950s. It is found frequently as an epoxy coating on metal surfaces such as the linings of food containers. Because it acts as an estrogen, its effects on females are more pronounced and include possible links to higher miscarriage rates.

A final example of the magnitude of the effects of chemical exposure can be found in the Chippewa First Nation community of Sarnia, Ontario, or “cancer valley.” The area is “entirely surrounded by one of the world’s most extensive petrochemical complexes, producing 40 per cent of Canada’s entire output of plastics, synthetic rubber and other chemical compounds.” Natural birth sex rates are usually 50 percent male to 50 percent female. In Sarnia, male births are at 35 percent and declining every year. Indeed, our fertility is on the brink.

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The Author

Randi Pokladnik

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