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Vital Signs


Vital Signs

Winter 2011

Is Environment Affecting Reproductive Health?


VS-Winter11-Smog CityAre certain chemicals in our environment negatively affecting reproductive health?
The question is just beginning to be studied, but the circumstantial evidence is enough to raise concern, according to Janet Pregler, M.D., director of the Iris Cantor-UCLA Women’s Health Center.

For example, Dr. Pregler notes, over the last several decades sperm counts have declined by as much as 50 percent in industrial regions. Rates of breast, testicular and prostate cancer are up significantly. More young women are reporting difficulty conceiving and maintaining their pregnancies, the rate of premature births is up, and malformations of male reproductive organs are now the second and third most common birth defects.

“We don’t really understand why this is happening,” Dr. Pregler says, “but we do have evidence that certain chemicals will cause these problems in animals. It’s clear that research is needed to address potential links between environmental toxins and harmful reproductive effects in humans.”

Dr. Pregler notes that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration follows a rigorous process to ensure that drugs are safe before they are approved for public use, but no similar process is in place to ensure the safety of chemicals released into the environment. Chemical production in the United States has increased 20-fold since World War II, and the number of chemicals used commercially is up more than 30 percent in the last three decades. “It’s well recognized that air pollution can cause respiratory problems, but less appreciated is the fact that toxins in our environment get into our bodies and stay there for years,” Dr. Pregler says.

The Iris Cantor-UCLA Women’s Health Center is working with the Los Angeles County Office of Women’s Health to address these concerns. “Our goal is to bring together the medical/scientific community, community advocates and public officials to support VS-Winter11-Cosmeticsresearch and policies that will protect women’s health from potential environmental toxins,” Dr. Pregler says.

For now, Dr. Pregler encourages women to recognize that there are numerous potentially harmful chemicals in cosmetic products, for example, that have been found to be measurable in blood — among them phthalates, bisphenol A, lead and cadmium. “We worry about whether a pregnant woman should take a Tylenol, but she might be using 10 or 15 beauty products a day containing chemicals about which we don’t know the effects,” Dr. Pregler says.

“The reproductive system is resilient — it’s important not to feel that it’s impossible to have a successful pregnancy,” she notes. “The vast majority of women will have healthy outcomes even in conditions where there may be toxins. But we are always looking to reduce the risk, and these chemicals need to be part of that equation.”

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