My own epiphany about environmental chemicals and fertility came when I was planning to get pregnant with my first child. Fertility is something most of us take for granted… until things don’t work as expected. Then, we suddenly become aware of the incredible intricacies of what the human body is achieving in creating new life. Upon this realisation, our personal lack of control in the scenario can feel overwhelming. How can we possibly detect the cause of infertility?
Fertility rates around the world are dropping and it’s not just from women choosing to have babies later. Shanna Swan, a professor of environmental medicine and public health at Mount Sinai school of medicine in New York has found through analysing sperm bank donations, that sperm counts have dropped by more than 50% in the past 40 years for men in western countries. At that rate, she says by 2045 we are on course for an infertile world.
Women too are experiencing increased rates of infertility. Swan says that the average Danish woman in her 20’s is less fertile than her grandmother was at 35!
What Is Causing This Infertility?
Infertility can have many causes, however there are chemicals which we come into contact through our everyday home and personal care products which have been proven to have direct effects on our body’s sex hormones – testosterone and oestrogen – the ones which make reproduction possible. Known as Endocrine Disrupting Chemicals (EDCs), ‘Endocrine’ being another word for hormone. Hormones and their signals are critical to the normal functioning of every tissue and organ in the body, including playing a vital role in conception and pregnancy. It is therefore important to ensure that we are creating an environment which gives us the best chances at conception and a healthy pregnancy.
Endocrine Disrupting Chemicals
Endocrine Disrupting Chemicals (EDCs) are man-made industrial chemicals which mimic or interact with hormones in the body or their receptors. There are close to 800 of these EDCs and they are present in things we use every day.
In this post, we’re going to look at one of the most common families of EDCs – phthalates. Phthalates (pronounced “thal-ates”) can decrease the production of testosterone and lower sperm counts and are also linked with polycystic ovarian syndrome and premature ovarian failure.
Where and WHY are they in my products?
Phthalates are used in products as plasticizers to make plastics more flexible and durable. They are also used to make a product better able to hold colour and scent for a longer period. Any ‘fragrance’ listed on an ingredients panel can and often does contain phthalates. You will find them in cosmetic and personal care products, hand wash, cleaning products and scented home products such as candles and diffuser reeds.
You will also find phthalates in all PVC products, as PVC can be up to 30% by weight made of phthalates. This includes vinyl flooring, bath mats, shower curtains, commercial food coverings and behind block-out blinds.
How Does Exposure Occur?
Phthalates can enter our bodies through breathing in vapours, by skin contact, eating or drinking foods or liquids which have had phthalates leach into them and through the placenta and breastmilk.
• Phthalate vapours are inhaled from building materials (vinyl floors), furniture and fragranced household products.
• Phthalates are absorbed through the skin by contact with fragranced personal care products, cosmetics and also phthalate containing clothing such as waterproof clothing and artificial leather.
• Phthalates are entangled within a plastic rather than bonded, so can leach out easily by exposure to heat and solvents. Phthalates enter our food and drinks by leaching into them from packaging and microwaving plastics.
What Is The Research About Phthalates & The Cause Of Infertility? How Bad Are They?
• A 2018 review found robust evidence of an association between DEHP and DBP phthalate and reduced semen quality, lower testosterone and longer time to achieving pregnancy.
• Studies show that young men with higher levels of phthalate metabolites have poorer sperm shape and movement.
• High levels of phthalates are linked with anovulation – when an egg isn’t released during a menstrual cycle and polycystic ovarian syndrome.
• Early studies also link phthalates with premature ovarian failure and a greater incidence of hot flashes for women aged 45- 54.
Phthalates to be associated with creating genital malformations in male babies and neurobehavioural changes.
• Boys with undescended testicles, lower sperm counts and reduced testosterone had significantly higher levels of phthalates in their mothers’ milk than those with normal testicular development.
How Long Will These Phthalates Last In My Body? Can I / My Partner Detox?
The good news is that the phthalates have a short half-life, and as long as our detox pathways are working correctly, as adults we are able to metabolize and remove them from our body within 24 hours of exposure. So it is well worth beginning to minimise your exposure today, as your body will start benefitting from it straight away. Whilst this doesn’t eliminate the potential existing long term effects of phthalate exposure during development, you can definitely stop it from wreaking more havoc in the present.
How Can I Avoid Phthalates?
1. Choose ‘Fragrance – Free’
Look at the ingredients panel of your products – is ‘fragrance’ listed? If so, then your product most probably contains phthalates, unless it mentions that the fragrance comes from essential oils only.
If this product is one of your high rotation, high surface area, not washed off products, then it is probably time to begin looking for a swap.
This goes for home care products too – start to look out for ‘Fragrance – Free’ products or ones scented with essential oils only. To learn the important difference between fragrance free and unscented products, read out blog here. Fragrance free or unscented… which is better?
It doesn’t mean that you’re going to have a completely smell-less home, there are now plenty of options using essential oils.
2. Remove As Much PVC From Your Home As Possible
PVC can be present in our flooring (vinyl), clothes (raincoats), bath mat, block-out curtains and table mats etc. Look to swap the products you have most contact with. Swap to a natural rubber bath mat and 100% cotton curtains. For areas where you can’t do anything about it, make sure to keep ventilation high (such as by opening windows in that room.)
3. Avoid Food In Commercial Plastic Wrap
Unlike most plastic wrap in our homes, commercial plastic wrap is again unfortunately PVC. Phthalates leach out of PVC and into food most easily with fats – so meats and cheeses are particularly vulnerable. Look for these products alternatively packaged – or go to the deli and bring your own container.
4. Eating Organic Fruits & Vegetables
Phthalates are used in conventional pesticides – which obviously aren’t allowed to be used on organic produce. Pesticide treated animal feeds are also not allowed in organic meat and dairy production. Buying all organic produce however, can be eye-wateringly expensive and unrealistic for many.
To make it manageable, just prioritise buying the fruit and vegetables whose skin you eat, eg. berries, leafy greens, apples and peaches. These are the produce most heavily sprayed with pesticides, as insects like them too!
Save your money and buy conventional melon, avocados, pineapple, sweetcorn, cauliflower and kiwi… these are the least sprayed produce.
5. Safe Food Containers
Plastics with recycling codes 3 and 7 may contain phthalates. Swap to glass and stainless steel containers and water bottles and never microwave in plastic.
6. Minimise Dairy
Finally, phthalates are found in fatty foods such as milk, butter and meat. (They are thought to enter milk through the tubing used in the dairies to milk the cows.) Even if the dairy is organic, unfortunately we can’t avoid phthalates here, so minimizing is our only option.
Do I Have To Worry Once I’m Pregnant?
A lot of the exposure to EDCs that cause the most significant long term health effects occurs in utero, when the foetus is first forming. These fast dividing cells are the most sensitive and as mentioned above, studies have shown the phthalate concentration of a mother affects her growing child, especially boys.
We can also pass the effects of EDCs on; a female foetus in utero, is growing the eggs that she will use to have her own children. These chemicals can make their way to those germ cells, too. So for a pregnant woman, her exposure to EDCs can affect both her child and grandchildren too!
Young children have also been shown to be at particularly high risk of phthalate exposure. This is because they have a lot of floor time and so breathe in dust as well as vapours containing phthalates and have more skin contact with vinyl flooring. Young children also put everything in their mouths and a lot of toys are softened with phthalates. Numerous studies have shown a link with indoor PVC- floor and wall coverings, the concentration of DEHP phthalate in indoor dust and bronchial obstruction, asthma and wheezing in children.
Phthalates may seem as if they are everywhere, however they don’t need to be. There are phthalate alternatives already available to industry. If we as consumers start choosing ‘phthalate-free’ products, companies will listen and start offering healthier products. So long term, there is definitely a light at the end of the tunnel.
To find phthalate-free and non-toxic products which are also ethical, sustainable and responsible, check out the Clean + Conscious directory. Here you’ll discover honest information on each product’s ingredients / materials and be able to read hands-on product reviews from experts.
Want to learn more about Endocrine Disruptors? Read What Are Endocrine Disruptors & Why They Matter. To start detoxing your personal care products and home from Endocrine Disruptors, read How to Detox Your Home in an Afternoon and 8 Easy Steps To Detox Your Personal Care Products.