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Infertility: handle with care

Catherine McDiarmid-Watt | Friday, May 02, 2008 | 0 comments

Can these everyday household items really be blamed for an alarming rise in infertility? More and more scientists would say yes. Anna Moore looks at the facts

Charlotte Lawrence and her partner John have been careful not to panic, even though, after 18 months of trying for a baby, nothing has happened. 'We knew it might not be immediate - someone described it as throwing a six on a dice,' says Charlotte. 'Also, we both work, we lead busy lives. We hoped - still hope - we've just been unlucky with timing. But the longer it goes on, the more ominous it feels. Something can't be right. Something isn't working.'

Now waiting for their first specialist consultation, they are among the one in six couples who seek some sort of medical assistance in their quest for a baby. Like many, they both have successful careers (Charlotte in marketing, John in IT), a comfortable life and a baby's room waiting. Where they don't conform to stereotype is age. Both Charlotte and John are 26. The problem - whatever it is - lies elsewhere.

In fact, despite the constant warnings of 'biological clocks' and older IVF mothers, infertility appears to be rising across the board. 'We see the full range of ages,' says Clare Brown, the chief executive of Infertility Network UK. 'Couples in their early twenties through to their forties, with the full range of reasons.'

And often, no reason at all. Roughly one third of infertility remains 'unexplained', a third is female-related - apart from the fact that women are trying for children later, sexually transmitted infections and polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) are on the rise - and the rest is male-related. Studies across Europe have recorded an alarming drop in sperm counts and a study not yet released has found the same here in Britain. 'Something has changed in the past 20 or 30 years,' says Allan Pacey, the secretary of the British Fertility Society. 'We don't know what it is, but we need to be very concerned.'

Many modern-day habits are known to play a part - drinking, smoking and overeating for example. What we don't know is whether there's something else going on - in the air we breathe, water we drink and food we eat. The thousands of invisible chemicals that have poured into our world since the Second World War to make life non-breakable, non-stick and flame-resistant are being linked to miscarriage, PCOS, endometriosis, and low sperm counts - as well as testicular cancer, breast cancer and prostate cancer.

Shanna Swan, an epidemiologist at the University of Rochester School of Medicine & Dentistry in America, has spent the past 20 years studying environmental reproductive risks. 'There's no question now that chemical exposures impair fertility,' she says. 'We have 80,000 chemicals in circulation and when we look we see strong evidence that comes out constantly in scientific journals and in small conferences. Yet somehow we haven't reached the tipping point where people take notice. With global warming, it took 20 years. The American surgeon general said in 1964 that cigarettes caused cancer. How long did that take to get around? Maybe it takes a disaster - and I think impairing our ability to reproduce is potentially the most serious disaster there is.'

Two highly ubiquitous chemicals, phthalates (the 'ph' is silent) and bisphenol A, are the cause of most concern. Both chemicals are everywhere - tin cans, baby bottles, water bottles, CDs, plastic toys, the list is endless - and because of their 'leachy' nature (they're not very good at binding to their products) they are in us, too. In a study by Shanna Swan of mothers and babies, all the babies had measurable phthalate levels - and those exposed to the most baby-care products had the highest. Often described as 'endocrine disrupters', phthalates mimic the female hormone oestrogen, so could play havoc with hormones and reproductive systems - particularly in men.


Bisphenol A

Originally created as a 'synthetic oestrogen' - a man-made hormone - it was adopted by the chemical industry when it was discovered that it could make plastic light, clear and shatterproof

Found in Tin cans, plastic lunch boxes, plastic water bottles, baby bottles, mobile phones, DVDs and thousands of other products

Linked to Breast cancer, prostate cancer, male infertility, polycystic ovary syndrome, miscarriage, insulin resistance and obesity


Produced in high volumes to make plastic more flexible and cosmetics smoother

Found in Children's toys, shower curtains, plastic food wrap, car interiors and beauty products

Linked to Male reproductive disorders starting in utero, and the early onset of puberty and premature breast development in girls


Polybrominated diphenyl ethers are used as flame retardants. In some countries, concentrations in human breast milk have been doubling every five years. Though most PBDEs have been banned from new products, Deca-BDE is still allowed and is very controversial

Found in Sofas, carpets, computers, televisions, mobile phones, bedding, some school uniforms and children's nightwear

Linked to Neurological impairment and liver damage in animals


Chemicals with strong water- and oil-repelling qualities, which make products non-stick, waterproof and stain-proof. They do not degrade

Found in Saucepans, sofas, outdoor clothing, fast-food containers and carpets

Linked to Birth defects, immune system disorders and thyroid dysfunction

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About Catherine: I am mom to three grown sons, two grandchildren and two rescue dogs. After years of raising my boys as a single mom, I remarried a wonderful man who had never had a child of his own. Unexpectedly, I found myself pregnant at 49!
Sadly we lost that precious baby at 8 weeks, and decided to try again. Five more losses, turned down for donor egg, foster care and adoption due to my age and losses - we have accepted that there will be no more babies in our house.

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