When the fertility doctor broke the news to us that my husband was struggling with his fertility, our first question was, “What’s causing it?” We wanted to know how we ended up there, and whether something could be done to solve the issue. The doctor explained that rarely do families determine the actual cause of infertility issues. A few expensive tests (often not covered by health insurance) are available to check the function of a woman’s reproductive system, but for most people who suffer through it, no explanation is found and doctors are left to simply treat the symptoms with fertility drugs or, as in our case, suggest the use of egg and/or sperm donors and adoption.
My first instinct was to suspect chemical exposure through his job as an auto technician. He’s touched and breathed an array of toxic chemicals over more than 25 years to maintain other people’s cars. My initial assumption was part of a culturally pervasive idea that increases in infertility could be due in part to subtle exposure to toxic chemicals in our environment.
One industrial chemical (and subsequent environmental pollutant), Bisphenol-A (BPA), found in hard plastics and known as an estrogen-disruptor and for its negative effects on the heart and central nervous system, has also recently been linked to changes in immune response within the uterus. Because of its chemical similarity to the hormone estradiol in the body, BPA binds to proteins meant to interact with estradiol.
Many Washingtonians are familiar with BPA because it was part of a phased ban in Washington State in 2010. By July 1, 2012, no one can make or sell reusable sports bottles, sippy cups, or baby bottles containing BPA in the state. Last year, Oregon considered a similar ban that would also add baby formula containers to the list along with warning labels to consumers.
New research in the March Journal of Reproductive Toxicology shows that mice exposed to BPA in their food can experience bacterial infections in the uterus (pyometra), a condition observed in cats and dogs.
Whether a causal link exists between BPA and human uterine infertility is too soon to tell. The study focused on pathological changes and not fertility rates and uterine changes due to BPA exposure haven’t been scientifically demonstrated in humans. However, this research will continue the scientific quest to understand what role subtle environmental exposures have on human fertility rates. My guess is that once the data are finally in, the list of toxic chemicals effecting fertility will be much longer than we ever suspected.