Reproductive Health & Toxic Chemical Exposure

By Corey Whelan

Starting a family is an exciting time but also adds a ton of to-do’s to what is probably already a long list. You may need to identify a sperm or egg donor. You may also need to find a gestational carrier. There may be concerns about medical insurance, legal issues, and the need for information about your own reproductive health. Adding worry about avoiding toxic chemicals may feel unimportant, unnecessary, or overwhelming. Who has time to think about what is beyond control anyway? But rethinking this may be important. The bad news is that toxins in the home and workplace have been shown, in study after to study, to affect reproductive health. They can also negatively impact the health of fetuses and infants. The good news is that there are simple things you can do to avoid many of them. There are hundreds, if not thousands, of chemicals out there. The fixes for the ones highlighted below will help you to reduce your exposure to many. Toxins to avoid include:

Bisphenol A (BPA)

BPA is found in polycarbonate plastics (think water bottles, baby bottles, and food containers). It is also found in epoxy resins, which are used to line food cans. BPA’s main conduit into the body is via ingestion. It can be passed to fetuses during pregnancy, and transmitted to nursing babies. BPA has been found in follicular fluid, amniotic fluid, placental tissue, and cord serum. It may adversely affect the brain and prostate glands in fetuses, infants, and children. An endocrine disruptor, BPA may also negatively impact upon the male and female reproductive systems.

The fix?

  • Look for plastics and cans identified as BPA-free. Clear plastic bottles which contain BPA are often marked with the recycling number 7. They may also have a PC marker indicated. Instead of using those, look for bottles with recycling numbers 1, 2 or 5. These are BPA-free.
  • Throw out those old, bought-at-a-tag-sale baby bottles, as these will most likely contain BPA, and opt for new ones which were manufactured after 2012. That’s when the FDA banned the use of BPA in baby bottles and sippy cups.
  • Never heat up food in a plastic container, even if it is microwaveable. Heat causes BPA to leach out, contaminating food. For that reason, it’s also a good idea to avoid eating takeout soup and other hot foods that are ladled into plastic.


Some studies have indicated that phthalates can harm the male reproductive system in adults, children, and fetuses. This insidious chemical is in practically every soft plastic you can think of, including car interiors, vinyl flooring, and shower curtains. It is also in many personal hygiene and cosmetic items. Phthalates leach out into the air, and can be most concentrated when products are new. It is hard, but not impossible to avoid this toxin in the environment.

The fix?

  • Don’t buy or use items with that new plastic (or new car) smell. If you can’t avoid them, let these items off-gas outdoors, until the smell dissipates completely.
  • Phthalates were banned from plastic items manufactured specifically for babies and children in 2009. Avoid purchasing vintage children’s items manufactured before then, especially if they are things that are bound to find their way into your little one’s mouth.
  • Phthalates are not listed as an ingredient on labels, but that doesn’t mean they are not in the products you buy. One way to avoid phthalates in cosmetic and personal care items is to opt for those made only from natural ingredients you can pronounce. Also avoid fragrances and items with fragrance added.
  • Plastics marked with recycling codes 3 and 7 most likely contain either/or phthalates and BPA. Avoid those, and opt for products marked with recycling codes 1, 2, or 5 instead.


This highly toxic chemical is dispersed into air, primarily as an industrial byproduct. It is classified as a persistent environmental pollutant (POP) by the World Health Organization (WHO). Found lurking in almost every corner of the globe, dioxin accumulates in the fatty tissue of mammals, and is endemic throughout the entire food chain. Human exposure occurs primarily by eating meat and dairy products. Dioxin is also found in smaller amounts in fish, especially fatty fish. Dioxin can cause reproductive and developmental harm to developing fetuses. It also adversely affects the immune system, and may cause cancer. Avoiding it is challenging but necessary, especially for pregnant and breastfeeding people.

The fix?

  • You can reduce dioxin exposure by cutting down on the amount of meat and high-fat dairy that you and your family eat. Since dioxin concentrations are highest in fat, trim the fat off meats that you do eat, and increase the number of plant-based meals you consume.
  • You can also become part of the dioxin-busting solution by petitioning industry and your elected officials to insist that all contaminated materials be incinerated properly, so that dioxin is not released into the atmosphere. This will reduce its entry points into the food chain.

The Chemicals in Cigarettes

The easiest way to reduce toxin exposure may be, for some, the hardest one to instate. The 600 ingredients in cigarettes produce 7,000 chemical reactions when heated. These include multiple poisons and endocrine disruptors, including nicotine, lead, acetone, arsenic, benzene, and formaldehyde. All have a negative impact upon health. Nicotine has been found to reduce sperm count and sperm health. It also restricts blood flow, adversely affecting the uterine environment. Smokers and those exposed to secondhand smoke are more likely to have reduced egg quality, problems with ovulation, and miscarriage. Smokers also have reduced success via assisted reproduction, including in vitro fertilization (IVF). According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), smoking is the leading cause of SIDS – sudden infant death – in otherwise healthy infants. It also causes asthma and respiratory ailments in infants, babies, and children.

The fix?

Create a plan to stop smoking today. If you do smoke, do not pick up or hold your baby for three hours after smoking, and change the clothing you wore, as chemicals adhere to cloth and remain there for many hours. Limit your family’s exposure to second hand smoke from others.

It may be impossible to reduce your toxin exposure completely, but every little change you make has an impact. Keep in mind, too, that your product choices impact upon what manufacturers choose to produce. If you don’t buy it, they won’t make it.
For more information on the toxins in everyday products, check out the Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep database at

About the Author: Corey Whelan has been a patient advocate in the field of infertility for over 25 years. She is currently the Director of Family Resource Development for Family Equality Council. Many thanks to Karin Gunther Russ, M.S., RN, for her articles and research, upon which this content was based.