Gone But Not Forgotten: PCBs and Infertility

PCBs and Infertility PCBs and Infertility

There is a silent reproductive health threat in the U.S. today. Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) are harmful chemicals once used in manufacturing. Despite a 1979 ban on PCBs, they still linger in our soil and water. Humans continue to become exposed to PCBs through the soil or from eating meat, fish, and dairy products from contaminated environments. As a result, most living things on the planet have some PCBs present in their bodies. Health scientists are becoming more and more certain that PCBs and infertility problems are linked. They are trying to figure out how this happens, and just how harmful PCBs might be.

PCBs, fertility problems, and you
The good news about PCBs is that they are no longer being used in manufacturing in the U.S. The bad news is that PCBs can take several decades or more to disappear from the environment. PCBs are part of a group of chemicals called endocrine disruptors. Endocrine disruptors can mimic estrogen in the body, alter your hormone levels, and disrupt your health. This might increase health and fertility problems. Studies are continuing to show a relationship between endocrine disruptors and fertility problems, including:

  • Endometriosis
  • Male fertility problems like poor sperm health
  • Infertility and miscarriages
  • Taking longer to conceive when trying to get pregnant

In addition, endocrine disruptors like PCB are associated with an increased risk of cancers, menstrual disorders, and early puberty and menopause in women. PCBs don't just harm adults, either. Due to their small size, babies in utero and young infants exposed to PCBs may be at an increased risk for trouble.


Ask a doctor about PCBs and infertility

Still a skeptic about PCBs and infertility problems?
Browsing through recent research studies on endometriosis might convince you that environmental toxins and fertility problems are linked. Currently, about 1 in 10 women struggle with endometriosis, which can cause pain and cramping, irregular bleeding, and other fertility problems. Multiple studies demonstrate that women with endometriosis have higher levels of PCBs in their bodies. If you look at the research on PCBs and endometriosis, a connection seems compelling.

PCBs and IVF
Some scientists have found other links between PCBs and infertility. In a recent study of over 750 women, those with higher PCB levels in their bodies had lower pregnancy and birth rates after in vitro fertilization (IVF). The reason? Embryos were less likely to implant after fertilization for the women with higher PCB levels. This finding is interesting, but some experts in the field remain unconvinced. Critics say that this research does not prove that PCBs threaten fertility. However, this study does shed some light in how chemicals in our environment might be connected to infertility for some people.

Reduce your PCB exposure
If PCBs are still in the soil, water, and food supply, how can you protect your health and your fertility? Here are five tips:

  1. Avoid eating fish that might contain PCBs and other potentially harmful chemicals, like albacore tuna and swordfish.
  2. If you take fish oil supplements, look for pills that are screened for possible contaminants.
  3. Reduce your intake of high fat dairy and meats and choose organic products when possible.
  4. Peel fruits and vegetables, since PCBs may lie in the peel.
  5. It may sound horrible to expose a baby to toxins, but if you become pregnant, breastfeed! Breastfeeding can help detoxify your body from chemicals like PCB. (According to the La Leche League, the benefits of breastfeeding still outweigh any potential risks of contaminants to your infant).

While PCB levels in our environment are declining, they could still be a threat to your health. Unfortunately, it will take some time for them to completely disappear from the earth. As you try to conceive, protect your fertility by reducing your exposure to these chemicals.

Reviewed May 2011 by Dr. Kristen Wright from Reproductive Science Center of New England.