Reproductive Health Declines as Chemical Exposure Increases

Troubling national trends show increases in reproductive health problems as the widespread use of certain chemicals has increased dramatically. A new analysis of available data makes several recommendations for U.S. chemicals policy to address the growing health concerns and potential links to toxic chemicals. Among the recommendations is a call for greater public disclosure of chemical safety information, increased federal research on safer chemical substitutes, and removing political influence from assessments of chemical safety.

The analysis, Reproductive Roulette, produced by the Center for American Progress (CAP), draws on numerous scientific studies that show a clear degradation over the last several decades in both male and female adult reproductive health nationwide, as well as more developmental problems among young children.

At the same time that the nation's reproductive health has deteriorated, the number and amount of potentially harmful chemicals has exploded, as has Americans' exposure to such chemicals. The report cites scientific studies identifying linkages between exposure to chemicals and the reproductive disorders that are on the rise. Despite these studies, more information is needed about the amounts of chemicals people are exposed to and how combinations of chemicals impact a person's health, especially developing fetuses and children, according to the report.

Fertility problems are growing, including decreasing sperm counts, decreased fertility among women of all childbearing ages, and significantly higher reports of miscarriages and stillbirths since the 1970s and 1980s. Since the mid-1990s, premature births and infants born with low birth weight have increased significantly. Several factors, including discrepancies in health care and changes in reporting methodology, may contribute to these health trends, but the report cites studies that link certain chemicals to these ailments even after considering these other factors.

In addition to fertility problems among adults, the report describes data that show increasing rates of birth defects and disabilities over the last few decades. Reported cases of autism have increased 10-fold since the early 1990s. Exposure to chemicals has been linked to many birth defects and developmental problems. The ubiquity of chemicals such as phthalates and bisphenol A (BPA) in household products makes avoiding exposure almost impossible.

Chemical production in the U.S. has greatly increased since World War II, with 80,000 chemicals now in commercial use, a 30 percent increase since 1979. Studies from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have documented the widespread presence of toxic chemicals in a random sample of Americans. A study by the Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit public interest organization, found 287 industrial chemicals in newborns' umbilical cords. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) Toxics Release Inventory (TRI), in 2007, more than 4.1 billion pounds of toxics were reported disposed of or released into the environment.

The CAP report notes that exposure to these chemicals frequently occurs through the use of everyday products, from cosmetics to baby bottles and even medical equipment like blood bags and IV tubes. Data on human exposure to chemicals through products is harder to acquire because there are few rules requiring manufacturers to report the amount or type of toxics included in products. Public disclosure advocates are pushing to expand TRI to include reporting the amount of toxics in products. Such data would help government agencies track harmful chemicals as they move through the environment and identify sources of human exposure.

The CDC's biomonitoring program is the most extensive exposure monitoring program in the nation, yet it still only tracks 148 chemicals. Biomonitoring measures the amount of chemicals in a person's blood or urine. Blood and urine levels reflect the amounts of chemicals that actually get into the body from the environment and thus are crucial to evaluating the public health risks of toxic chemicals.

In the report, CAP recommends several measures to help fill the information gaps that hinder policy responses and protection of public health. Specifically, CAP calls for requiring chemical companies to test the safety of their products and disclose the results prior to commercial release, including consumer goods and cosmetics. Also, the EPA must speed up its assessments of new chemicals using its Integrated Risk Information System (IRIS). Additionally, public disclosure of chemical safety data should be expanded, to build on previous successes like those of the TRI program, which has driven a 60 percent reduction in releases of its "core" chemicals. Finally, greater research and resources are needed for agencies to study health impacts of chemicals and develop safer chemical substitutes.

The report relies heavily on publicly available information that tracks chemicals and public health trends, such as the CDC's biomonitoring data and TRI. Without this information, linkages between the rapidly expanding use of potentially dangerous chemicals and related public health problems would be even more difficult to document. As the CAP report shows, the data currently available already strongly suggest that greater protections are needed. However, there remains a dearth of relevant information and limited public disclosure. The recommendations to expand the scope, quality, and quantity of such information would improve the ability of policymakers to effectively defend against emerging public health threats and enable the general public to hold officials accountable for doing so.

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