Workplace Chemical Hazards & The Reproductive System


Workplace Chemical Hazards & The Reproductive System

What is reproductive health?

Where you work, how you work, and what you work with can affect your reproductive health or your family’s health. You can carry chemicals home from work on your skin, hair, clothes, and shoes; these chemicals can be passed onto family and those who are pregnant or breastfeeding.  

Many chemicals in the workplace haven’t been tested to see if they can cause reproductive problems. Understanding the chemicals, you are exposed to at work and protecting yourself from exposure is important to protect your reproductive organs and your family.

Take-Home Chemical Exposure

Are you accidentally bringing home chemical hazards home with you? Chemicals can come home on your skin, hair, clothes, and shoes, and they can contaminate your car and home where your pets and family members can be exposed. This is called take-home exposure. Carrying chemicals home may cause secondary exposure to developing fetuses, babies and small children at home. 

Some of these chemicals might be dangerous, especially for young children, like lead, pesticides, beryllium, and asbestos. Many chemicals have not been tested for safety in children. If you work with chemicals, the best thing to do is to make sure you don’t take these chemicals home with you. 

By understanding your reproductive health, you can better protect yourself and your family from hazards.  

How can chemicals cause reproductive health problems?

Workplace hazards can lead to reproductive health problems for men and women including sexual function as well as issues in conceiving a child, carrying a healthy fetus to term and developmental defects in the unborn child.  

Some reproductive health effects can include: 

  • Reduced fertility or infertility 
  • Erectile dysfunction 
  • Menstrual cycle and ovulation disorders 
  • Women’s sex hormone imbalance & associated problems 
  • Miscarriage 
  • Stillbirth 
  • Babies born too soon or too small 
  • Birth defects 
  • Child developmental disorders

Reading the Safety Data Sheet for the chemicals you work with and understanding the hazards you are working with is an important step in prevention.

How can a women’s reproductive system be compromised by chemicals?

Due to the nature of the female reproductive system, exposures that may impact fertility can also impact general health. Here are some female health problems that may be caused by workplace reproductive hazards:

Disruption of the menstrual cycle and hormone production

High levels of physical or emotional stress or exposure to chemicals such as pesticides, PCBs, organic solvents and carbon disulfide, may disrupt the balance between the brain, pituitary gland, and ovaries. This disruption can result in an imbalance of estrogen and progesterone, and lead to changes in menstrual cycle length and regularity and ovulation.

Infertility and subfertility

Many factors can affect fertility, and these factors can affect one or both partners. More common causes of infertility include: 

  • Damage to the woman’s eggs 
  • Damage to the man’s sperm 
  • A change in the hormones needed to regulate the normal menstrual cycle and uterine growth

Altered Hormone Production

Even if menstrual cycles and getting pregnant is not a concern for you, your general health can be harmed by reproductive hazards that alter the production of your sex hormones. Sex hormones affect a woman’s body. Some workplace exposures can cause an imbalance of estrogen and progesterone levels in your blood. Some workplace exposures can cause an imbalance of estrogen and progesterone levels in your blood; resulting in an elevated risk of:  

Some cancers, such as endometrial or breast cancer  

  • Osteoporosis 
  • Heart disease 
  • Tissue loss or weakening 
  • Effects on the brain and spinal cord, including symptoms of menopause 

Factors that Contribute to the Risk of Reproductive Health Issues

Reproductive hazards do not affect every woman or every pregnancy. Different factors affect if and how much you or your baby may be harmed: 

  • The type of hazard 
  • How long you are exposed 
  • How much of the hazard you are exposed to 
  • How you are exposed 

Personal factors, like your age, stage of menstrual cycle, stage of pregnancy or when you are exposed also play a role. 

For example, exposure to a hazard could block ovulation and pregnancy only at specific times of the menstrual cycle. Exposure during the first 3 months of pregnancy might cause a birth defect or a miscarriage. Exposure during the last 6 months of pregnancy could slow the baby’s growth, affect its brain development, or cause premature labor.

How can a male’s reproductive system be compromised by chemicals?

Reproductive hazards and their affect on the male reproductive system are not well studied. Over 1,000 workplace chemicals have been shown to have reproductive effects on animals, most of which are not tested for reproductive health effects in humans. 

Male Reproductive Health Issues & Workplace Chemical Exposure

Here are Reproductive Health Problems Potentially Associated with Workplace Exposures for men. Your sexual function, sperm, or semen can be affected by workplace hazards. Some chemicals can concentrate in semen. A reproductive hazard is a substance that affects the ability to have healthy children.

Reproductive problem: 

Examples 

Low Hormone Levels 

insecticides, lead, organophosphate, DDE, manganese, phthalates 

Low Number of Sperm 

lead, diesel exhaust, pesticide, bisphenol A, organophosphate, chromium, paraquat/malathion 

Irregular Sperm Shape 

insecticides, lead, carbon disulfide, pesticides, bisphenol A, petrochemical, carbofuran, nickel 

Irregular Sperm Genetics 

phthalates, styrene, organophosphate, carbaryl, fenvalerate, lead, benzene 

Chemicals in Semen 

lead, trichloroethylene, boron, cadmium 

Low Amount of Semen 

lead, organophosphate, paraquat/malathion 

Low Number of Swimming Sperm 

insecticides, diesel exhaust, lead, carbon disulfide, phthalates, pesticides, bisphenol A, fenvalerate, petrochemical, welding, N, N-dimethylformamide, abamectin, paraquat/malathion 

Lower Sex Drive 

carbon disulfide, bisphenol A 

Erectile Dysfunction (ED) 

bisphenol A  

Lower Ejaculation Quality 

bisphenol A 

Although studies have found that workplace exposures may affect the reproductive system in some men, these effects do not necessarily occur in every worker. Some of hazards like lead are well-known reproductive hazards, while the scientific evidence for the others may not be as definitive.

Although studies have found that workplace exposures may affect the reproductive system in some men, these effects do not necessarily occur in every worker. Some of hazards like lead are well-known reproductive hazards, while the scientific evidence for the others may not be as definitive. 

Like women, whether an exposure will cause a reproductive problem depends on: 

  • The amount of time you’re exposed 
  • The amount of the hazard you’re exposed to 
  • How you were exposed  
  • How your body reacts to the hazard 

Should I be concerned about chemical exposure if I am pregnant?

Pregnancy can affect your health as a worker. Having a discussion with your employer and doctor is important as soon you learn you are pregnant. A fetus can be more vulnerable to some chemicals because of its rapid growth and development, particularly early in pregnancy when its organs are developing.  

Pregnant workers can adjust job duties temporarily or take extra steps to protect themselves. 

Current occupational exposure limits were set based on studies of male adults. What is considered safe for you, may not be safe for your unborn baby.  

Pregnant women experience changes in their metabolism increasing how quickly you absorb some chemicals. 

Because of physical changes, PPE may not fit properly, such as lab coats or respirators. 

Changes in the immune system, lung capacity, and even ligaments can increase the risk of injury or illness.

Should I be concerned about chemicals if I am breastfeeding?

If you are breastfeeding it is important to review chemicals, you may be exposed to as some chemicals can enter breastmilk and eventually expose the baby.  

Here are examples of a few chemicals that can get into breast milk: 

  • Lead, mercury, and other heavy metals 
  • Organic solvents and volatile organic chemicals (such as dioxane, perchloroethylene, and bromochloroethane) 
  • Chemicals from smoke, fires, or tobacco 
  • Some radioactive chemicals used in hospitals for radiation therapy (such as Iodine-131) 

If you work with any of these chemicals, it is important to talk to your doctor about breastfeeding.