photo of chemicals in beakers
An international consortium of scientist and doctors say it's time for health professionals across the globe to step up and advocate for a cleaner, healthier environment.

Scientists speak out: Exposure to toxic chemicals threatens human reproduction and health

2 October, 2015

Dramatic increases in exposure to toxic chemicals in the last four decades are threatening human reproduction and health.

That’s the opinion of a consortium of obstetrician-gynecologists and scientists from the major global, US, UK and Canadian reproductive health professional societies, the World Health Organization and the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF).

The International Federation of Gynecology and Obstetrics (FIGO), has become the first global reproductive health organization to take a stand on human exposure to toxic chemicals.and this opinion is published in the International Journal of Gynecology and Obstetrics.

What you need to know

» According to an international coalition of doctors and scientists exposure to toxic environmental chemicals is a feature of everyday life across the planet, and it harms the capacity for healthy human reproduction.

» A global perspective is needed to ensure equity and health for all because environmental chemicals cross borders through trade, food, wind, and water, and there are inequities and injustices in how toxic chemicals move about the world.

» Preventing exposure to environmental chemicals is a priority for reproductive health professionals everywhere and those health professionals must also be active in advocating for better laws and regulations to protect their patients.

Drowning in chemicals

“We are drowning our world in untested and unsafe chemicals, and the price we are paying in terms of our reproductive health is of serious concern,” said Gian Carlo Di Renzo, MD, PhD, Honorary Secretary of FIGO and lead author of the FIGO opinion.

According to Di Renzo, reproductive health professionals “witness first-hand the increasing numbers of health problems facing their patients, and preventing exposure to toxic chemicals can reduce this burden on women, children and families around the world.”

Miscarriage and still birth, impaired fetal growth, congenital malformations, impaired or reduced neurodevelopment and cognitive function, and an increase in cancer, attention problems, ADHD behaviors and hyperactivity are among the list of poor health outcomes linked to chemicals such as pesticides, air pollutants, plastics, solvents and more, according to the FIGO opinion.

Travelling the globe

According to the report, world chemical manufacturing has grown rapidly over the past 40 years, with production projected to increase by 3.4% annually until 2030. There are now 70 000–100 000 chemicals in global commerce; approximately 4800 “high-production-volume chemicals” constitute the vast majority in global production. Global pesticide use in agriculture reached 2.4 billion kg in 2007.

Chemicals travel the globe via international trade agreements, such as the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), which is being negotiated between the European Union and the United States. Environmental and health groups have criticized the proposed agreement for weakening controls and regulations designed to protect communities from toxic chemicals.

“Exposure to chemicals in the air, food and water supplies disproportionately affect poor people,” said Linda Giudice, MD, PhD, MSc, a FIGO opinion co-author, past president of the American Society for Reproductive Medicine (ASRM) and chair of the UCSF department of obstetrics, gynecology and reproductive sciences.

“In developing countries, lower respiratory infections are more than twice as likely to be caused by chemical exposures than in developed countries.”

The damage done

Exposure to toxic environmental chemicals is linked to millions of deaths and costs billions of dollars every year, according to the FIGO opinion, which cites the following examples:

  • Nearly 4 million people die each year because of exposure to indoor and outdoor air pollution as well as to lead.
  • Pesticide poisonings of farmworkers in sub-Saharan Africa is estimated to cost $66 billion between 2005-2020.
  • Health care and other costs from exposure to endocrine disrupting chemicals in Europe are estimated to be at a minimum of 157 billion Euros a year.
  • The cost of childhood diseases related to environmental toxins and pollutants in air, food, water, soil and in homes and neighborhoods was calculated to be $76.6 billion in 2008 in the United States.

Physicians have environmental responsibility

“Given accumulating evidence of adverse health impacts related to toxic chemicals, including the potential for inter-generational harm, FIGO has proposed a series of recommendations that health professionals can adopt to reduce the burden of unsafe chemicals on patients and communities,” said FIGO President Sabaratnam Arulkumaran, MBBS, who is also past president of the British Medical Association. These include the notion that physicians, midwives, and other reproductive health professionals:

  • Advocate for policies to prevent exposure to toxic environmental chemicals
  • Work to ensure a healthy food system for all
  • Make environmental health part of health care
  • Champion environmental justice

“What FIGO is saying is that physicians need to do more than simply advise patients about the health risks of chemical exposure,” said Jeanne A. Conry, MD, PhD, a co-author of the FIGO opinion and past president of the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, which issued an opinion on chemicals and reproductive health in 2013.

“We need to advocate for policies that will protect our patients and communities from the dangers of involuntary exposure to toxic chemicals.”