‘Forever Chemicals’ Are Helping Drive America’s Fertility Crisis

‘Forever Chemicals’ Are Helping Drive America’s Fertility Crisis
Newborn baby in a hospital. (ShutterStock)
Autumn Spredemann
3/23/2023
Updated:
3/28/2023
0:00

Most Americans don’t realize the simple act of pouring a glass of water, using their favorite shampoo, or wearing a rain jacket can affect their chances of having children.

Infertility is on the rise in the United States, affecting one out of every eight couples. It’s a sobering reality that touches the lives of women and men almost equally.

Some of the lesser-known culprits are chemicals used in commercial products that are linked to infertility and other serious health outcomes such as thyroid disease, cancer, preeclampsia, and immune dysfunction.

They’re called per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), and they are also known as “forever chemicals” because they don’t break down or degrade over time. They’re found in hundreds of everyday products and are prevalent in the drinking water of more than 200 million Americans.

Products containing PFAS are in everything from water-resistant fabrics to personal care items and food. Exposure via drinking water is having a measurable effect on U.S. fertility rates.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration in 2019 reported PFAS in several types of food, including meats, seafood, and grocery store chocolate cake. (Shutterstock)
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration in 2019 reported PFAS in several types of food, including meats, seafood, and grocery store chocolate cake. (Shutterstock)
A 2020 analysis stated that PFAS contamination in the United States’ drinking water has been “dramatically underestimated” in previous studies, including those done by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
PFAS were also detected in the blood of 97 percent of U.S. residents, according to a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report, which used data from a National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey.
And fertility experts say high PFAS exposure can drastically affect someone’s chances of having children.

Troubling Numbers

“There’s definitely an increase in infertility,” Dr. Jane Frederick told The Epoch Times.

Frederick has specialized in reproductive endocrinology and infertility for the past 30 years. She’s currently the medical director of HRC Fertility in Orange County, California.

She has observed a number of factors contributing to the United States’ escalating fertility crisis but said that the effect of PFAS on reproductive health shouldn’t be underestimated.

“The problem with [PFAS] is they can pollute your water system,” she said. “We need more studies. We need to be testing our water more in communities.

“It’s unfortunate we don’t look at our environment for reproductive toxicity.”

A landmark 2020 study of nearly 50,000 births in Minnesota was the first to establish a causal link between “forever chemicals” and higher rates of infertility, premature birth, and low birth weights.

The city of Oakdale, which had PFAS water contamination, was used for analyzing the effect on fertility between 2001 and 2006. Women of childbearing age suffered reduced fertility rates of up to 25 percent during this time. Babies born during the study period were 36 percent more likely to be underweight and 45 percent likely to be born prematurely.

(Yuri Samsonov/Shutterstock)
(Yuri Samsonov/Shutterstock)

After a water filtration system was installed to remove PFAS from Oakdale’s drinking water in 2006, researchers saw improved fertility rates within a year.

However, overall fertility remained lower than in the general population.

“This is a red light. This is like a signal: ‘Hey, there’s something bad going on here.’ We’re looking at the tip of an iceberg,” study co-author Dr. Philippe Grandjean said during a 2020 webinar.

Subsequent research in 2022 confirmed a connection between maternal exposure to PFAS and lower sperm concentration and total sperm counts in young men.
It’s a growing concern for many, especially considering the sharp decline of U.S. births in recent decades. In 2007, the average birth rate was about two children per woman. That dropped by more than 20 percent in 2021. The decrease represents the lowest birth rate in almost a century.

The Measurement Problem

“Science is clear that nearly everyone is continuously exposed to rising numbers of PFAS, including through breast milk and in the womb. These cumulative yet little-monitored exposures are harmful,” clinical embryologist Daniella Gilboa told The Epoch Times.

Gilboa is the CEO of the fast-growing medical start-up AIVF, which uses diverse datasets to address infertility at the source. She confirmed the findings of the 2022 study, saying, “There’s hard evidence of a decline in sperm count that’s even accelerating.”

Although scientists and health professionals agree that PFAS exposure affects reproductive health in both men and women, Gilboa said that measuring the effects of toxins is complicated.

“We know there’s a huge problem. We know there are long-term effects. [PFAS] are linked to serious health impacts, but they are very hard to measure,” she said.

Other reproductive specialists say that measuring the problem should take a back seat to mitigating exposure and creating awareness.

“Studies confirm that PFAS and other environmental toxins ... are detrimental to fertility, and the big problem is that these things are in everything. Name a favorite product ... and chances are high that it has at least one of these environmental toxins,” Joni Hanson Davis told The Epoch Times.

Davis is the founder of the Beli Baby prenatal supplement brand for men and women. She said minimizing exposure to PFAS is an essential step in the right direction for increasing fertility.

“Particularly when you’re trying to conceive. Clean Water Action has a great round-up of ways to reduce exposure to PFAS,” she said.

Gilboa agrees with this sentiment, saying PFAS build-up can be dangerous for hopeful mothers and their children. “Exposure can affect a child in the womb, years later.”

Turning It Off

The list of “forever chemicals” used in manufacturing is staggering, with more than 9,000 different types.
The EPA has a “safe” number assigned to PFAS presence in U.S. drinking water. Last year, the agency updated its health advisory levels to 0.004 parts per trillion (ppt). This is considerably lower than where the safety bar sat three years ago.

Some have attributed this change to pressure from researchers, health professionals, and public outcry over toxic levels of PFAS floating around in the United States’ water.

In 2020, researchers shamed the EPA for allowing up to 70 ppt of “forever chemicals” in U.S. water supplies. On March 14, the White House announced that President Joe Biden’s Bipartisan Infrastructure Law would invest $9 billion over five years to reduce PFAS contamination in drinking water.

But the damage has already been done to Americans who want to start a family.

“The problem with PFAS is you have to turn it off at the source,” Frederick said, adding that companies producing these chemicals need to be held accountable.

Gilboa said that advocacy for policy changes and education are part of protecting reproductive health. “We must reduce the use, marketing, widespread contamination, and harm of these ‘forever chemicals’ today and into the future.”

Autumn is a South America-based reporter covering primarily Latin American issues for The Epoch Times.
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