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Your Environment. Your Health.

Reproductive Health and the Environment

Introduction

expectant parents seated on bench

Reproductive health refers to the condition of male and female reproductive systems during all life stages. These systems are made of organs and hormone-producing glands, including the pituitary gland in the brain. Ovaries in females and testicles in males are reproductive organs, or gonads, that maintain health of their respective systems. They also function as glands because they produce and release hormones.

Reproductive disorders affect millions of Americans each year.

The following clinical trials are currently recruiting

Female disorders include:

  • Early or delayed puberty.
  • Endometriosis, a condition where the tissue that normally lines the inside of the womb, known as the endometrium, grows outside of it.
  • Inadequate breastmilk supply.
  • Infertility or reduced fertility (difficulty getting pregnant).
  • Menstrual problems including heavy or irregular bleeding.
  • Polycystic ovary syndrome, ovaries produce more male hormones than normal.
  • Problems during pregnancy.
  • Uterine fibroids, noncancerous growths in a woman’s uterus or womb.

Male disorders include:

  • Impotence or erectile dysfunction.
  • Low sperm count.
Human Reproductive System / Male and Female Organs

Scientists believe environmental factors likely play a role in some reproductive disorders. Research shows exposure to environmental factors could affect reproductive health in the following ways:

  • Exposure to lead is linked to reduced fertility in both men and women.1
  • Mercury exposure has been linked to issues of the nervous system like memory, attention, and fine motor skills.2
  • Exposure to diethylstilbestrol (DES), a drug once prescribed to women during pregnancy, can lead to increased risks in their daughters of cancer, infertility, and pregnancy complications.3
  • Exposure to endocrine-disrupting compounds, chemicals that interfere with the body’s hormones, may contribute to problems with puberty, fertility, and pregnancy.4

What is NIEHS Doing?

NIEHS conducts and funds research to understand environmental factors that may affect human reproductive health.

Heavy lifting or shift work and decreased fertility – Two occupational factors for women – lifting heavy loads or working non-daytime schedules – are associated with fewer eggs in their ovaries, which could indicate decreased fertility.5

Chemical exposure and assisted reproductive technology – Exposure to high levels of flame retardants6 and plasticizers7 may have a negative impact on the outcomes of in vitro fertilization (IVF), a technology used to help people get pregnant. The researchers found that women with higher levels of these chemicals in their urine had lower levels of ovary cells necessary for reproduction, and fewer successful pregnancies and live births.

Chemical exposure and fetal growth – Exposure during pregnancy to phthalates8 and phenols9, chemicals commonly found in plastics, as well as arsenic, a naturally occurring chemical found in food, air, soil, and water, could lead to low birth weight10, early onset of puberty, and obesity.11

BPA and breastfeeding – Women who had more contact with bisphenol A (BPA), an endocrine-disrupting chemical found in many plastics, were more likely to report that they stopped breastfeeding because they believed they were not producing enough breastmilk.12

Phthalates, parabens, and phenols associated with early puberty – The daughters of pregnant women whose bodies had high levels of these chemicals (common in personal care products) started puberty earlier than normal.13

Soy formula and menstrual pain – Girls who were fed soy formula as infants are more likely to develop heavy menstrual bleeding14, severe menstrual pain15, endometriosis16, and larger fibroids17 later in life.

Vitamin D and uterine fibroids – Women with adequate levels of vitamin D are less likely to develop uterine fibroids than those with inadequate levels.18

NIEHS Research Efforts

Further Reading

Stories from the Environmental Factor (NIEHS Newsletter)

Fact Sheets

Cosmetics and Hair Dye

Environment and Health A to Z

Reproductive Health in Females and Males

Podcasts

Additional Resources

  • Common Reproductive Health Concerns for Women – Information and educational materials for women and health care providers provided by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
  • DES and Reproductive Complications – CDC’s description of health risks associated with exposure to DES, a drug prescribed from 1938 until 1971 to help pregnant women with a history of miscarriages or premature deliveries.
  • Polycystic Ovary/Ovarian Syndrome – The NIH Office of Research on Women’s Health published an informational booklet on PCOS, an endocrine disease affecting millions of women that is often missed during medical examination.

Related Health Topics


  1. Karen Clay, Margarita Portnykh, Edson Severnini. Toxic Truth: Lead and Fertility. 2019. NBER Working Paper No. 24607. [Accessed online 25 June 2019] [Available Karen Clay, Margarita Portnykh, Edson Severnini. Toxic Truth: Lead and Fertility. 2019. NBER Working Paper No. 24607. [Accessed online 25 June 2019]]
  2. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). 2019. Health Effects of Exposures to Mercury. [Accessed June 25, 2019] [Available U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). 2019. Health Effects of Exposures to Mercury. [Accessed June 25, 2019]]
  3. American Cancer Society. 2019. DES Exposure: Questions and Answers. [Accessed June 25, 2019] [Available American Cancer Society. 2019. DES Exposure: Questions and Answers. [Accessed June 25, 2019]]
  4. Endocrine Society. Impact of Endocrine-disrupting Chemicals on Reproductive Systems. [Accessed June 25, 2019] [Available Endocrine Society. Impact of Endocrine-disrupting Chemicals on Reproductive Systems. [Accessed June 25, 2019]]
  5. Mínguez-Alarcon L, Souter I, Williams PL, Ford JB, Hauser R, Chavarro JE, Gaskins AJ; Earth Study Team. 2017. Occupational Factors and Markers of Ovarian Reserve and Response Among Women at a Fertility Centre. Occup Environ Med 74(6):426-431. [Abstract Mínguez-Alarcon L, Souter I, Williams PL, Ford JB, Hauser R, Chavarro JE, Gaskins AJ; Earth Study Team. 2017. Occupational Factors and Markers of Ovarian Reserve and Response Among Women at a Fertility Centre. Occup Environ Med 74(6):426-431.]
  6. Carignan CC, Mínguez-Alarcon L, Butt CM, Williams PL, Meeker JD, Stapleton HM, Toth TL, Ford JB, Hauser R, EARTH Study Team. 2017. Urinary Concentrations of Organophosphate Flame Retardant Metabolites and Pregnancy Outcomes among Women Undergoing in Vitro Fertilization. Environ Health Perspect 125(8):087018. [Abstract Carignan CC, Mínguez-Alarcon L, Butt CM, Williams PL, Meeker JD, Stapleton HM, Toth TL, Ford JB, Hauser R, EARTH Study Team. 2017. Urinary Concentrations of Organophosphate Flame Retardant Metabolites and Pregnancy Outcomes among Women Undergoing in Vitro Fertilization. Environ Health Perspect 125(8):087018.]
  7. Hauser R, Gaskins AJ, Souter I, Smith KW, Dodge LE, Ehrlich S, Meeker JD, Calafat AM, Williams PL; Earth Study Team. 2016. Urinary Phthalate Metabolite Concentrations and Reproductive Outcomes among Women Undergoing in Vitro Fertilization: Results from the EARTH Study. Environ Health Perspect 124(6):831–839. [Abstract Hauser R, Gaskins AJ, Souter I, Smith KW, Dodge LE, Ehrlich S, Meeker JD, Calafat AM, Williams PL; Earth Study Team. 2016. Urinary Phthalate Metabolite Concentrations and Reproductive Outcomes among Women Undergoing in Vitro Fertilization: Results from the EARTH Study. Environ Health Perspect 124(6):831–839.]
  8. Ferguson KK, Meeker JD, Cantonwine DE, Chen YH, Mukherjee B, and McElrath TF. 2016. Urinary Phthalate Metabolite and Bisphenol A Associations with Ultrasound and Delivery Indices of Fetal Growth. Environment Int 94: 531-537. [Abstract Ferguson KK, Meeker JD, Cantonwine DE, Chen YH, Mukherjee B, and McElrath TF. 2016. Urinary Phthalate Metabolite and Bisphenol A Associations with Ultrasound and Delivery Indices of Fetal Growth. Environment Int 94: 531-537.]
  9. Ferguson KK, Meeker JD, Cantonwine DE, Mukherjee B, Pace GG, Weller D, McElrath TF. 2018. Environmental Phenol Associations with Ultrasound and Delivery Measures of Fetal Growth Environment Int 112: 243-250. [Abstract Ferguson KK, Meeker JD, Cantonwine DE, Mukherjee B, Pace GG, Weller D, McElrath TF. 2018. Environmental Phenol Associations with Ultrasound and Delivery Measures of Fetal Growth Environment Int 112: 243-250.]
  10. Gilbert-Diamond D, Emond JA, Baker ER, Korrick SA, Karagas MR. 2016. Relation Between In Utero Arsenic Exposure and Birth Outcomes in a Cohort of Mothers and Their Newborns from New Hampshire. Environ Health Perspect 124(8):1299–1307. [Abstract Gilbert-Diamond D, Emond JA, Baker ER, Korrick SA, Karagas MR. 2016. Relation Between In Utero Arsenic Exposure and Birth Outcomes in a Cohort of Mothers and Their Newborns from New Hampshire. Environ Health Perspect 124(8):1299–1307.]
  11. Rodriguez KF, Ungewitter EK, Crespo-Mejias Y, Liu C, Nicol B, Kissling GE, Yao HH. 2016. Effects of In Utero Exposure to Arsenic during the Second Half of Gestation on Reproductive End Points and Metabolic Parameters in Female CD-1 Mice. Environ Health Perspect 124(3):336-43. [Abstract Rodriguez KF, Ungewitter EK, Crespo-Mejias Y, Liu C, Nicol B, Kissling GE, Yao HH. 2016. Effects of In Utero Exposure to Arsenic during the Second Half of Gestation on Reproductive End Points and Metabolic Parameters in Female CD-1 Mice. Environ Health Perspect 124(3):336-43.]
  12. Kasper N, Peterson KE, Zhang Z, Ferguson KK, Sánchez BN, Cantoral A, Meeker JD, Téllez-Rojo MM, Pawlowski CM, Ettinger AS. 2016. Association of Bisphenol A Exposure with Breastfeeding and Perceived Insufficient Milk Supply in Mexican Women. Matern Child Health J 20(8):1713-9. [Abstract Kasper N, Peterson KE, Zhang Z, Ferguson KK, Sánchez BN, Cantoral A, Meeker JD, Téllez-Rojo MM, Pawlowski CM, Ettinger AS. 2016. Association of Bisphenol A Exposure with Breastfeeding and Perceived Insufficient Milk Supply in Mexican Women. Matern Child Health J 20(8):1713-9.]
  13. Harley KG, Berger KP, Kogut K, Parra K, Lustig RH, Greenspan LC, Calafat AM, Ye X, Eskenazi B. 2019. Association of Phthalates, Parabens and Phenols Found in Personal Care Products with Pubertal Timing in Girls and Boys. Hum Reprod 34(1):109−117. [Abstract Harley KG, Berger KP, Kogut K, Parra K, Lustig RH, Greenspan LC, Calafat AM, Ye X, Eskenazi B. 2019. Association of Phthalates, Parabens and Phenols Found in Personal Care Products with Pubertal Timing in Girls and Boys. Hum Reprod 34(1):109−117.]
  14. Upson K, Harmon QE, Laughlin-Tommaso SK, Umbach DM, Baird DD. 2016. Soy-based Infant Formula Feeding and Heavy Menstrual Bleeding Among Young African American Women. Epidemiology 27(5):716-25. [Abstract Upson K, Harmon QE, Laughlin-Tommaso SK, Umbach DM, Baird DD. 2016. Soy-based Infant Formula Feeding and Heavy Menstrual Bleeding Among Young African American Women. Epidemiology 27(5):716-25.]
  15. Upson K, Adgent MA, Wegienka G, Baird DD. 2019. Soy-based Infant Formula Feeding and Menstrual Pain in a Cohort of Women Aged 23-35 Years. Hum Reprod 34(1):148-154. [Abstract Upson K, Adgent MA, Wegienka G, Baird DD. 2019. Soy-based Infant Formula Feeding and Menstrual Pain in a Cohort of Women Aged 23-35 Years. Hum Reprod 34(1):148-154.]
  16. Upson K, Sathyanarayana S, Scholes D, Holt V. 2015. Early-life Factors and Endometriosis Risk. Fertil Steril 104(4):964-9761. [Abstract Upson K, Sathyanarayana S, Scholes D, Holt V. 2015. Early-life Factors and Endometriosis Risk. Fertil Steril 104(4):964-9761.]
  17. Upson K, Harmon QE, Baird DD. 2016. Soy-Based Infant Formula Feeding and Ultrasound-Detected Uterine Fibroids Among Young African-American Women With No Prior Clinical Diagnosis of Fibroids. Environ Health Perspect. 124(6):769-75. [Abstract Upson K, Harmon QE, Baird DD. 2016. Soy-Based Infant Formula Feeding and Ultrasound-Detected Uterine Fibroids Among Young African-American Women With No Prior Clinical Diagnosis of Fibroids. Environ Health Perspect. 124(6):769-75.]
  18. Baird DD, Hill MC, Schectman JM, Hollis BW. 2013. Vitamin D and the Risk of Uterine Fibroids. Epidemiology. 24(3):447-453. [Abstract Baird DD, Hill MC, Schectman JM, Hollis BW. 2013. Vitamin D and the Risk of Uterine Fibroids. Epidemiology. 24(3):447-453.]

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