Many couples with infertility wonder why they struggle to become pregnant. A new study reveals one possible cause after it found that women with PFAS — also called “forever chemicals” — in their blood might experience difficulty becoming pregnant.
“What our data showed is that those who might have had exposure to certain PFAS, they had about a 40% reduced chance to become pregnant for one year,” Dr. Damaskini Valvi, an author of the study in Science of the Total Environment and assistant professor of environmental medicine and public health at Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, tells TODAY.com.
“Even when we evaluated in our study lower exposure, we saw an association between people’s exposure to PFAS and fertility. This is very alarming," she added.
PFAS and fertility
For the study Valvi and her team collaborated with researchers with the Singapore Preconception Study of Long Term Maternal and Child Outcomes. Their colleagues collected blood samples from 382 women, ages 18 to 40, trying to conceive. The researchers examined the levels of PFAS in their blood and their likelihood of becoming pregnant within a year.
People are considered to have infertility after a year of trying to become pregnant by natural means and having no success. Study participants with PFAS in their blood had a tougher time conceiving.
“We were not surprised by our findings,” Valvi says. “There are no actual safe limits for PFAS. ... In populations where exposure has been substantially less, we (still) see exposure to low doses poses a risk to our health.”
Other studies have linked high exposure to PFAS to “increased risk” for some cancers, such as kidney and testicular cancer, increased cholesterol and blood pressure and chronic liver disease, Valvi says. They’re also associated with polycystic ovarian syndrome, “which (is a) known risk factors for infertility in women.”
“Studies have shown that PFAS can alter reproductive hormones, and this is what inspired (us) to study their association with fertility outcomes in women,” Valvi says.
Christine Metz, Ph.D., who wasn’t involved in the research, says the study is “interesting,” but more studies are needed to understand how PFAS might impact the fertility of U.S. women.
“It does raise our awareness that a lot of the things that we expose ourselves to every day can indeed have an impact on our lives, and we’re just not aware of it,” the professor at Feinstein Institutes for Medical Research at Northwell Health tells TODAY.com. “99% of the patients enrolled in the study did not have PCOS, or polycystic ovarian syndrome, which is a little bit more common in our population than that. ... That particular condition has been linked to high exposures of the PFAS compounds in drinking water.”
Another limitation Metz noticed is that most participants had normal BMI.
“That is definitely not representative of the United States,” she says. “Forever chemicals, if they do get stores in the fat, I think it’s a bigger issue.”
She says the researchers tightly focused on understanding the presence of PFAS.
“They actually measured 15 of these forever compounds, and only seven were detectable in at least 33% of the population. So they did dig pretty deep to find them,” Metz says. “Not everybody had detectable levels in their body.”
“They did show that there was a slight reduction in fecundity, but it was not huge,” she says. “For the average person, we have to realize that most of these chemicals do accumulate in the body, they do not leave the body.”
What are PFAS?
PFAS, per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, are a “very large class of highly persistent chemicals that have been used in consumer products and other industrial applications for more than 60 years,” Valvi explains, adding that that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has identified “more than 20,000 chemicals” as PFAS.
“The reason why we refer to them as forever chemicals is that they have many carbon fluorine bonds that are very persistent and hard to break down,” Valvi explains. “Once these chemicals are used in our environment, leading to human exposure, we know they can stay there for several years.”
PFAS can be found almost everywhere, with Valvi noting there is “global contamination.” PFAS exist in drinking water and consumer products, including cosmetics, stain resistant products and nonstick cookware, she says.
“There are certain things we can do to reduce our exposure, but unfortunately we cannot completely avoid it,” she says. “It’s hard to know where PFAS are found.”
If you're concerned about your fertility and PFAS exposure, Valvi recommends using “certified water filter that removes PFAS,” avoiding takeout and fast food because PFAS can be found in the containers, using stainless steel pans and avoiding stain-resistant and water-resistant items.
“Alone, we cannot completely avoid that exposure,” she says. “What we actually need to be able to effectively address the bigger problems is … getting stricter regulations that ban the presence of PFAS in consumer products and those in drinking water in the U.S. and also globally.”