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Reproductive Roulette

Declining Reproductive Health, Dangerous Chemicals, and a New Way Forward

SOURCE: iStockphoto

Reproductive health in the United States is headed in the wrong direction; fertility problems, miscarriages, preterm births, and birth defects are all increasing.

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This presentation is a self-guided slideshow that provides data on reproductive health and dangerous chemicals. Charts and graphs show that reproductive health is declining as human exposure to dangerous chemicals is rising. The presentation also recommends reforms to promote chemical safety.

View the full presentation (pdf)

Fact Sheet: Dangerous Chemicals and Declining Reproductive Health

Reproductive health in the United States is headed in the wrong direction on a host of indicators. Fertility problems, miscarriages, preterm births, and birth defects are all up. These trends are not simply the result of women postponing motherhood. In fact, women under 25 and women between 25 and 34 reported an increasing number of fertility problems over the last several decades. Nor are reproductive health problems limited to women. Average sperm count appears to be steadily declining, and there are rising rates of male genital birth defects such as hypospadias, a condition in which the urethra does not develop properly. Part I of this presentation gives an overview of the current state of reproductive health.

As reproductive health has declined, chemical production has increased dramatically. the number of chemicals registered for commercial use now stands at 80,000—a 30 percent increase since 1979. Americans are exposed to these chemicals in a variety of ways, including through industrial releases, contaminated food, household products and cosmetics, and workplaces where chemicals are used. Tests of blood and urine confirm rising and widespread exposure to a chemical soup of metals, pesticides, plasticizers, and other substances, many of which are dangerous to reproductive health. Young children are often exposed to significantly higher levels of these chemicals than adults. Part II of this presentation explains this problem and spotlights three chemical groups—phthalates, BPA, and PBDEs—that are linked to reproductive health problems and are present in the daily lives of all Americans.

Our chemical safety laws do not provide adequate protection from these chemical groups and other dangerous substances. Indeed, the Government Accountability Office recently added chemical safety to its “high risk list” of areas that should be addressed immediately. Chemical manufacturers are not required to conduct pre-market testing of industrial chemicals or chemicals used in cosmetics and household products. Rather, human beings in the real world end up as guinea pigs. Government agencies responsible for chemical safety also lack the authority and resources necessary to evaluate safety and set strong standards against dangerous chemicals.

The prospects for addressing this situation fortunately appear to be brightening. Congress took a first step last year following the discovery of contaminated Chinese-made toys, passing legislation that requires pre-market testing of children’s products sold in the United States and bans lead and phthalates from being contained in such products. Legislation has also been introduced to ban BPA in all food and beverage containers, and there will likely be a renewed push for the Kids Safe Chemical Act, which would reform the ineffectual Toxic Substances Control Act. Part III of this presentation offers recommendations for modernizing chemical safety. Implementing these recommendations would reduce human exposure to dangerous chemicals, which in turn promises to lift reproductive health.

Part I: Declining reproductive health

Reproductive health has declined over the last several decades in the United States, according to recent studies. As shown in the following slides:

graph of trends in percentage of women aged 15 to 44 years with impaired fecundity by age group

  • Reported infertility and impaired fertility are up among both men and women, regardless of age.
  • There are more premature births and more infants with low birth weight.
  • There are more birth defects and disabilities.

Even seemingly small upticks can have large consequences. There were a total of 4.3 million births in the United States in 2006. A rise in birth defects of just 1 or 2 percent increases the total number of afflicted children by tens of thousands. This is a tragedy for families that must deal with these problems. It also puts additional strain on the health care system.

Part II of this presentation focuses on one possible reason for the decline in reproductive health—the increase in human exposure to chemicals found in consumer products and used for industrial activities. Other factors, such as inadequate health care, poor nutrition, and delayed childbirth, may also share blame for at least some problems. But new research reveals a chemical soup in the bodies of virtually all Americans that appears to be taking a toll.

Download part I (pdf)

Part II: Dangerous chemical exposures

U.S. chemical production has increased dramatically over the last half century, with 80,000 chemicals now approved for commercial use. Americans are exposed to these chemicals in a variety of ways, including through industrial releases, contaminated food, household products and cosmetics, and workplaces where chemicals are used. Tests of blood and urine confirm widespread exposure to chemicals that are dangerous to reproductive health.

U.S. chemical production

The following slides provide an overview of this problem and spotlight three chemical groups—phthalates, Bisphenol A, and polybrominated diphenyl ethers—that are linked to reproductive health consequences, including miscarriages, endometriosis, male genital defects, low sperm count, and others. Phthalates and BPA are found in toys, food containers, cosmetics, and many other consumer products. PBDEs are used as flame retardants in household furniture and electronics. Other chemicals also threaten reproductive health, but these three are among the most prevalent in the daily lives of all Americans and are just starting to receive serious attention from the U.S. Congress and federal regulators.

Download part II (pdf)

Part III: A new way forward

U.S. cosmetics safe and untested table

Americans are exposed to chemicals everyday that threaten reproductive health. Indeed, reproductive health has declined as exposure to chemicals such as BPA, PBDEs, and phthalates has increased. We should act to protect Americans from these chemicals by taking the following steps:

  • Adopt standards to significantly reduce exposure to chemicals that threaten reproductive health and move to safer chemical alternatives.
  • Expand collection, assessment, and public dissemination of chemical safety data.
  • Strengthen and modernize our laws governing chemical exposures and provide the resources necessary for regulatory agencies to deliver chemical safety.

Download part III (pdf)

View the full presentation (pdf)

Fact Sheet: Dangerous Chemicals and Declining Reproductive Health

To speak with our experts on this topic, please contact:

Print: Katie Peters (economy, education, poverty, Half in Ten Education Fund, women's issues)
202.741.6285 or kpeters@americanprogress.org

Print: Tom Caiazza (foreign policy, health care, LGBT issues, gun-violence prevention, the National Security Agency)
202.481.7141 or tcaiazza@americanprogress.org

Print: Chelsea Kiene (energy and environment, Legal Progress, higher education)
202.478.5328 or ckiene@americanprogress.org

Spanish-language and ethnic media: Tanya Arditi
202.741.6258 or tarditi@americanprogress.org

TV: Rachel Rosen
202.483.2675 or rrosen@americanprogress.org

Radio: Chelsea Kiene
202.478.5328 or ckiene@americanprogress.org