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A rapidly expanding body of research indicates that many reproductive health problems and cancers may be caused by exposure to chemicals that are widely dispersed in our environment and which we come into contact on a daily basis. These problems include infertility and cancers of reproductive organs. Chemicals are commonly highlighted in media stories and public policy debates due to increasing evidence of exposure in the population and potential health risks. These chemicals are particularly harmful when exposures occur during vulnerable periods of development.

On April 19th, the Institute for Women’s Health Research hosted Dr. Tracy Woodruff, Associate Professor of Obstetrics, Gynecology and Reproductive Sciences and Director of the Program on Reproductive Health and the Environment at the University of California, San Francisco. Dr. Woodruff has done extensive research and policy development on environmental health issues, with a particular emphasis on reproductive and development health in relation to exposure to environmental chemicals.

Recently in the media, we have been inundated with messages about the dangers of environmental chemicals such as Bisphenol A, otherwise known as BPA. BPA is used extensively in producing certain hard plastics made into many products such as baby bottles and canned food lining. It is an endocrine disruptor that in mice causes numerous harmful physiological effects, and some research suggests that corresponding studies in humans produce similar results.  This chemical as well as other environmental contaminates are particularly damaging when exposure occurs during development stages such as in utero and puberty.

According to Dr. Woodruff, “the majority of people in the US have some measurable amount of pesticides and chemicals in their body and the timing that they were exposed is as important, if not more important than how much they were exposed to.” Studies show that children who were exposed to environmental chemicals in utero are more likely to develop childhood leukemia. In addition, women who were exposed to environmental chemicals during significant developmental stages are more likely to suffer from infertility or vaginal cancers.  Coinciding with this evidence, both the Endocrine Society and the National Cancer Institute have released reports concurring that exposure to environmental chemicals can lead to adverse reproductive outcomes, infertility and certain cancers.

So what can we do to avoid the ubiquitous presence of pesticides, BPA and other harmful environmental chemicals? On an individual level, we can reduce our consumption of processed foods. That is to say we should buy less canned and packaged goods and buy more fresh foods whenever possible. When buying fresh foods, we need not break the bank and buy all organic, but there are certain foods with a higher amount of residual pesticides that you should try and buy organic whenever possible. Another way to reduce your exposure to harmful chemicals is by microwaving your food in glass rather than plastic. Finally, you should be especially diligent about reducing your exposure to environmental chemicals if you are pregnant or have small children in an effort to reduce their likelihood for health issues down the line. Through simple lifestyle modifications, we can  minimize our exposure to chemicals which have been linked to both infertility and cancer and reduce our likelihood for adverse health conditions.

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