You’ve probably heard a lot about the risks of delaying starting a family until after you’ve become stable within your career, since trying for a baby later in life can potentially limit your chances of a successful pregnancy and birth.
Is your job affecting your fertility?
You’ve probably heard a lot about the risks of delaying starting a family until after you’ve become stable within your career, since trying for a baby later in life can potentially limit your chances of a successful pregnancy and birth. But you might not realize that the work you do or your workplace conditions themselves could also be affecting your chances of conceiving and giving birth to healthy children.
There are at least six ways that your work could affect your fertility:
- Exposure to chemicals can lower fertility
- Exposure to radiation can damage your reproductive system and your eggs
- The impact of shift work or jet lag on your hormonal balance can affect your fertility
- The effects of stress on reproductive hormones can lower your chances of getting pregnant
- Too much lifting, bending, or standing placing physical demands on your body can put you at risk for fertility challenges
- Male fertility can also be affected by the work environment – keep in mind – it takes two!
It’s hard to say exactly how many chemicals women are exposed to daily, because they are all around us – in our makeup, our sanitary products, and in both our water and our food. One study found that every pregnant American woman is exposed to at least 43 different chemicals during her pregnancy.
But the workplace can be particularly hazardous. More than 1,000 common workplace chemicals have been shown to affect reproduction in animals, but millions more have never even been studied. The European Chemicals Agency (ECHA) registered over 21,000 substances since 2008, and that’s just for substance manufactured in amounts of more than 1 ton. It’s impossible to know which ones might affect fertility.
That said, there are some chemicals that scientists already know can make it hard to get pregnant, and it’s so easy to be exposed to them. Some of the main hazardous chemicals affecting fertility include:
- Lead and lead compounds used in paint, piping, and ceramics
- Pesticides used in farming, forestry, or veterinary work
- Carbon disulfide (CS2) used in factories that make rubber and cellophane
- Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) used in electrical equipment, lubricants, coolants, and for other industrial purposes
- Epoxies and resins used for plastic manufacturing, in nail salons, and for dentistry
- Organic solvents like those used in paint thinner, nail polish remover, perfumes, and in industrial disinfectants used in healthcare settings and nail salons
- Diesel exhaust and jet fuel fumes
As you can see, this includes a large number of workplaces and job types, including working in nail salons, factories, healthcare, farming, art, and garages.
These chemicals can disrupt the balance between your pituitary gland in your brain, (which controls your hormones) and your ovaries.
Estrogen and progesterone are the hormones that govern your menstrual cycle and prepare the uterus for a fertilized egg. If your pituitary gland doesn’t produce them at the right time and in the right amounts, it can alter your ovulation timing, damage egg production, and lower egg quality. It’s more likely that you’ll struggle to conceive with damaged eggs. Further, when egg quality is lower, the risk that it won’t divide correctly is higher, leading to a greater chance of chromosomal defects.
Chemotherapy drugs, X-rays, and fluoroscopy procedures all produce ionizing radiation, which we usually just call radiation. They affect the fertility of patients who have to undergo the treatments, but they can also affect medical staff who carry out the procedures or care for people after they receive treatment.
Direct radiation can damage the ovaries, and leaked radiation can harm the DNA in cells. Today’s workplace safety practices usually keep the amount of leaked radiation well below harmful levels, but it’s important to follow the rules and make sure your employers keep to them as well. Even a low dose of radiation can bring on early menopause.
Any profession that causes a lot of stress can impact your fertility.
We’re talking high-powered executive roles, jobs that include a lot of last-minute deadlines, and exposure to a toxic boss or stressful work environment.
That’s because stress produces a hormonal response (the “fight or flight” response) which affects the hormonal balance in the body, which can affect the production of reproductive hormones.
When you travel regularly or work night shifts, early morning, or late evening shifts, it can disturb your biological clock and cause jet lag. When your internal clock isn’t functioning properly, it can have an effect on hormone production, disrupting your menstrual cycle and ovulation window.
- Businesswomen who travel regularly or commute internationally
- Shift workers in professions like healthcare, law enforcement, fast food, hospitality, and manufacturing
Only around 24% of Europeans work a regular 8-hour day, five days a week, during daylight hours. 17% work shifts, and 14% work for 10 hours or more on a regular basis.
A large number of women work at jobs that involve too much bending at the waist or lifting, and it’s been found that these activities can affect your egg quality and egg production. The CDC defines “too much” bending and lifting as bending at the waist more than 20 times per day, or lifting heavy objects more than once every five minutes.
A study published in the Journal of Occupational & Environmental Medicine found that women engaged in physically demanding jobs had a 9% lower reserve of eggs, and 14.5% fewer mature eggs, than those whose jobs don’t include heavy lifting.
Women working in restaurants or bars, as childcare providers, in factories and distribution warehouses, in retail environments, and in a number of other industries could all have to carry out “too much” physical activity, according to the study.
Workplace environments can also affect male fertility, so it’s something to think about if you’re struggling to conceive.
Heat is a significant risk factor for male infertility.
The ideal temperature for sperm production is a couple of degrees below body temperature, but many men work in hot environments that raise the temperature inside the testicles. When that happens, it changes the shape of the sperm, so they can’t swim well enough to reach the egg and fertilize it.
Heat can be an issue for:
- Factory workers
- Police, firefighters, and other men who wear tight and heavy uniforms
- Office workers who balance their hot laptops on their laps
Exposure to chemicals like pesticides, DDE, diesel fumes, lead, and paint thinners can impact:
- Sperm quality
- Sperm production
- Libido and erectile function
- Semen production, which sperm need to help them reach the egg
Before you panic, consider that not every chemical is going to affect your reproductive health.
Issues that make a difference include:
- How long you’re exposed to the risk factor: are you only breathing in petrol fumes once per month, or every day?
- The way in which you’re exposed: do you breathe in fumes, feel particles on your skin, or is it getting onto your hands and then into your mouth?
- When you are exposed to it: some chemicals could affect ovulation only when you’re exposed at certain points in your cycle, or increase your risk of miscarriage only in the first three months of pregnancy.
- Your age and overall health. Some women are more affected by chemicals, stress, etc. than others.
Scientists still don’t know all the ways that your work could affect your fertility, so it’s important to do all you can to create a healthy workplace environment.
- Making sure your office or workplace is properly ventilated
- Using the right personal protective equipment (PPE) whenever relevant
- Avoiding stressful situations
- Cutting down on business travel and shift work
- Minimizing the amount of bending and lifting you have to do
Whatever path you take to building a family, we hope that your experience is as smooth as possible.