End Plastics

Plastics: The Kingpin of the Fertility Crisis

It appears that baby fever is all around us, from ads for a never ending supply chain of new infant products on television, to the rise of mommy vloggers on social media, to a seemingly obsessive array of articles on how to raise a baby Einstein. What we probably do not see on our timelines is that infertility is a real and growing issue which affects approximately 1 in every 6 couples who hope to conceive. In fact, the worldwide fertility rate has been decreasing at a rate of nearly 1% per year from 1960 through 2018. 

Recent studies have revealed a hidden and often tiny villain behind this infertility crisis: plastics. Specifically, micro and nanoplastics, which range from a little larger than a sesame seed to the size of a virus in your body. These plastic particles alone are not the only issue, as their toxicity is amplified by the hormone disrupting chemical additives, such as phthalates or bisphenol A (BPAs), which leach out of them. 

It Starts with Sperm

For men, common causes of infertility are connected to decreased sperm counts and lowered sperm viability. A recent study showed evidence that microplastic exposure decreased survival and DNA integrity of sperm, ultimately leading to issues with fertility and egg fertilization. In addition, mitochondrial dysfunction and DNA fragmentation were observed after merely 30 minutes of exposure to micro- and nanoplastics. By creating issues with energy production and genetic material in these ways, sperm can ultimately be rendered unable to survive after exposure to plastics.  

The major real-world consequences from these plastics are fast approaching, and may already be here. Some countries including Japan and Korea are nearing, on average, the minimum amount of microplastics in our bodies to cause major consequences for fertility. Even for regions that aren’t yet approaching that number, contaminants and additives in plastics can still change chemical properties that may make plastics more harmful. 

How Plastics are Harming Female Reproduction at Every Level

Women with fertility issues definitely aren’t strangers to the consequences of plastics, either. Common causes of female infertility include early onset menopause, ovarian aging and issues with egg production. Though more studies are needed on human subjects, mice studies show evidence that microplastic exposure leads to a decreased survival rate of oocytes, which are precursors to eggs. 

Research has shown that plastic particles can permeate protective barriers in our bodies, such as the placenta, during pregnancy. In fact, microplastics have been detected in both the human and fetal sides of the placenta, showing how plastics may not only harm fertility but may also create risks during pregnancy even after fertilization of the egg. One recent study found microplastics present in 100% of human placentas tested. 

Even After Conception, We Aren’t Out of The Woods

In multiple studies chemical additives called phthalates, often referred to as plasticizers as they make plastics flexible, and commonly found in things as wide ranging as from cosmetics to shower curtains, have been linked to hormone disruption. Disruption of key hormones can cause a host of fertility issues, including miscarriage, which affects 1 in 8 pregnancies. In one Harvard study, women with the highest concentrations of phthalates in their urine were 60% more likely to miscarry in the first 20 weeks of pregnancy than those with the lowest concentrations. 

Phthalates are not the only harmful additive chemicals. As stated in EARTHDAY.ORG’s BABIES VS. PLASTICS report, Bisphenol – A, (BPA) has also been linked to miscarriages. One shocking study revealed that women with the highest levels of this chemical in their blood were 83% more likely to miscarry in the first trimester than those with the lowest levels. These increased rates of miscarriage are due to both direct harm to fetal development via egg injury as well as indirect harm through penetration of the placental barrier. 

What Can We Do?

Despite these grim statistics, hope isn’t lost. There are many ways to decrease our exposure to harmful micro- and nanoplastics, as well as the common additives that amplify their effects. Phthalates are typically found in items like cosmetics and hair care products, so pay special attention to the ingredient lists on these products and avoid anything with phthalates in them and over all try to use less products.

To avoid BPA, which is commonly found in plastic bottles, it is recommended to avoid plastic bottles in favor of glass or stainless steel bottles. It is important to be aware of BPA-free labels, though, as some contain replacement chemicals that are just as harmful as BPA.

Avoid wearing fast fashion, as these garments are comprised of synthetic textiles made from plastics like nylon and polyester. Vacuum as much as you can, as microplastics make up a fair percentage of house dust – so it is important to sequester them to stop them from being inhaled. Avoid food wrapped in plastics, and NEVER eat food cooked in the microwave inside plastic containers, even if it says they are microwave safe! They leach plastic chemicals into your food, and then into you.

Though small amounts of microplastics may not cause major issues, we cannot be 100% sure of that. Still, making small changes in the products we use can add up to big differences in the amount of plastics we are involuntarily ingesting and inhaling, and therefore potentially fertility as well. This is why Earth Day 2024’s theme is Planet v. Plastics. If we can reduce our exposure to plastic, we can work toward saving our families as well as our planet. To learn more about this goal and how to take action, join the movement and sign the Global Plastics Treaty Petition.