Exposure to Heavy Metals and Fertility: What a Couple Should Know

Are you or someone you love trying to start a family or have another baby?  Taking a few preventative measures today might make it easier to get pregnant and have a healthy baby.

A 2012 study suggests that men or women exposed to heavy metals in their environment makes it more difficult for a woman to get pregnant.  The researchers were headed by Germaine M. Buck Louis, who works at the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, which is part of NIH.  The study is called the LIFE Study, which is short for the Longitudinal Investigation of Fertility and the Environment.

Toxic Metals

There are many “heavy metals” that are used in products in everyone’s home, such as non-stick pans, glazed ceramics, pesticides, soaps, plastic toys[1]., eye shadow [2], and lipstick[3]. Examples of heavy metals include lead, cadmium, and mercury. Although these are “natural” elements, they can be harmful to your health, especially over a long period of time or in high doses.[4]

Most people have small traces of heavy metals in their blood, but some of us are exposed more often and to greater amounts than other people, because of where we live and what we do. We should be aware of the ways we come into contact with these metals, and find ways to limit our exposure.

There are ways to reduce your exposure to heavy metals, even if you work in or live close to a factory that makes products containing cadmium (batteries, metal coatings, and plastics).  If you live in a home built before 1978, you might be exposed to lead in the paint in your house.[5] Renovation or construction in these homes releases contaminated particles that can be inhaled or absorbed through the skin.  Fish, plants, and animals absorb cadmium from the environment and so all foods contain at least low levels of the metal.  People can also be exposed to toxic metals in cigarette smoke. [6]  Smoking or being around others who smoke increases cadmium levels in your body.[7]This is yet another reason to avoid cigarettes.

Cadmium, Lead and Pregnancy Delay

A couple’s fertility depends on the fertility of both the man and the woman. Both male and female fertility influence how long it takes for a couple to get pregnant.  The LIFE Study’s data show that if either a man or woman is exposed to cadmium, that can delay a woman’s chances of getting pregnant.[8]

Other metals are also influential.  The more lead there is in a man’s blood, the longer it will take his wife to get pregnant because lead lowers a man’s sperm count and also reduces the mobility of the sperm. [9]  Lead or cadmium can affect a women’s reproductive hormone levels and this might make it more difficult to conceive. [10]

Protect Yourself

If we educate ourselves and others and take preventative steps to protect our health and safety, we can reduce our exposure to heavy metals that damage our health.  Here are some suggested strategies:

  • Quit smoking and avoid being around tobacco smoke.
  • Only use cold tap water for drinking and cooking,[11] even if you plan to boil it.
  • If you work in a place where heavy metals are used, make sure your employer provides personal protective equipment when necessary and always remove your work clothes and shower before returning home.
  • Have your pre-1978 home tested for lead paint indoors and outdoors.
  • If possible, have trained professionals remove or cover lead paint in your home, and make sure they do it the right way.[12] Visit the U.S. Consumer Safety Commission website for guidelines.
  • If you are concerned about lead in your home or community contact the National Lead Information Center by phone at 1-800-424-LEAD or at this link for more information.

All articles are reviewed and approved by Dr. Diana Zuckerman and other senior staff.

1. Occupational Safety & Health Administration. Chemical Identification, Production and Use of Cadmium. http://www.osha.gov/pls/oshaweb/owadisp.show_document?p_id=818&p_table=PREAMBLES Accessed February 23 2012.

2. Sainio EL, Riitta J, Hakala E, Kanerva L. Metals and arsenic in eye shadows. Contact Dermatitis. 2000; 42(1): 5-10.

3. U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Lipstick and Lead: Questions and Answers. http://www.fda.gov/cosmetics/productandingredientsafety/productinformation/ucm137224.htm   Accessed February 23 2012.

4. Occupational Safety & Health Administration. Toxic Metals.  http://www.osha.gov/SLTC/metalsheavy/index.html  Accessed February 23 2012.

5. U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission. CPSC Announces Final Ban on Lead-Containing Paint: Release # 77-096. http://www.cpsc.gov/cpscpub/prerel/prhtml77/77096.html.  Published September 1977.  Accessed February 23 2012.

6. National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. NIHstudy links high levels of cadmium, lead in blood to pregnancy delay. http://www.nih.gov/news/health/feb2012/nichd-08.htm.  Published February 2012.  Accessed February 23 2012.

7. Office of the Surgeon General. Consequences of Involuntary Exposure to Tobacco Smoke: Report of the Surgeon General, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. http://www.surgeongeneral.gov/library/secondhandsmoke/factsheets/factsheet9.html.   Revised January 2007. Accessed February 24 2012.

8. Buck Louis GM, Sundaram R, Schisterman EF, Sweeny AM, Lynch CD, Gore-Langton RE, Chen Z, Kim S, Caldwell KL, & Barr DB. Heavy metals and couple fecundity, the LIFE Study. Chemosphere. 2012; In press.

9. Apostoli, P, Kiss, P, Porru S, Bonde, JP, Valhoorne, M, and ASCLEPIOS Study Group. Male reproductive toxicity of lead in animals and humans. Occupational and Environmental Medicine. 1998; (55): 364-374.

10. Pollack AZ, Schisterman EF, Goldman LR, Mumford SL, Albert PS, Jones RL, Wactawski-Wende J. Cadmium, Lead, and Mercury in Relation to Reproductive Hormones and Anovulation in Premenopausal Women. Environmental Health Perspectives. 2011; 119 (8): 1156-1161.

11.. Centers of Disease Control and Prevention. Lead: Prevention Tips. http://www.cdc.gov/nceh/lead/tips.htm. Accessed February 23 2012.

12. U.S. Consumer Safety Commission. What you should know about lead based paint in your home: Safety Alert. CPSC Document #5054. http://www.cpsc.gov/cpscpub/pubs/5054.html.  Accessed February 23 2012.