Preconception health is an area I am extremely passionate and knowledgeable about, both as a mother of three who struggled with fertility and pregnancy complications and a functional medicine doctor.
And based on years of experience helping women achieve healthy pregnancies, I can tell you that reducing your body burden by avoiding chemical toxins is one of greatest gifts you can give to yourself and your new baby.
Yes, avoiding chemicals in food, such as additives, preservative, dyes, pesticides, herbicides, stabilizers, petroleum-based ingredients, excitotoxins like MSG, etc., is very important and highly recommended.
However, there’s a vast and insidious source of chemical toxins that most of us are completely (or largely) unaware of: household chemicals…and they’re hiding all over our homes.
Household chemicals, the reproductive toxins most of us have no clue we’re ingesting daily
Household toxins are easy to overlook because most of them are invisible, odorless (or have a pleasant smell), and come from a variety of seemingly harmless (and even enjoyable) sources. Plus, we don’t hear a whole lot about them on the news vs. other things like toxins in food, drinks, or pharmaceuticals.
However, most households are harboring a toxic soup of dangerous chemicals. Many of which are proven endocrine-disruptors (aka: reproductive toxin) carcinogens, obesogens, and lung irritants.
So how exactly are we ingesting these toxins if we’re unaware of them? Household chemicals enter our bodies in three different ways: through eating or drinking, breathing (and indoor air quality in most homes is not great), and via our skin (think face creams, makeup, hand sanitizer, etc.).
The good news is, these toxins can be eliminated and/or minimized without a ton of effort. The first step is to learn what they are and where they come from, so you can get them out of your life!
10 toxins to avoid for better fertility and a healthier pregnancy
#1: BPA, BPS
Plastics are found in everything from food storage containers to clothing, and even tea bags (ack!). BPA (Bisphenol-A), a proven endocrine- and nervous system-disrupting plastic-based chemical indicated in infertility and developmental issues of the fetus, 1,2,3 is produced more than any other chemical, with billions of pounds manufactured annually.4 And though BPA-free products abound, there’s still plenty of this chemical floating around in things like: coffee pots, canned foods (BPA is in the liners unless it’s labeled BPA-free), receipts (which can transfer BPA to your body via your skin5), soda cans, food packaging, kitchen utensils and equipment, food storage containers, tea bags, plastic wrap or storage bags, water bottles, toys, mason jar lids, carpeting, and dental materials like sealants or fillings.
BPS (Bisphenol-S) is a cousin of BPA which was used to replace it once word got out about BPA’s health effects. However, new research has shown that BPS (also an endocrine-disruptor6) may be worse than BPA, with evidence that it disrupts cell function which can lead to diabetes, asthma, and other issues.7
And these aren’t the only two plastic-based chemicals to be concerned about.
A recent study showed that nearly all 455 types of plastic leach estrogenic chemicals…BPA-free or not.8
Source: plastics, synthetic fragrance, carpeting, clothing, cosmetics, food packaging, sunscreen, vinyl, shower curtains, chemical cleaning supplies, electronics, nail polish, certain types of medical packaging/equipment, lubricating oils, cosmetics, shampoo, soap, hair spray, baby care products, diapers, toys, air fresheners, dryer sheets, dust…the stuff’s everywhere!
Phthalates and plastics go together like almond butter and raw honey (a little functional medicine humor). That’s because they are a plasticizer which is used to make plastics more flexible, they’re also used as a solvent which is why they’re found in things like cosmetics and personal care products and they help enhance chemical fragrance. They are found in hundreds of products…which is why most people have detectable levels in their urine, 10,11 In addition, phthalates have also been linked to birth defects,12 lowered IQ,13 sperm damage (so your husband or partner needs to pay attention too!),14 and cognitive and behavioral problems in children.15
Source: Skin care products, medicines, food, hand sanitizer, personal care products, cleaning products, medicines, supplements, laundry products
Most of us have heard about the perils of parabens, a preservative commonly used in skin care products. However, despite the bad press parabens are still prevalent in the cosmetic and skin care industry, largely because they’re very effective preservatives. They’re also used in food and supplements as an additive/preservative.
The main issue with parabens is they’re estrogenic, which means they can interfere with reproductive health and fertility. The studies are somewhat contradictory as to how much they accumulate in the body via ingestion and absorption, however they do accumulate (especially if you’re exposed to them several times a day via skin cream, shampoo, soap, etc.) and have been associated with disruption in hormone signalling, decreased fertility,16 low birth weight, and an increased risk of preterm birth.17 There’s also evidence that they may play a role in the development of breast cancer,18 which I mention in the context of overall women’s wellness.
#4: Pesticides and herbicides
Sources: non-organic produce, meats, and dairy products, weed killers, agricultural runoff, surface and drinking water, air pollution, dust, parks, grass, soccer fields, etc.
Pesticides and herbicides are really bad news for reproductive health and developing babies, with varying types being linked to everything from developmental delays, to infertility, low sperm count, reproductive cancers, preterm birth, time to pregnancy, obesity, metabolic disorders, the list goes on and on. There’s even evidence that in-utero exposure or exposure via breastmilk can have negative health impacts on the baby that won’t show up for years to come.19 Many forms are endocrine-disruptors while others affect neurodevelopment, your nervous system, your metabolism, gene expression, and pretty much all other aspects of bodily function.
The worst types of pesticides for disrupting fertility are chlorinated pesticides and organophosphate pesticides and herbicides, which are widely used in agriculture, pest and malaria control throughout the world.20 We’ll cover these more in-depth coming up.
I could write for a year on all the ways pesticides negatively impact fertility, pregnancy, women’s health, men’s health, and baby’s/children’s health (and I will…one day), but you get the idea…it’s nasty stuff.
Sources: teflon and other non-stick surfaces, waterproof or weatherproof outdoor gear, some moisture-wicking clothing, menstrual pads, some brands of menstrual underwear, stain-proof carpets, couches, etc., food packaging (pizza boxes, microwave popcorn, fast food packaging), water, food, dust
PFOAs (Perfluorooctanoic acid) are a man made chemical used in teflon and other non-stick surfaces. This is what’s known as a “forever chemical”, is a class 2B carcinogen (meaning it “may cause cancer” in humans based on some evidence) and is believed to be in everyone’s body at some concentration.21 They can also cross the placental barrier and have been detected in breastmilk, which is important to note for parents22
PFOAs have also been shown to impact insulin levels, weight-gain during pregnancy, adverse pregnancy outcomes, sperm quality, timing of puberty in offspring and are considered a “developmental toxicant”.23
Sources: most municipal drinking water, dental care products (toothpaste, dental floss, mouthwash), bottled water, filtered water (most filters do not remove fluoride), juice, sodas, teas, non-stick pans, pharmaceuticals, supplements
There’s been a long-standing debate about whether fluoride is safe to consume, or even necessary for dental health. Most dentists want you to use it and drink it for the sake of bettering your teeth. However, new research is starting to validate the concerns many of us have had about fluoride for some time.
In terms of negative effects on fertility, pregnancy, and the healthy development of the fetus the evidence is starting to stack up.
At this time, most of the evidence points towards fluoride’s negative impacts on male fertility. Human studies have shown fluoride can decrease testosterone levels,24 and dozens of animal studies have shown it can negatively impact sperm motility,25 sperm quantity,26 and alter sperm quality.27
That said, fluoride’s not great for women of childbearing age either given its proven negative effects on the thyroid, a key player in a woman’s ability to conceive and maintain a healthy pregnancy.28. In fact, fluoridated water has been shown to be a contributing factor in hypothyroidism.29
And a growing body of evidence suggests it’s not good for developing babies.
For example, a Canadian study of 601 mother-child pairs found fluoride exposure measured in the mothers’ urine during pregnancy was associated with substantially lower IQs in their children.30 Another 2017 study from Mexico city showed a similar association with a 6.3-point decrease in IQ levels among boys and girls from mothers with fluoride in their urine.31
These studies were observational in nature and thus cannot “prove” the fluoride caused the lower IQ, only note an association. However, additional studies (most conducted in China) have provided compelling evidence to suggest a link to neurodevelopmental ailments in children, including lowered IQ from direct or in-utero exposure.32, 33 I would not be at all surprised if we continue to see evidence like this popping up in the future. That’s because fluoride crosses the placental barrier34 and directly affects the nervous system and accumulates in parts of the brain that store memory.35
The good news is, you can maintain your oral health without fluoride very safely and effectively. Hydroxyapatite, a form of calcium similar to what your teeth are made of, is the topical fluoride alternative I recommend (and use at home) because it’s been studied for decades in Japan and has been shown as effective as fluoride for reducing cavities,36 without the toxicity. For a holistic dental perspective, I recommend checking out the IOAMT’s Fluoride Facts page.
On a personal note, we do not use fluoridated products or drink fluoridated water in my household (we use a filter) and our teeth and gums are very healthy, so don’t let anyone scare you into using fluoride if you don’t want to. I’ve been using RiseWell toxin-free toothpaste for years with great results.
Sources: municipal drinking water, bottled water, swimming pools, hot tubs, bleach, cleaning products, laundry products, other disinfectants
Like fluoride, chlorine is a controversial water additive. But unlike fluoride, its use is more functional because it kills harmful pathogens.
However, given that it’s a deadly chemical when consumed or absorbed in quantity it’s no bueno for parents-to-be. For one thing, per the CDC37 disinfectants like chlorine have been shown to increase the risk of miscarriage and preterm births, and it is unclear at what concentration they become a problem.
Additional research by the Environmental Working Group also showed a link between chlorine by-products in drinking water an increased rate of miscarriage and birth defects.38 Plus, the use of chlorine in everyday household products, like laundry products, bathroom cleaners, etc. disrupts the balance of your microbiome by killing off good bacteria, which can also negatively impact reproductive health and the maternal microbiome.39
I wouldn’t be concerned about a bit of chlorine here and there, and wouldn’t discourage you from going swimming to keep fit for example. However, given that it accumulates and becomes a harmful gas when heated (research has shown we absorb up to 8 times more chlorine in the shower via inhalation and our skin than from drinking the water40) , I would recommend filtering your drinking water and bath/shower water and opting for a saltwater pool.
#8: Organochlorine compounds (chlorinated pesticides, polychlorinated biphenyls (PBCs), and dioxins)
Sources: pesticides, plastics, PCBs, non-organic food, chlorinated water, drinking water, paper products, food packaging, drinks, processed foods, insecticides, fungicides, surface water, fish, seafood, flame-retardants (found in furniture, carpets, children’s clothing, mattresses, etc.), the air…yep, they’re everywhere too.
We mentioned these briefly in the pesticide section, but given their toxicity levels and threat to women and babies they deserve a fuller explanation.
These nasty little suckers come from a variety of sources, but the main ones in our homes come from flame retardants, paper products, plastics (again!), and pesticides—DDT, for example, which has been banned in the United States, is a chlorinated pesticide.
For pregnant mothers and those planning to become pregnant, avoiding these should be a top priority as they do cross the placental barrier and have been shown to increase the rate of miscarriage, preterm birth, c-section41,42 can negatively affect cognitive and neurodevelopment of the fetus, 43, and impact thyroid hormones during pregnancy (which affect fertility, pregnancy, and the development of the child’s brain).44
Insofar as fertility goes, PCBs have been shown to reduce fertility by a whopping 50%45 and women with higher levels of PCBs who do conceive are much more likely to miscarry.46
These are just a few of many many many examples of why these chemicals should be avoided preconception, during pregnancy…and pretty much all the time.
#9: Heavy metals
Sources: food (especially large fish like tuna, shark, swordfish), amalgams (silver filings and other dental materials, municipal and drinking water, soil, ground water, juice, paint, dust, pesticides, treated wood, batteries, toys, supplements (herbs from China are notorious for lead and mercury), medicines, air pollution, fungicides, some prepackaged baby food, metals, cans
Heavy metals aren’t generally dangerous in very, very, small amounts. The problem is, most of us are exposed to excess amounts via things like pesticides, mercury amalgams, food, water, building materials, toys, and even things like herbal supplements. It’s such a problem, that toy companies will now label their products: “tested for heavy metals”…which is crazy considering this is 2021, but I digress.
There are many reasons to avoid heavy metals, including: less risk of gestational diabetes,47 increased risk of prostate cancer and other negative impacts on male fertility,48 increased risk of cell death, increased stem cell transformation, their association with thyroid disease,49 and increased risk of birth defects, spontaneous abortion, pre-term deliveries, stillbirths and hypotrophy.50
#10: Mold and mycotoxins
Source: basements, carpets, attics, damp floors, wall paper, dust, stored food products, HVACs, ducting…anything wet, damp, or dank
When I was pregnant, we decided to do a bathroom renovation. During the demo, we discovered a pretty bad leak in the wall which had produced a good bit of mold. Unaware of the dangers (and eager to continue our project), we just ripped everything out without taking any precautions. Shortly thereafter, I had a miscarriage and suffered fertility issues. Though I did not connect the dots at the time, I am now certain that that mold exposure either caused or played a big role in my miscarriage. It’s a sad story, but I am glad to be able to share my experience to help other couples who may be struggling from the little-known effects of mycotoxins.
So how the heck does mold cause a miscarriage?
It’s probably in part because mycotoxins found in mold can be estrogenic in nature. Specifically, research has shown that the mycotoxin called zearalenone (ZEA) is one of the most prevalent estrogenic mycotoxins that can affect reproductive capacity by altering levels of estrogen and progesterone and impairing ovarian function.51 It’s also been associated with precocious puberty and miscarriage…and that’s just one mycotoxin of many. I’ll be sharing more about mycotoxins, mold detection, and remediation in an upcoming article.
Ready for some good news? Avoiding these toxins is fairly easy
I know all this information can be disheartening, especially given the vast amount of chemicals lurking in our personal environments.
However, the silver lining is you have tremendous power to protect yourself and your family, by making some very simple changes to your home environment.
Here’s how you can easily avoid the majority of these household toxins:
- Buy organic produce, or at least avoid the Dirty Dozen. It’s not a perfect guide because it fails to account for the relative toxicity of different pesticides, but it’s a start.
- Filter your water using a high-quality filter that removes fluoride, heavy metals, PCBs, pesticides, phthalates, microplastics, and other trouble makers (this goes for well and city water). Here are the brands I recommend.
- Limit water and other beverages bottled or packaged in plastic.
- Avoid fast food and processed food, it’s typically pesticide and additive-laden and comes in packaging likely to contain BPA, BPS, PCBs, etc.
- Break up with plastics. I like using silicone bags, bees wrap, mason jars, glass interlocking storage containers, and stainless steel thermos/ water bottles (look for nickel-free, lead-free).
- Don’t eat large fish and stay away from freshwater fish to avoid PCBs. To help you remember which fish are safe and healthiest to eat, think SMASH (Salmon, Mackerel, Anchovies, Sardines, and Herring). If you like tuna stick with SafeCatch Elite which has very low mercury levels, on par with wild salmon or sardines.
- If you drink tea, drink loose leaf tea (to avoid plastics in tea bags). Bonus if you pick the brand that screens for pesticides, heavy metals, mold and radioactive isotopes.
- Limit canned food, instead look for glass jars.
- Swap out non-stick cookware for cast iron, enameled cast iron, or stainless steel.
- Switch to a natural, fluoride-free toothpaste with hydroxyapatite.
- If you’re at least 6 months away from pregnancy, consider having your mercury amalgams removed by an IAOMT-trained dentist (this is important as not all dentists have the knowledge or equipment to remove these without exposing you to more mercury). If not, shelve that for after pregnancy/breastfeeding.
- Eat foods that promote healthy detoxification pathways! We can’t avoid all these toxins all the time, so the next best thing is to make sure your body’s filtration systems are healthy enough to catch and eliminate them.
- Open windows daily, assuming the outdoor air quality is not an issue.
- Filter your shower and bath water to reduce chlorine inhalation.
- Vacuum and dust regularly (many of these troublemakers, like heavy metals, ride on dust).
- Don’t wear shoes indoors. They track in all kinds of nasty pesticides, herbicides, heavy metals, etc.
- Eliminate phthalate-rich synthetic fragrance (plug-ins, potpourri, air freshener, laundry products, cleaning products, personal care products).
- Use an air purifier that removes specific contaminants, this is especially important in your bedroom.
- If you suspect a mold issue (musty basement, leak in the attic, etc.), have your home inspected by a healthy home professional or building biologist…I’ll have more info on this in a future article.
- Use natural laundry products, wool dryer balls, etc.
- Filter your bath and shower water to reduce water-borne toxin absorption via the skin.
- Stop treating your lawn, garden, home, etc. with pesticides (this includes switching to non-toxic pest control please).
- Use natural personal care and beauty products (here’s my favorite brand).
- Skip nail polish or choose a non-toxic variety.
- Swap out chemical cleaners for all-natural (Branch Basics if my fave because it does everything, from bathrooms and dishes to laundry and hand washing).
- Avoid flame retardants wherever possible (children’s pajamas and robes are a sneaky source).
- To reduce exposure to flame retardants, phthalates, etc. do your best to opt for natural fibers when it comes to rugs, carpeting, and upholstery. No need to go nuts if you already have what you have, but just keep it in mind when it’s time to update/upgrade your floor, furniture, etc.
If you want to take it a step further, find a functional medicine doctor to help you pinpoint which toxins may be affecting your health. We have all kinds of cool tools to check for things like heavy metals, pesticides, and other reproductive health troublemakers.
Finally, don’t drive yourself crazy and follow the 80:20 rule!
These changes need not happen all at once and should be fun and empowering. My advice is to knock a few off the list every week based on your goals, means, and needs.
For more information on preconception and detoxing before pregnancy, check out: Why You Should Detox Before Pregnancy, My Story: How Pregnancy Struggles Helped me Reclaim my Health, and Thyroid, Fertility, and Pregnancy: An Integrative Perspective.
I’d also recommend downloading my free Guide: 12 Ways to Detox Your Home for more detailed information and tips.
Need some help planning for preconception and pregnancy, and/or improving fertility?
I’d love to get to know you and see if we’re a fit! Click here to learn more about functional medicine consultations (available for patients in Colorado, Texas, and Michigan) and apply to be a patient.
- https://www.cdc.gov/biomonitoring/Phthalates_FactSheet.html[/efn_note] and are heinous in the worst possible sense.
Insofar as reproductive health goes, like plastics, they’re endocrine-disruptors that have also been linked to things like obesity and diabetes (which negatively affect maternal and infant health), and an increased risk of breast cancer.9https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2854732/