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Zapped: Reproductive
Hazards In the Workplace

UE News, March 1994

MISCARRIAGES, birth defects, infertility: scientists are still studying the extent to which these are caused by occupational and environmental exposures. We need to undertake further research on those chemicals and conditions which have harmful reproductive effects — and then find ways of reducing our exposure to them.

Last September the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) released an important study of chemicals which can harm male and female reproductive systems and the developing fetus. Because these chemicals and agents can often be found in the workplace and in the environment, we need to know more about them so we can prevent or limit our exposure.

The report is entitled Reproductive and Developmental Hazards, ATSDR Case Study in Environmental Medicine No. 29. The authors are Drs. Laura Welch and Maureen Paul, both national leaders in the field of occupational and environmental medicine. (ATSDR, which published the report, is a federal research agency which advises the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.)

In their introduction to the study, the authors summarize some basic facts about fertility and childbirth in the United States:

  • About 8 percent of all U.S. couples are infertile.

  • An estimated 15 to 20 percent of all recognized pregnancies end involuntarily (in so-called spontaneous abortions).

  • Of children born in the U.S. in the 1980s, about 7 percent had a low birthweight, 5 percent were born prematurely, and 2-3 percent had major, recognized birth defects.

"The extent to which environmental or occupational exposures affect these statistics is unknown," the authors state. However, some chemicals and conditions which we know cause harmful reproductive effects have been identified. Below is a list of exposures which can harm the male reproductive system (Table I):


Table I
Exposures Which May Cause Male Reproductive Disorders



Carbon disulfide

Decreased sperm counts,
decreased sperm movement


Decreased sperm movement,
decreased sexual drive

DBCP (Dibromo-chloropropane)

Decreased sperm count,
hormonal changes


Decreased sperm count

Heat stress

Decreased sperm count


Decreased sperm count

Ionizing radiation

Decreased sperm count


As readers know, exposure to lead and ionizing radiation are common in U.S. industry, as is serious heat exposure. Chloroprene, another chemical in Table I, is widely used in the rubber and tire industries and DBCP is a common pesticide. The harm which chemicals do to the male sperm can be relatively easily studied in the laboratory, using sperm samples taken after chemical exposure. This cannot normally be done for chemical effects on the female reproductive system, since a woman’s eggs are permanently stored in her body. However, statistical studies can reveal harmful chemical effects on female reproduction (Table II):


Table II
Exposures Which May Cause Female Reproductive Effects




Spontaneous abortion, premature
births, birth defects

Organic mercury

Central nervous system birth
defects, cerebral palsy

Great physical stress

Premature births

PCBS (Poly-chlorinated biphenyls)

Low birth weights

Ionizing radiation

Menstrual disorders, birth
defects (many types), childhood cancers


Finally, the authors identify some chemicals, drugs and disease agents which can harm the embryo while it is developing within the mother (Table III).


Table III
Exposures Which May Harm the Developing Fetus


Infectious Agents

Some anti-thyroid drugs
Coumarin anti-coagulant drugs
Organic mercury
Ionizing radiation

Hepatitis B virus

Herpes Simplex virus

Rubella virus


Chicken pox virus


For these workplace and environmental health problems, we seek to prevent all unnecessary exposures. If such exposures cannot be eliminated, they can and should be controlled. If you are exposed these chemicals and are planning to have a child, you should talk with your doctor in advance, and discuss whether any preventive health measures can be taken.

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