Chemicals, VDTs Affect Fertility

NEW YORK (Reuters) -- Women whose jobs expose them to solvents, chemical dusts, pesticides, and video display terminals (VDTs) may be putting their fertility on the line, a new study shows. Such occupational exposures may double or even triple the risk of infertility, say Iowa researchers.

They found that women who were exposed to volatile organic solvents, pesticides, or chemical dusts had a higher risk than normal of having problems with their fallopian tubes, a higher risk of ovulation failure, and a higher risk of endometriosis. Endometriosis was also more common in women exposed to video display terminals, and these women also had higher rates of cervical-factor infertility.

"This is one of the first female-occupational risk studies that has examined medically defined infertile women whose spouses had been medically diagnosed as fertile," says lead study-author Dr. Elaine M. Smith, professor of preventive medicine and environmental health at the University of Iowa College of Medicine, Iowa City.

In a report published in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, Smith and her colleagues point to previous studies linking a higher prevalence of spontaneous abortion among dental assistants exposed to nitrous oxide and anesthetic gases, and among women exposed to non-ionizing radiation from VDTs.

Results of the current study were based on a comparison of 281 women diagnosed with infertility and 216 fertile women. Study participants came from both rural and urban areas of Iowa and Illinois.

Women who were exposed to solvents (paint-related solvents, cleaners, resins, and hair sprays) while on the job had at least a 1.74 times greater likelihood of being infertile due to ovulation problems. Job exposure to pesticides was linked with a 3.02 times greater risk of ovulatory problems, and the risk was 2.66 times greater in women who had been exposed to chemical dusts.

"Solvents and dusts (mostly wood and agriculturally related dusts) were also associated with a higher risk of tubal-factor infertility," the researchers note. Solvents increased the risk by 1.95 times and chemical dusts by 2.87 times.

The authors note that much of the commercial wood in this country is treated with preservatives, primarily pesticides, to protect against mold, fungi, and insects. Other chemicals added to wood include arsenic.

Agricultural dusts contain a variety of chemicals including pesticides and aflatoxins, toxic chemicals found in grain dusts that previous studies have linked to birth defects.

In terms of endometriosis, women with occupational exposure to solvents had a 2.13 times higher risk, and women exposed to chemical dusts had a 3.63 times greater risk.

The Iowa researchers say VDT exposure "was more likely to be found among women diagnosed with endometriosis and cervical-factor infertility," compared with women with no occupational history of such exposures. Women working around VDTs had a 3.69 times greater risk of endometriosis and a 2.65 times greater likelihood of having cervical-factor infertility.

Smith and her co-authors also note that hobbies involving painting, woodworking, and gardening can be linked to significantly increased infertility risks. These hobbies often involve exposure to solvents or pesticides.

"Thus, the significant findings from chemical agents used in hobbies are consistent with those identified for occupational exposures," the researchers state.

But they point out that having these hobbies did not boost the chances of infertility among women who were exposed to solvents and pesticides on the job.

The Iowa team says more studies are needed that measure amount and duration of exposure to see if these factors play significant roles in occupational risks to fertility. SOURCE: Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine (1997;39(2):138-146)


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