A new study from Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health is showing that flame retardants may decrease the likelihood of pregnancy in women undergoing in vitro fertilization. This is the first study to examine the association between organophosphate flame retardants (PFRs) and reproductive outcomes in women.
Urine samples from 211 women undergoing IVF between 2005 and 2015 at the Fertility Clinic at Massachusetts General Hospital were analyzed. 80% of women studied were found to have PFRs in their urine. Women with higher concentrations of PFRs had a 10% reduced chance of successful fertilization, 31% reduced probability of implantation, 41% reduced chance of having a clinical pregnancy (fetal heart beat seen on ultrasound), and 38% reduced chance of having a live birth.
Organophosphate flame retardants are used in many polyurethane foam products, including upholstered furniture, baby products, and gym mats. The chemical can migrate out of furniture and other products into the air and dust and then be transferred to the human body. Although PFRs are considered a safer alternative to other types of flame retardants, this study as well as prior animal studies are showing that this chemical is not completely benign. Prior animal studies have shown that PFRs can cause hormone disruption.
While the results seem very alarming, we must remember that this is only the first study to examine the association between PFRs and reproductive outcomes. Further studies are needed to confirm these results. We also need to see studies that assess the effects of PFRs on male reproductive outcomes.
For now, I’ll be telling my patients that the take home message from this study is what senior author Russ Hauser stated, “Couples undergoing IVF and trying to improve their chances of success by reducing their exposure to environmental chemicals may want to opt for products that are flame-retardant free.” Since the government requires flame retardants to be in certain products, it’s unlikely that patients will be able to avoid PFRs completely. By being aware of which products contain PFRs though, patients can at least try to limit their exposure.
There are many factors that can affect fertility, so if you’re struggling with trying to conceive, one of the first steps you should take is to speak with your physician about what you can do to optimize your health and environment.