EDF Health

Sperm Concerns: Sons Affected by Mom’s Exposure to Forever Chemicals

Illustration of gray sperm swimming toward a dark purple egg on a light purple background

By Lauren Ellis, MPH, Research Analyst, Safer Chemicals

What’s New: A peer-reviewed study by Danish researchers found that a male fetus who is exposed to PFAS (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances—also known as “forever chemicals”) during early pregnancy is more likely to have lower sperm quality in early adulthood.

It’s the first study to explore the impact of exposure to more than two PFAS compounds (as measured in maternal blood samples during early pregnancy) on adult male reproductive hormones and sperm quality.

Why It Matters: Poor sperm quality is directly related to male infertility. In addition, it has been linked to other health problems such as testicular cancer, heart disease, and all-cause mortality.

This study adds to decades of literature linking environmental chemical exposures to negative impacts on reproductive health.

Key Lessons from the Study:

  • Women who were pregnant 20+ years ago had multiple types of PFAS in their blood. The study used data on a group of Danish women who were pregnant between 1998-2003. The women gave blood samples, which were then frozen and stored; 95% of those samples were taken in the first trimester of pregnancy.
  • In 2020-2021, researchers tested those maternal samples for 15 different PFAS compounds. They found 7 of the 15 in the bloodstream of nearly 90% of mothers in the study. The seven were: PFHxS, PFHpA, PFOA, PFOS, PFNA, PFDA, and PFUnDA.
  • Exposure to PFAS during pregnancy decreases the sperm quality of adult male offspring. Researchers found that both combined and single exposure to maternal PFAS concentrations during early pregnancy had a negative effect on the sperm quality—particularly sperm count, concentration, and movement—of adult male offspring.

Our Takeaway: The new study presents a startling finding—developmental exposures to chemicals are associated with long lasting harm, including impacts that can affect future generations. It also adds to the growing evidence of PFAS health risks and demonstrates the urgent need for more health-protective PFAS policies and regulations.

Next Steps: EDF and our partners are pushing EPA to revoke existing PFAS exemptions and require those PFAS (and new PFAS coming to market) to undergo a full safety review under the Toxic Substances Control Act, our nation’s primary chemical safety law.

It is critical that these evaluations also consider the cumulative risk of exposure to PFAS mixtures in the environment.

Note: In June 2021, EDF, with a group of health, environmental, and consumer organizations, sent a formal petition to FDA asking the agency to ban all PFAS  that accumulate in the body. That petition is still under review.

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Heart disease and adult lead exposure – the evidence grows more compelling

Tom Neltner, J.D.is Chemicals Policy Director

Two recent articles add to the already strong evidence that adult exposure to relatively low levels of lead is associated with heart disease, the leading cause of death in the United States, after COVID-19. These studies reinforce the urgent need to reduce not only children’s exposure to lead but also adult exposure through regulatory action.

A February 2021 Environmental Health Perspectives article found that blood lead levels were positively associated with prevalence of moderate to severe coronary artery stenosis (CAS), the narrowing of at least 25% of these vital arteries to the heart. The researchers studied a cohort of 2,000 Korean adults studied with no history of CAS, cardiovascular disease (CVD), or occupational exposure to lead. The vast majority of their blood lead levels were below the U.S. Center of Disease Control’s (CDC) reference level.[1] The researchers found that he severity of CAS is an important predictor for life threatening cardiovascular disease, even after adjusting for factors such as age, sex, hypertension, body mass index, regular exercise, smoking, and alcohol drinking.[2]

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New study: Lead reduction prevented up to 99,000 heart disease deaths in 2014 alone

Tom Neltner, J.D., Chemicals Policy Director

EPA needs to estimate reduced heart disease deaths when it evaluates the merits of four upcoming rules addressing lead in water, paint, and air.

In 2018, we blogged on a study by Lanphear et al. that linked adult blood lead to a jaw-dropping 400,000 heart disease deaths annually. We called on federal regulatory agencies to give serious consideration to this and similar studies to develop a model they can use to quantify the socioeconomic benefits of potential regulatory changes designed to reduce adult exposure to lead. In June, 2019, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) successfully completed the necessary peer review of a model. The review was completed too late to be incorporated into the agency’s proposed revisions to its Lead and Copper Rule (released October 2019), but we applied the analysis to estimate that replacing all lead service lines in the nation over ten years would provide societal benefits of more than $205 billion – and called on EPA to consider the benefits when finalizing the rule.

Last week, Abt Associates, EPA’s contractor[1] who developed the initial peer-reviewed model, published a refined model in Environmental Health Perspectives and used it to estimate that between 34,000 and 99,000 cardiovascular disease (CVD)-related deaths were avoided in 2014 due to reduced adult blood lead levels from 1999 to 2014. The analysis reports that between 16% and 46% of the overall reduced CVD deaths during those 15 years was attributable to reduced lead in adult blood. Read More »

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EDF joins court challenge of FDA’s refusal to ban use of perchlorate in food contact materials

Tom Neltner, J.D.is Chemicals Policy Director and Maricel Maffini, Ph.D., Consultant

Today, EDF, represented by Earthjustice, joined with other public health advocates in filing a lawsuit to overturn the Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) May 2017 decision, reaffirmed in April 2019 that allows the continued use of perchlorate[1], at concentrations up to 12,000 parts per million, in plastic packaging and processing equipment in contact with dry food. Perchlorate exposure is particularly dangerous for fetuses, infants, and young children, as it has been linked to developmental delays, reduced growth, and impaired learning capabilities. FDA relied on flawed reasoning while entirely ignoring important evidence developed by its own scientists revealing potentially serious risks resulting from ongoing use of perchlorate. We maintain that the intentional and unnecessary use of perchlorate in food contact materials should end.[2]

As with any litigation, we take this action reluctantly. We have long questioned FDA’s decisions that ignore evidence that endocrine disruptors like perchlorate can cause harm at levels the agency systematically dismisses as trivial. We have also pushed back on FDA’s decisions that allow toxic chemicals to be used in packaging and processing equipment that contact food ingredients multiple times from the farm to the grocery store shelf when the exposure estimate is based solely on the amount of the chemical that may migrate into food from the final product packaging. Agency assertions that its estimates are based on worst-case assumptions are misleading when they only consider a single contact. While FDA’s initial decision in November 2005 allowing the use of perchlorate-containing plastic raises all of these problems, the agency’s failure to address its own data and accompanying analysis by its own scientists that was published a decade later has left us with little choice but to act.

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Why do we know so little about chemical exposures? Emerging technology could disrupt the status quo.

Lindsay McCormick is a Program Manager.

EDF report identifies emerging market for personal chemical exposure monitoring technologies through a first-of-its-kind analysis.

When I first started working at EDF in 2014, I learned a statistic that shocked me: We have human exposure data on less than 4% of the roughly half-million chemicals in commerce.[1] In other words, we know next to nothing about the vast majority of chemical exposures that people were experiencing on a daily basis.

Chemicals are found in nearly all commercial products and serve a foundational role in our economy. Yet this ubiquity comes with its downsides, as some chemicals are hazardous and can find their way into our environment and ultimately end up in our water, land, and air—and in our bodies. Exposure to certain chemi­cal substances have been linked to a variety of adverse health impacts, including reproductive harm, disruption of normal hormone activity, and impaired neurological development in children.

The lack of knowledge about chemical exposures poses a major problem: Without better information on exactly which chemicals individuals are exposed to every day, it is challenging to develop effective policies and interventions to reduce harmful exposures and protect health.

Disrupting the status quo

But what if anyone could use a simple home-delivered kit or wearable device to reveal the chemicals in their environment—and in their body? Such technologies could make the invisible visible—providing individuals, as well as policy makers, businesses, health professionals, and others, with critical information needed to accelerate reductions in the public’s exposure to hazardous chemicals.

In 2017, EDF pursued a Year of Innovation to better understand opportunities to advance the market for personal chemical exposure monitors (PCEMs) – with the ultimate goal of improving public health. As part of this effort, we conducted interviews and convened an expert workshop to identify bottlenecks in the development and use of such technologies.

We learned that a significant gap exists between the demand and promise of PCEM technologies and the current cost or scalability of many of the available technologies today. Experts noted that while there is significant qualitative or anecdotal evidence of demand, a quantitative understanding of the potential market for these technologies is needed to drive a robust market.

EDF took that lesson and embarked on a two-part study to fill this gap.

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Sensors and electronic health records reveal block-by-block traffic air pollution health disparities among the elderly in Oakland

Dr. Ananya Roy is a Health Scientist

Many public heath efforts, thankfully, focus on the youngest among us. We fight for a clean environment and healthy future for our kids. However, it is easy to forget that pollution affects us in every stage of life and its insidious health effects accumulate over time and can result in disease and disability.

Older people already have higher rates of disease and are highly vulnerable to air pollution, because they have been breathing for 70, 80, or 90 years. The effects of air pollution among the elderly provide insights that help us solve problems that can benefit the whole population.

Senior citizens have become the largest and fastest-growing segment of the population. By 2030 one in five Americans will be 65 and older, a demographic shift that influences everything from consumer behavior to health-care costs. Further, grandparents play a critical role in the success of families and the next generation – both emotionally and physically. It is estimated that for approximately 4.9 million families with children, the grandparent is the main breadwinner.

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