Reproductive Hazards

Robert L. Goldberg and Sarah Janssen

Key words: reproduction, biological, infertility, spontaneous abortion, preterm delivery, birth defects, low birthweight

Men, women, and children who live or work on farms around the world are exposed to many different types of potentially harmful agents that can interfere with reproductive development and function. Exposures to physical, chemical and biological hazards can occur during normal farm work from handling animals or their bodily fluids, working with chemicals or working in areas where chemicals have been used, and operating farm equipment.

Fertility, gestation, and pregnancy outcome are dependent on complex biological processes beginning early in life. Disruption of these processes can happen with environmental exposures in utero and throughout childhood development, as well as in adulthood through occupational and environmental exposures. Interference with development or functioning of the reproductive tract in males and females can result in diminished fertility, infertility, adverse pregnancy outcomes, congenital malformations, and childhood cancer.

Studies have documented associations between living or working in an agricultural area and adverse reproductive outcomes. Exposure to chemicals, mainly pesticides, has been linked to infertility and diminished fertility, spontaneous abortion, birth defects, and childhood cancer. A large number of studies suggest pesticide exposure is associated with these adverse reproductive outcomes, but few studies quantify the type of pesticide or measure exposure levels. Biomarkers of pesticides exposure have been measured in both male and female reproductive tracts, breast milk, and semen. Pesticides have also been measured in amniotic fluid, meconium, and cord blood, indicating the fetus is exposed to pesticides throughout development. These measurements provide some evidence to strengthen the association between pesticide exposure and reproductive outcomes but do not prove causality (1-6).

It is plausible that pesticides in semen may have direct effects on sperm or can be transmitted to the woman and fetus. Likewise, pesticides in the female reproductive tract could interfere with oocyte development, ovulation, fertilization, implantation, pregnancy, and development of the fetus. However, there are no studies to date linking these biological measurements with adverse reproductive outcomes (1-6).

The term pesticides includes a wide variety of chemicals (see Chapters 13 and 16). In addition, many pesticide formulations contain solvents that have also been associated with reproductive toxicity. Adverse reproductive outcomes including decreased sperm count, infertility, testicular cancer, cryp-torchidism, and hypospadias have been linked to widespread use of chemicals with hormonal properties, the so-called endocrine disruptors. A number of pesticides, especially organochlorines, have been identified as endocrine disruptors. In developing countries, workers are exposed to increasing amounts of pesticides, including some banned in prosperous countries. Prevention should include decreased total exposure by the elimination or reduction of chemicals, integrated pest management, proper personal protective equipment, and improved work practices (7-10).

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