Reproductive health refers to the diseases, disorders and conditions that affect the functioning of the male and female reproductive systems during reproductive age. A person’s lifestyle, habits, genetics, use of medicines, and exposure to chemicals in the environment can all affect reproductive health. These factors can, in turn, affect adult fertility and birth outcomes such as premature birth, low birth weight and infant death – as well as a potential change in population growth.
Men, and especially women, are less likely to have poor birth outcomes if they are in good physical and mental health, and practice healthy behaviors before and during pregnancy.
The causes of poor reproductive health outcomes are complex. Many factors – risky behaviors, lack of access to prenatal care, smoking, alcohol and illegal drug use, poor nutrition, genetics, and pre-existing health issues – can all add to the likelihood of poor reproductive outcomes.
Social environments that cause chronic stress, such as poverty, difficult working conditions, domestic or neighborhood violence, may also contribute to the risk of poor outcomes such as low birth weight or infant mortality.
Exposure to hazards in the physical environment – secondhand smoke, lead, mercury, air pollution, pesticides and other toxics – may increase the likelihood of poor reproductive health outcomes.
Some environmental toxins, such as mercury and lead, can pass from a mother to her unborn child. A woman eating fish high in mercury during pregnancy can harm the unborn baby’s developing nervous system. Exposure to high levels of lead during pregnancy increases risk for miscarriage, preterm birth, low birth weight and developmental delays.
Research on reproductive outcomes has improved understanding of the risks of several other substances found in the environment. However, results from research regarding the role that specific environmental hazards play in these outcomes have been inconsistent. Some studies have found increased rates of poor reproductive outcomes. Other studies have found no effect.
Scientific evidence of the role of environmental factors in reproductive health is still limited:
- Exposure to secondhand smoke by nonsmoking pregnant women is a risk factor for some poor birth outcomes.
- A limited body of evidence points to a link between components of air pollution and poor reproductive outcomes.
- Pesticides that have been associated with fetal death:
- A 2004 research review concluded that occupational exposure to pesticides may contribute to intrauterine growth retardation and fetal death, but more data is needed.
Few studies of environmental hazards and reproductive outcomes have examined the interactive effects of exposure to multiple pollutants, or exposure to pollutants together with stresses such as living in poverty, crime, poor health, and lack of access to medical care.
Women who are pregnant or may become pregnant can reduce the chance of poor reproductive outcomes:
- Avoid smoking and secondhand smoke.
- Don’t drink alcohol or use illegal drugs.
- Get medical treatment for infections and other illnesses, especially for vaginal infections.
- Get prenatal health care early in pregnancy, and follow nutritional and other advice carefully.
Prevent exposure from environmental sources:
- Reduce heavy or prolonged exertion when the Air Quality Index indicates unhealthy levels of particulate matter and other air pollutants.
- Reduce use of wood-burning stoves and fireplaces or other indoor sources of particulate matter.
- Try to spend less time outdoors near areas with high traffic volume.
- Avoid exposure to lead, and stay away from old houses being renovated because the dust may contain lead. Housing built before 1978 may contain lead-based paint.
- Avoid exposure to mercury. Some fish, especially albacore tuna, have been contaminated with mercury.
- Don’t use pesticides (insecticides, herbicides, rodenticides, miticides and fungicides) and stay away from areas recently sprayed with insecticides.
Vermont Tracking provides reproductive health outcome data about: