Prematurity – being born too early – is the leading cause of death in the first month of life.
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.
Exposure to hazards in the physical environment—secondhand smoke, lead, mercury, air pollution, pesticides, and other toxins—may increase the likelihood of poor reproductive health outcomes. Other factors include risky behaviors, lack of access to prenatal care, smoking, alcohol and illegal drug use, poor nutrition, genetics, and pre-existing health issues.
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 health outcomes has improved understanding of the risks of several other hazards 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 health outcomes. Other studies have found no effect.
There is still limited scientific evidence in the role environmental factors play in reproductive health outcomes. Some examples where more data is needed include:
- Exposure to secondhand smoke by nonsmoking pregnant women as a risk factor for some poor birth outcomes
- A link between air pollution and poor reproductive health outcomes
- Pesticides or chemicals that are associated with fetal death:
- Occupational exposure to pesticides contribution to intrauterine growth retardation and fetal death
Few studies of environmental hazards and reproductive health outcomes have examined the combined 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 by taking certain actions:
- Avoid smoking and secondhand smoke.
- Avoid drinking alcohol and using 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.
Ways to 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, particularly older homes that are being renovated. Houses built before 1978 may contain lead-based paint.
- Avoid exposure to mercury. Some fish, especially albacore tuna, contain high levels of mercury.
- Avoid using chemicals, especially pesticides and any type of insecticides, herbicides, rodenticides, miticides and fungicides. Stay away from areas recently sprayed with chemicals.
The Vermont Tracking portal provides reproductive health outcome data about:
- Low and Very Low Birth Weight
- Fertility Rate
- Sex Ratio at Birth