Thousands of hazardous chemicals are produced and used in a wide variety of workplaces, all over the world. Some of these substances can have negative effects on the reproductive health of both male and female workers who are exposed to them. There are also a variety of physical and biological agents (such as radiation and bacteria) used in many workplaces that expose workers to additional reproductive hazards. Additionally, there are many work situations (such as work which is highly stressful, or shift work) that may cause negative effects on the reproductive systems of male and female workers.
For the millions of working women across the globe who are trying to get pregnant each year, it is imperative they know their workplace. A growing number of women hold jobs in industries that were once dominated by men—manufacturing, agriculture, and trades such as welding and printing. Working in such fields may expose them to chemicals and agents that can pose health risks.
Within the workplace, many women are likely to be exposed to some type of occupational hazard that may impair conception or risk the health of an unborn child. Excessive levels of exposure to the following hazards may increase the chance of birth defects and miscarriage and may lead to fertility problems in an otherwise healthy individual.
Environmental Hazards – Common everyday exposures we usually ignore should be recognized during pregnancy. These include air-pollutants, mold and asbestos, extreme temperatures, excessive noise levels, and second-hand cigarette smoke.
Chemical Hazards – The Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC) recommends avoiding certain ethylene glycol ethers such as 2-ethoxyethanol (2EE) and 2-methoxyethanol (2ME) since they may cause miscarriage. Lead should also be avoided as exposure at certain levels may cause infertility, miscarriage, low birth weight, and developmental disorders. Homes and workplaces in the olden days also may contain lead paint. Other solvents, pharmaceuticals and metals such as mercury are of concern as well. Learn about the effects of the products with a label or data that carries the codes R46, R61, R63 and R64 to name a few.
At least one study has cited women who work in nail and hair salons, dry cleaning establishments, medical laboratories and manufacturing plants place their unborn child at risk of birth defects due to malodorous chemical solvents. Common everyday solvents and chemicals women who are pregnant or trying to get pregnant should limit their skin and vaporous odor contact to are bleaches, hair color, artificial nail powders, nail polish remover, aerosol hair spray and chemical depilatories.
Women who work with solvents called glycol ethers, present in some paints, have an increased risk of miscarriage. Other solvents also suspected of causing miscarriage and birth defects include oil-based paints and paint thinners. It is wise to remember that all paints; even water-based; include several ingredients of unknown safety. Use proper respiratory protection at all times to avoid hazardous vapors. Remain in a well-ventilated area.
According to reports, three out of four women are exposed to pesticides. The perfect scenario would be to avoid these pesticides, but limiting your exposure will decrease your chances of having it affect conception, pregnancy and delivery of a healthy baby. Additionally, it is wise to be cautious of “organic” pesticides as many are derived from the same plants as the non-organic pesticides; and they too are cause for concern.
Radiation – High doses of radiation are known to lead to miscarriage or embryonic damage. Laws have been put in place to protect unborn babies and their mothers. The laws state that radiation exposure cannot exceed 0.5 rem at any time during a woman’s pregnancy. Radiation from an x-ray is known to affect cell division and cause defects. Since cells divide quickly as an embryo develops, it is more vulnerable to radiation.
Exposure to natural radiation while flying is generally insignificant for the average person each year. For those who are flight attendants, pilots and business travelers who fly the skies hundreds of times a year, there is only a slightly higher risk to the developing fetus. Some experts however, recommend limiting flying time during the first trimester.
Biological Agents – Biological agents are most prevalent in the workplaces of hospitals, educational institutions and daycare. Women in these workplaces may be exposed to many harmful bio-agents including, influenza, rubella, tuberculosis, chickenpox, herpes simplex, HIV and Hepatitis B. Some of the above agents occur only once in a woman’s lifetime, so if a woman has experienced chickenpox for example, she normally will be immune to any reoccurrence.
Stress – The risks from job stress are well established and are associated with raised blood pressure which is dangerous for pregnant women and sometimes associated with infertility.
Millions of women each year work throughout their entire pregnancy and go on to deliver healthy babies. By being aware of hazards ahead of time and taking precautionary measures, women can usually remedy any potential hazard. Many workers are exposed to such hazards every day at work. Working with particular substances or under certain work situations may cause some workers to experience abnormalities in their sexual or reproductive health. Many workers may not know that such problems can be related to occupational exposures. Protective measures should be implemented to ensure that pregnant workers and workers (male or female) who may be planning to have a child are not exposed to known or suspected reproductive health hazards.