by Susanna Mitro
What’s Going On?
You don’t need to be a scientist to guess that eating or breathing in pesticides probably doesn’t make you more fertile. But does pesticide exposure hurt your fertility? I took a look at the scientific literature to answer this question and others that also matter.
Are you exposed to pesticides?
Probably! People working on or living near a farm are typically exposed to higher levels of pesticides than others.1 However, even if you don’t live on an industrial farm, you are probably still exposed.2 You can be exposed eating pesticides on food, you can inhale them, and you can absorb them through your skin.3
You might not be aware that you’re being exposed to pesticides while it’s happening. For example, if you spray inside your house, apartment, or workplace to get rid of insects, you might be breathing in pesticides that linger in the air, or absorbing them when you touch the dust on the floor.3,4 Most people are exposed to at least some, but certain people have much higher exposures than others. This range of exposure in the population lets scientists test whether higher levels of exposure are linked to health problems, leading to the human studies summarized here.
Do pesticides affect fertility for people with pussies*?
The short answer is: maybe.
There are a lot of different kinds of pesticides, and they might not all have the same effects on fertility. Also, there are many ways to measure fertility: some scientists study diseases of reproductive organs, some study the probability of conception, and other study likelihood of live birth. Here is what some of the most current research tells us about this question for people with pussies*:
If you already are having trouble with fertility, eating pesticide residues on food might make it even harder for you to conceive and carry a pregnancy to term. One recent study looked only at people with pussies* undergoing fertility treatment. It reported that eating more foods that typically have high levels of pesticide residues (for example, peppers, spinach, strawberries, and peaches) was associated with lower probability of conception and live birth per attempt.5 Eating foods that typically have lower levels of pesticide residues (like peas, beans, avocado, and orange juice) on the other hand was associated with a lower risk of early miscarriage.5
Even if you don’t think you have fertility problems, exposure to pesticides might also extend the time it takes you to get pregnant. In one study, women with high exposure to certain pesticides took a longer time to get pregnant and had higher odds of not getting pregnant within 12 months of trying, compared to women with low exposure to those pesticides.6
Older studies, which were nearly all conducted among people with pussies* who lived near farms or were exposed to pesticides at work (and so probably have much higher exposure), have reported other scary findings. For example, pesticides have been linked to both early and late miscarriages, depending on the chemical and timing of exposure,7 and to stillbirth.8,9 Working in a job that exposes you to pesticides has also been linked to longer time to pregnancy10 and infertility.11 There are many ways that pesticide exposure could interfere with fertility, including changing hormone levels and altering ovulation, but most of these mechanisms have not been tested in humans.12
There is also evidence that exposure affects the fertility of people with testicles. Pesticide exposure at work has been linked to lower sperm count and motility, lighter testicles, and sperm with damaged DNA.13 So, if you are trying to get pregnant with a partner who has sperm, you should know that a partner’s exposures can also affect your likelihood of conceiving.
Is the human evidence conclusive?
Not yet. There are a few reasons researchers can’t yet draw strong conclusions:
- People who are exposed to high levels of pesticides are probably different in lots of ways from people who are not exposed to high levels. The studies in humans accounted for many of these differences in their analysis, but scientists’ confidence in the findings will increase if studies in several different populations find similar associations.
- Because there are lots of different kinds of pesticides, researchers can’t blanket statement about their effects in humans without studying each chemical or chemical group.
- Not every study about pesticides agrees that they are harmful. A few studies find no effect of pesticide exposure on fertility, so the scientific discussion continues.14
Scientists need more research about people who are exposed to pesticides as part of everyday life (not just the people highly exposed on the job) to be more confident about the effects of exposure on a typical person’s fertility. Researchers are still determining whether there is a “safe” level of pesticide exposure that doesn’t affect fertility.
Even though the science is not yet definitive, we shouldn’t ignore the evidence of harm that we do have.
How can I take care of my body?
If you to want to lower your exposures to pesticides, here are some things you can try:
- Keeping your house free of dust might lower the levels in the indoor environment (pesticides collect in the dust), which probably also reduces your exposure when you’re inside.4
- Having indoor/outdoor pets might increase indoor levels of pesticides, maybe because your pet tracks them in—but not all studies agree.4
- You might be able to lower your exposures by changing your diet. Some foods containing high expected pesticide residues are sweet peppers, fresh spinach, fresh strawberries, and celery.15
- People who eat more organic food have lower pesticide exposures, so switching from conventional to organic produce may also reduce your exposure.16
Author’s Dedication: I would like to dedicate the article to environmental health activists, whose work makes consumer products, food, and our everyday exposures less toxic.