How Our Environment Affects Reproductive Health | News

August 23, 2022 – Carmen Messerlianassistant professor of environmental reproductive, perinatal and pediatric epidemiology, studies how the world around us – everything from chemical exposures until trauma until climate change-can influence reproductive health and development. She directs the Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health’s Scientific Early Life Environmental Health and Development Program (SEED). Here she talks about her work.

Q: What made you interested in studying the factors that can affect human reproductive health and development?

A: My curiosity about human reproductive health and development was sparked more than 20 years ago during my training and work as an emergency room nurse at Montreal Children’s Hospital. My first patient was an eight-year-old girl who came to the ER very sick. We had to save her life. Later that day, she was diagnosed with leukemia. For months I followed her progress in the oncology ward. I also worked in inpatient child psychiatry, caring for a young boy who had suffered so much trauma at the age of nine that he had to live in the hospital. He was my patient on the ward for a whole year! He was born on the streets of Montreal to a mother who was homeless and addicted to drugs. As a newborn, he was addicted to cocaine and came into this world with numerous drawbacks that were compounded by early life trauma and experiences that caused serious behavioral and emotional problems.

These two children and their suffering have stayed with me all my life. Not a week goes by that I don’t think about these kids. Their stories and my experience caring for them and the thousands of others like them, untold. This is what inspires and motivates me to strive to understand and explore early life exposures and environments that can cause disease in children and how we can prevent adverse outcomes. Everything I do is about trying to understand when and how exposures in mothers and fathers before they become pregnant, or while they are pregnant, affect their chances of conceiving, having a healthy pregnancy and delivering a healthy baby. give birth that can live to their fullest potential. These are the questions we address in the SEED program, which includes a scientific team of more than 25 people.

Q: Can you give a few examples of research you are working on?

A: The exposures I’m looking at are not just the chemicals we’re exposed to from things like plastics and the built environment, or the air we breathe from the natural environment, but also the social environment. The environment is broadly defined to me and includes the natural, built and social environments we are exposed to throughout life. For example, my team and I are currently investigating how early exposure to trauma, sexual abuse, or other forms of early stress can affect our reproductive health throughout life. It’s amazing to realize that our social environment, and what you experience as a child, is an exposure that can affect your chances of getting pregnant, carrying a baby to term, having a healthy postpartum experience, or a healthy to have a child.

Exposures at a young age can also affect your reproductive health as you age, during perimenopause and menopause and beyond for women, and also throughout life for men. In children and teens, exposure to certain chemicals, foods, social environments or stress can affect the rate at which your body matures – they can speed up or slow down the progression of puberty. These changes can affect both fertility and overall health throughout the life course. In women, the number of years we menstruate can affect the health of our brain, heart, and bones. Environmental exposure can affect our menstrual cycles, fertility potential, and the age at which we reach menopause. Early life factors that influence age at menarche or accelerate our reproductive aging process can lead to changes in our fertility and the age at which women reach menopause. We also have some work showing that women who enter menopause earlier have faster cognitive decline, their brains age differently, and they have an increased risk of age-related diseases. These are some of the hypotheses we explore using observational epidemiological designs in combination with genetic and epigenetic data.

We also have a new paper on the impact of climate change on reproductive health. Species on Earth are under pressure and stressed by climate change. It is not only the pollution, droughts, storms and forest fires that have a devastating impact, it is also that our evolutionary reproductive capacity is under pressure. The more hostile our environment is, the more difficult it is to have healthy offspring. In the SEED program we look at how air pollution affects the risk of cerebral palsy, how climate factors such as heat affect eggs and sperm, how climate conditions affect our ability to adequately care for our children. For example, California has experienced severe drought and wildfires. Do you take your five-month-old baby for a walk under those circumstances? No. How does staying indoors affect your baby’s health and development? The pandemic was an example of how our environment and changes in the way society functions can have a huge impact on our children’s health and their lifetime exposure.

Q: What are some recommendations for how people can protect themselves from hazardous exposures that could affect their ability to conceive, stay pregnant, or have a healthy child?

A: Don’t use products on your skin or in your home that have fragrance or color – products such as cleaning products, detergents, dryer sheets, soaps, deodorants, face and body creams, or car deodorants. Those products contain phthalates and phenols. Phthalates have been shown to impair reproductive health, affecting the brain, immune system, reproductive health and development of a baby during pregnancy, and phenols have been linked to a decrease in brain and heart health and immune function, adverse birth outcomes and pregnancy loss. Even small steps can help. So instead of wearing cologne seven days a week, use it five days a week, or three, and apply it to your clothes, not the skin. Swap out scented or colored products for ones that are more eco-friendly, plant-based, and free of worrying chemicals. There are affordable choices that can help you reduce your exposure. Small, incremental changes in your home, in your personal care products, and in your food can add up to major changes in your body’s overall exposure.

The other thing we can do is focus on nutrition. If you can afford to buy organic foods some or all of the time, you can reduce your exposure to harmful pesticides. Eat more fresh fruit and vegetables, less processed food, less meat, more vegetable protein. Also try to reduce the amount of take-out or ready meals you get in paper, plastic or cardboard containers. Food packaging and food contact materials are loaded with PFAS chemicals. Do not cook food in what is called “microwave safe” plastic or other plastic. Instead, use wood, glass, or metal in your kitchen. Water filtration is an important household strategy. The filtration is not perfect, but it can reduce some of the most common and harmful contaminants.

I want to get this kind of information into people’s hands in a way that is tangible and recognizable. To help achieve this, my team has produced a series of educational prevention pamphlets for the public that can be downloaded from our website. It may take decades for policies to change at the federal and state level to reduce the amount of harmful chemicals in the environment. Meanwhile, I am interested in bottom-up approaches. That’s where the strength lies – working with groups of mothers and fathers-to-be, teens, fertility doctors who have access to patients trying to conceive, midwives who counsel people who have just had a miscarriage, doctors who work in pediatric and adolescent health care – trying to educate them about harmful exposures in our environment. My focus is not on getting a high-impact paper. It’s about the impact of the paper. I want to be known as the “people’s professor.” I want my work to matter to the people I’m trying to reach and I want to change the way we take care of our reproductive health. We work on real problems that make a difference in the world.

Karen Feldscher

How Our Environment Affects Reproductive Health | News

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