Karin Russ, MS, RN, CHE’s Fertility and Reproductive Health Working Group Coordinator
Years ago, I was a nurse caring for a patient who had just had her sixth miscarriage. She was, as one might expect, emotionally devastated and searching for answers as to why this might have happened. At the time, some potential physiological causes were examined, but environmental factors were not considered.
As CHE celebrates its 10th anniversary, significant progress has been made toward educating professionals and the public on environmental contributors to infertility, early pregnancy loss, and impacts on the developing fetus. Since CHE’s early years, the Fertility and Reproductive Health Working Group has sought to bring attention to the growing body of research linking environmental factors to problems with reproductive health. In the male, many environmental agents are associated with decreased sperm quality and increased risk of prostate cancer. Women are more susceptible to endometriosis, polycystic ovary disease, and problems with in vitro fertilization following exposure to some environmental chemicals. A substantial body of scientific literature demonstrates the crucial nature of fetal environmental exposures on developmental origins of adult health and disease.
Thanks to work done by CHE partners in recent the years, environmental issues are receiving greater attention. Researchers at the University of California’s Program on Reproductive Health and the Environment (PRHE) have been instrumental in creating materials for educating clinicians and the public on environmental risks during the reproductive years. The American Society of Reproductive Medicine (ASRM) convenes a special interest group to encourage the study of environmental factors affecting reproductive health. The Association of Reproductive Health Professionals (ARHP) offers continuing education on multiple environmental health topics. Planned Parenthood Federation of America (PPFA) created a toolkit used at all 800 offices across the US to screen and counsel clients on environmental issues important to their health. The American Fertility Association (AFA) and RESOLVE, national associations dedicated to meeting the needs of couples experiencing infertility, provide information on environmental risk reduction to improve fertility. This sampling of CHE partners engaged in moving reproductive environmental health forward illustrates the progress that has been made in the last decade.
The CHE Fertility & Reproductive Health Working Group continues to advance research and translation into practice and policy, facilitating collaboration on reproductive environmental health. CHE partners will recognize the methods used to accomplish these goals: a) a listserv to share new science; b) teleconference seminars on timely topics; c) and connecting and convening individuals to catalyze and/or augment collaborative initiatives. The working group also hosts the Fertility/Reproductive Health Online Abstracts Library, a searchable database of selected journal abstracts on a wide range of reproductive health topics.
A new venture within the working group seeks to maximize the national reproductive environmental health research agenda through collaborations across research institutions. The Women’s Reproductive Environmental Health Consortium is a group of NIEHS researchers meeting via teleconference and at professional society meetings to share resources such as datasets and tissue banks, and to form partnerships for joint research proposals and publications. CHE facilitates and documents the Consortium’s activities.
Topics of interest to CHE Fertility & Reproductive Health working group also extend to other groups within CHE. Recent working group teleconferences include Breast Health and Early Life Exposures and “Electromagnetic Frequency Radiation & Reproductive Health Risks”. Topics of future calls include “Developmental Origins of Metabolic Disease” and “Pregnancy as a Vulnerable Period for the Mother.”
It has been said that the measure of a society if how it treats its most vulnerable members. The value of CHE is in facilitating a truly cross-disciplinary dialog, serving a vital role in highlighting evidence on environmental exposures that affect human reproduction and the developing fetus. Thanks to efforts by all of CHE’s partners, there are many more resources on environmental health available to clinicians and advocates in reproductive health. This will continue to improve the preservation of reproductive capacity and the protection of humans during their most susceptible period.