Proceedings of the Summit on Environmental Challenges to Reproductive Health and Fertility: Executive Summary
The 2007 Summit on “Environmental Challenges to Reproductive Health and Fertility” convened scientists, health care professionals, community groups, political representatives and the media to hear presentations on the impact of environmental contaminants on reproductive health and fertility and to discuss opportunities to improve health through research, education, communication and policy. Environmental reproductive health focuses on exposures to environmental contaminants, particularly during critical periods of development, and their potential effects on future reproductive health, including conception, fertility, pregnancy, adolescent development and adult health. Approximately 87,000 chemical substances are registered for use in commerce in the US, with ubiquitous human exposures to environmental contaminants in air, water, food and consumer products. Exposures during critical windows of susceptibility may result in adverse effects with lifelong and even intergenerational health impacts. Effects can include impaired development and function of the reproductive tract and permanently altered gene expression, leading to metabolic and hormonal disorders, reduced fertility and fecundity and illnesses such as testicular, prostate, uterine and cervical cancers later in life. This executive summary reviews effects of pre- and post-natal exposures on male and female reproductive health and provides a series of recommendations for advancing the field in the areas of research, policy, health care and community action.
Developmental Programming and Fetal Origins of Adult Disease
The DES Example
Prenatal exposure to diethylstilbestrol (DES), a synthetic estrogen and thus EDC, provides an unfortunate example of developmental programming. DES was given to U.S. pregnant women between 1938 and 1971 under the erroneous assumption that it would prevent pregnancy complications. In fact, in utero exposure to DES alters the normal programming of gene families, such as Hox and Wnt, that play important roles in reproductive tract differentiation. As a result, female offspring exposed to DES in utero are at increased risk of clear cell adenocarcinoma of the vagina and cervix, structural reproductive tract anomalies, infertility and poor pregnancy outcomes, while male offspring have an increased incidence of genital abnormalities and a possibly increased risk of prostate and testicular cancer. These observed human effects have been confirmed in numerous animal models which have also provided information on the toxic mechanisms of DES. Animal experiments have also predicted changes later found in DES-exposed humans, such as oviductal malformations, increased incidence of uterine fibroids and second-generational effects such as increased menstrual irregularities and possibly ovarian cancer in DES-granddaughters and increased hypospadias in DES-grandsons.
DES is but one example of how exposure to EDCs can disrupt developing organ systems and cause abnormalities, many of which only appear much later in life or in the subsequent generation, such as endometriosis, fibroids and breast, cervical and uterine cancer in women; poor sperm quality and increased incidence of cryptorchidism and hypospadias in men; and subfertility and infertility in men and women.
Reproductive Effects of Early Life Exposures in Females
Uterus Development and the Environment
Women exposed to DES in utero during critical periods of reproductive tract development developed several types of reproductive tract abnormalities, as well as an increased incidence of cervical-vaginal cancer later in life. Animal studies that simulate the human DES experience have since shown that exposure of the developing reproductive tract of CD-1 mice to DES imparts a permanent estrogen imprint that alters reproductive tract morphology, induces persistent expression of the lactoferrin and c-fos genes and induces a high incidence of uterine adenocarcinoma. Experiments in rats have shown exposure to DES during the critical window of uterine development leaves a hormonal imprint on the developing uterine myometrium in rats that were genetically predisposed to uterine leiomyoma, increasing the risk for adult uterine leiomyoma from 65% to greater than 90% and increasing tumor multiplicity and size. DES-induced developmental programming appears to require the estrogen receptor α, suggesting that signaling through this receptor is crucial for establishing developmental programming.
- Full study (free access) : Proceedings of the Summit on Environmental Challenges to Reproductive Health and Fertility: Executive Summary, Fertility and sterility, NCBI PubMed, PMC2440710, 2009 Feb 1.
- Featured image credit Kiệt Hí.