Is Pollution Wrecking Your Fertility?

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The soil in your garden, the food on your plate, and even the water you drink may harbor a poison that could prevent your pregnancy. Here’s what scientists are learning—and what you can do now.

Trying for a baby is a magical and sometimes frustrating time. Some couples find luck and success in just a matter of months. While others may try for a year or more and still not become pregnant. Scientists speculate that one factor preventing couples from becoming pregnant may be the growing amount of pollution in today’s world. Find out if you’re at risk, and what you can do.

Understanding Dioxins

Mary Lou Ballweg first started hearing the rumors about 15 years ago. Somewhere in North America, a colony of rhesus monkeys had developed endometriosis, a mysterious and painful gynecological and immunological condition that often results in infertility. As head of the Endometriosis Association, the largest group in the world devoted to the study and treatment of the disease, Ballweg followed the latest research as avidly as a detective. Often, she nudged the work forward, enlisting scientists to follow particularly promising clues.

One of those scientists was Sherry Rier, then a graduate student in immunology at the University of South Florida College of Medicine in Tampa, who served as the association’s Tracy H. Dickinson Research Chair. Rier herself suffered from endometriosis, a condition in which bits of the uterine lining migrate and lodge in the pelvis and nearby organs. Rier endured such agony that doctors removed her ovaries. “My interest in the disease came from pain,” she says.

The rhesus colony turned out to dwell an hour and a half from Ballweg’s Milwaukee offices, in a lab at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. Twenty females had been assembled in 1977 to study the effects of dioxin—the pollutant behind the environmental disasters at Love Canal, New York, and Times Beach, Missouri—on their reproductive cycles and offspring.

Captured in the wild, the treated animals had been fed dioxin-laced lab chow for four years, starting at puberty. But funding had dried up, the study abandoned, the offspring sold, and the original colony almost forgotten—until, a decade later, on the verge of being sold themselves, the monkeys started to die from something truly bizarre: endometriosis in their lungs and bowels. Ballweg quickly came up with funds to maintain the remaining 17 animals and she dispatched Rier and other experts to find out what was going on.

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