Hesperian Health Guides

Reproductive Health Problems

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HealthWiki > A Community Guide to Environmental Health > Chapter 16: Harm from Toxic Chemicals > Reproductive Health Problems

A man and woman sit together and look sad.

Toxic chemicals can damage our ability to give birth to healthy children. Reproductive health problems affect women of childbearing age most, but they can also affect men and women at any time in their lives.

Some chemicals cause miscarriages or sterility (inability to have children) in men or women. They do this by interfering with hormones, the natural chemicals the body makes to control growth and other processes such as women’s monthly bleeding and reproduction or men's production of sperm. Other chemicals act just like hormones when they get into our bodies. They can confuse our natural hormones by sending false signals. For this reason, these chemicals are sometimes called hormone disruptors.

How reproductive hormones work

Female hormones called estrogen and progesterone cause the changes in a girl’s body known as puberty. They cause her ovaries to release one egg every month, stop her monthly bleeding during pregnancy, and after childbirth they cause her breasts to make milk. Hormones also determine how the baby grows inside its mother’s womb.

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Toxic chemicals disrupt hormones

Chemicals that are hormone disruptors can cause girls to start monthly bleeding early, have irregular bleeding, or have no bleeding at all. Disrupting the normal functions of hormones can also cause women to have a pregnancy start growing outside the womb, a very dangerous problem that can kill the woman.

Even small amounts of some chemicals, such as PCBs, dioxins, and some plastics, can cause serious damage to reproductive health. Many of these chemicals cannot be seen or smelled. They may not cause problems at the time of exposure, but still cause serious health problems many years later or in the next generation.


Endometriosis is a serious illness that causes the lining of the womb to grow outside of the womb. No one is sure what causes endometriosis. But because it is so common in industrial areas and places with a lot of pollution, one of its causes may be industrial pollution. Endometriosis can be very painful. Endometriosis can also make it difficult to get pregnant.


The main signs of endometriosis are pain during monthly bleeding and pain in the lower back and abdomen. Other signs are:

  • heavy monthly bleeding or bleeding from the vagina at other times
  • pain during sexual intercourse
  • painful bowel movements, often with diarrhea or constipation
  • bloating, vomiting, nausea, lower back pain, and tiredness

These could all be signs of other health problems. To know if it is endometriosis or some other serious illness, see a trained health worker right away.

Many health workers, however, are not familiar with endometriosis, so if you have several signs of this illness and a health worker tells you that you do not have endometriosis, seek out another health worker’s opinion if you can.

Prevention and treatment

You may be able to use birth control pills to reduce the pain and heavy or irregular bleeding. Speak with a health worker. You can also reduce pain by taking medications such as ibuprofen. See a health book such as Where Women Have No Doctor for ways to treat pain.

For some women, changing what they eat seems to help reduce pain and signs of this illness. Since endometriosis is caused by problems with estrogen, avoid foods containing estrogen or estrogen-like substances, such as:

  • meat and dairy products from animals that have been given hormones or that have been fed with grains that contain pesticides.
  • vegetables and fruits that have been sprayed with pesticides.
  • soybeans and foods made from soy, peanuts, and other legumes.

It may also help to avoid foods that cause the body to produce more estrogen or estrogen-like effects, such as foods in the nightshade family (eggplant, potatoes, tomatoes, and peppers), and coffee, chocolate, tea, and cola drinks.

Some foods may help the body fight endometriosis, including:

  • foods that contain fiber, such as whole grains, beans, and brown rice.
  • foods with a healthy fat called Omega-3 fatty acids, such as walnuts, pumpkin seeds, salmon, and other fatty fish.
  • dark green vegetables, cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, sesame, figs, and almonds.