Fertility issues increase as researchers say common chemicals affect hormones

SEATTLE — It was a moment long in the making.

Dr. Jamie Massie of ORM Fertility in Bellevue met Braxton and Miel Portillos for the first time.

“Oh my gosh, they’re so beautiful,” Dr. Massie told their parents, Denise and Troy Portillos.

Dr. Massie helped them become parents of twins.

The Portillos’ journey to parenthood took more than five years.

“Going through infertility makes you very much question everything,” Denise Portillos said.

After three clinics, five attempts at intrauterine insemination, and three rounds of in vitro fertilization, they were exhausted, but made one final try.

Denise prayed for peace and took a test.

“I ran into the bedroom and I told Troy, ‘It says I’m pregnant.’ And he’s like, ‘Isn’t it just the hormones?’ And I’m like, ‘No, it’s not the hormones!”’

Braxton and Miel were born in January.

“I’m just very grateful,” Denise Portillos said.

It’s becoming a more common story.

“We’re definitely seeing more patients,” Dr. Massie said.

The fertility business is booming not just because young adults are putting off parenthood.

Researchers say common chemicals are affecting hormones.

“We call these chemicals, endocrine-disrupting chemicals or EDC’s,” Dr. Massie said. “Basically, they disrupt the system by looking like estrogen or testosterone or interfering with how those hormones work in the system.”

In February, reproductive epidemiologist Shanna Swan published a book called Count Down, which documents how sperm counts are dropping because of toxic chemicals.

She predicts by 2045, most couples will need assisted reproduction.

“This is real, sperm counts are declining,” said Patricia Hunt, a researcher at Washington State University.

She says toxic chemicals affect both sperm and eggs and help drive diseases like diabetes and autism.

So, where are these chemicals?

Everywhere.

“You can get a nice dose simply by handling receipts,” Hunt said.

Studies have found the chemicals in pressure-printed receipts, vinyl flooring, cosmetics, nonstick cookware, cleaning supplies, food packaging and toothpaste.

Hunt’s 1998 discovery about the dangers of BPA helped trigger a ban on the chemical in baby bottles.

Her follow-up research found many BPA substitutes are just as bad.

“It’s kind of an endless cycle of contamination,” Hunt said.

Although there are guides that can help, Hunt said it’s difficult for consumers to check for product safety.

There are recycling codes on plastics, but few people know what they mean, and she says not everything is marked.

“So one way forward would be for companies to tell us what products are comprised of,” Hunt said.

Hunt said consumers should demand manufacturers pursue what’s called green chemistry and make products without toxins.

And she says companies should be forced to prove a product is safe, rather than requiring the feds to prove it isn’t.

“They’re called everywhere chemicals because they are everywhere,” said Dr. Massie, who said she’s already seeing the effects at the fertility clinic.

More patients need a sperm injection process to compensate for low sperm count.

She now recommends people in their early twenties get a fertility checkup, long before they want to start a family, so women can consider freezing their eggs.

“The earlier that you find out that you’re going to struggle, the more likely you’re going to be successful down the road,” Dr. Massie said.

“I was diagnosed with unexplained infertility, which is pretty rough,” Denise Portillos said.

The Portillos’ were able to get a grant to help pay for expensive treatments, and she took a new job with fertility benefits.

Expect employers to face new pressure to provide those benefits, as the number of people needing help to starting a family continues to grow.