Protecting employees and the next generation from toxic exposures

Chemicals such as bisphenol A (BPA), formaldehyde, solvents and pesticides have been shown to impact the reproductive health of men and women who are exposed to them at work.

In a recent development, research presented this week at the International Federation of Fertility Societies joint meeting with the American Society for Reproductive Medicine (ASRM) found that maternal concentrations of BPA are associated with an increased risk of miscarriage. The studies build upon previous research demonstrating that BPA negatively impacts the reproductive system of both men and women. The growing body of research implicating chemicals’ role in adverse reproductive outcomes last month prompted the ASRM and the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists to issue a joint committee opinion calling for “timely action to identify and reduce exposure to toxic environmental agents while addressing the consequences of such exposure.”

With the exception of pesticides and pharmaceuticals, chemicals that enter the marketplace require no pre-market testing, and few have data regarding their impact on reproductive health.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has standards specific to certain chemicals that are known to have adverse effects on the reproductive system. The agency requires employers to inform employees about chemicals present in the workplace, evaluate and monitor health hazards associated with these chemicals, and provide training and protective equipment. State regulations may require additional preventive measures.

The Globally Harmonized System of Classification and Labeling of Chemicals (GHS), which is being incorporated into OSHA’s HazCom standard, does not include requirements for testing substances or mixtures. Although some parts of regulatory systems may require data to be generated (e.g., for pesticides), these requirements are not related specifically to the GHS. With respect to reproductive toxicity, the classification approach is described in the United Nations’ GHS guide as “cutoff with competent authority options” and “mixture test data compiled on a case-by-case basis.”

Occupational exposure limits are not designed to take into consideration the impact of chemicals on reproductive health. In addition, employees are often simultaneously exposed to multiple chemicals, and the effect of these mixtures is undetermined. Consequently, employers must take steps beyond basic legal requirements to ensure their employees are adequately protected.

Vulnerable populations are another consideration. For example, the predominantly Hispanic (83 percent) agricultural workforce has a high likelihood of exposure to pesticides. Study show that adverse health risks increase when combined with limited access to occupational healthcare, stressful work environments and poor living conditions.

Among women of child-bearing age, those with the greatest exposure to chemicals are those who are exposed occupationally. With half of pregnancies unplanned, employers cannot begin limiting exposure to chemicals upon knowledge of pregnancy. A fetus can be exposed to the same chemicals as the pregnant worker. Sometimes, as in the case of mercury exposure, the fetus can receive an even higher dose of the chemical than the mother. During breastfeeding, a woman may also pass on chemicals to her child.

Men’s occupational exposure to chemicals can also impact their reproductive health. For example, pesticide exposure has been associated with decreased sperm count and increased prostate cancer rates.

There are a number of ways employers can help reduce exposure risk and protect reproductive health. Examples include substituting toxic alternatives, improving ventilation in confined areas, training employees on proper handling of chemicals and enforcing personal protective equipment use. Resources are available to employers navigating these complex issues. A good place to start is the Association of Occupational and Environmental Clinics and its Pediatric Environmental Health Specialty Units – a network of clinicians, industrial hygienists and public health professionals who can offer complimentary guidance on recommended pre-emptive actions.

Download UL’s whitepaper, The Globally Harmonized System of Classification and Labeling of Chemicals, to learn more about GHS and HazCom standard, including labeling requirements and the full compliance deadlines