But you might want to rethink how often you use some other household products that may contain a compound linked to infertility, a new study found. We spoke to researchers who broke down the facts.

August 28, 2017

Every so often an alarming news story comes along about how one thing or another has been linked to fertility issues. The latest headline to put us in panic mode? It comes from a study suggesting that a chemical found in many household products can affect a woman's normal hormone balance, leading to problems getting or staying pregnant.

The study, published in Environmental Health Perspectives and led by researchers at Harvard's T.H. Chan School of Public Health, examined the effects of endocrine-disrupting chemicals, specifically one type called organophosphate flame retardants (PFRs). This compound is often added to the foam used in office chairs and car seats, among other products, to make them less likely to catch fire. 

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Previous research has linked PFRs to fertility issues in animals. In the new study, researchers found that women with the highest amount of metabolized PFRs in their urine had a 38% lower chance of a live birth than women with the lowest amount in their urine. 

Before you get alarmed, keep in mind that this was a small study, and it's the first to suggest an association between PFRs and infertility in humans. Also, despite the headlines implicating yoga mats, PFRs are typically not in the mats, says Courtney Carignan, PhD, the study lead and a postdoctoral fellow who is now an assistant professor at Michigan State University’s Center for Research on Ingredient Safety.

If you're about to heave a downward facing dog–sized sigh of relief, it's important to know that you might still be making contact with PFRs via other products in your home, gym, or workplace, Carignan says. These compounds are added to nail polish as well as polyurethane foam, which you can find in some office furniture, mattress pads, gymnastics equipment, and car seats, she explains to Health via email.

So if you're trying to conceive or plan to be a mom soon, what should you do? First, it's worth noting that this research doesn't prove that PFRs cause fertility problems, just that the two are associated, says Shefali Mavani Shastri, MD, a board-certified reproductive endocrinologist and ob-gyn at Reproductive Medicine Associates of New Jersey. (Dr. Shastri was not involved in the study.) The study also didn't measure where these women were exposed to PFRs or how much exposure they racked up.

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"It would be important to know if they're coming from furniture we're sitting on every single day," Dr. Shastri tells Health. If that's the case, reducing your PFR exposure might be as simple as upgrading your couch: Many furniture retailers now sell flame retardant-free items. Of course, if PFRs are used in your workplace furniture, you probably aren't in charge of ordering new chairs, Dr. Shastri says.

In fact, PFRs are common enough that they're detected in 90% to 100% of adult urine samples, according to the new study. Obviously you're not nibbling on your office chair, so how do those chemicals get inside our bodies? The flame retardants "continuously migrate out of the product, enter the air and dust of our environments, and enter our bodies through accidental dust ingestion," Carignan says. "We all ingest a little bit of dust every day because small amounts easily stick to our hands."

Considering the link established by the new study, it might not be a bad idea to scrub your hands more frequently, so you lower your risk of ingesting PFRs that could possibly—but not definitely—pose a threat. "Couples wishing to reduce their exposure to flame retardants may benefit from washing their hands several times throughout the day, particularly before eating," Carignan says.  It might also be smart to avoid nail salons when you're trying to conceive, she says, just to be on the safe side.

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There are many factors that affect a woman's chances of getting pregnant, some in your control, like your sexual history and exercise habits, and others outside of your grasp, like your age. To improve your chances, "take good care of your body and be in the best physical shape you can," Dr. Shastri says.

That doesn't mean you have to go out and run a marathon, but it just might include yoga. Not only does it improve circulation and flexibility, it also eases stress, which, when unchecked, can make it harder to conceive. Which is as good a reason as any to not make your yoga mat just another thing to stress about.