It is dark autumn. Saturday morning. At a house in rural Småland, Elin Blomkvist, 29, enters the bathroom tiredly. She's taking a pregnancy test. once again.
For many years, she had tests done, at least every two months. First hopeful, now mostly routine. The answer is always the same. negative. She ripped the package and peed on the stick.
It has long been known that chemicals and toxic substances can affect our ability to have children.
In total, nearly 800 substances are classified as reproductive harm by the EU, meaning they can either affect the ability to have children, fertility, or cause birth defects.
On behalf of Arbetet, the Chemicals Inspectorate has issued data on how common it is in Sweden. It was found that in 2022, 164 reproductively disturbing chemicals were used in quantities exceeding one ton in Swedish workplaces.
The most common substances that interfere with reproduction are various fuels and solvents.
Companies that import or manufacture chemicals must report them to the Chemicals Inspectorate's product register. Therefore, fuel, chemical and steel manufacturers stand out in the statistics.
Researchers: “There is very little science”
However, wholesalers also report many more materials, and whether these materials are then sold to car workshops, hairdressers or paint shops is not clear from the statistics.
It is therefore not possible to determine how many people are actually exposed to chemicals that interfere with reproduction, and in which occupations this occurs.
– When it comes to the dangers of these substances, you know a lot. But when it comes to how they are used in practical life in different professions, and how the work environment affects fertility, very little is known, says Lars Rylander, professor at the Department of Environmental and Occupational Medicine at Lund University.
He is currently working on a Danish-Swedish research project on forced childlessness, which will involve 5,000 couples. By combining questionnaires and biological samples, the researchers will investigate, among other things, whether there is a relationship between different levels of substances in the body, occupation, and childlessness.
Whether work could be a contributing cause of childlessness, something Elin Blomkvist thought about a lot during the six years she tried to conceive.
“They couldn't find anything wrong with me or my partner.”
Negative pregnancy tests were followed by ovulation tests, timelines, investigations and treatment at a fertility clinic.
– They couldn't find anything wrong with me or my partner. Maybe we haven't been so lucky, but people are clearly asking why, she says.
– I've thought about that many times over many years. Should I change jobs? Is it too stressful? Are the products we work with that might interfere? At the same time, I really enjoy being an illustrator, and I can't see myself doing anything else.
The solvents and pigments in paints can be harmful to reproduction. Whether this could affect the fertility of painters is a question raised at a painters' conference last fall.
In a proposal, Section 2 Sudra suggested that the union investigate the prevalence of involuntary infertility among members and the fertility risks that exist in the work environment.
Ellen Swartz is a regional conservation officer and one of those who wrote the proposal. She believes that involuntary childlessness may affect painters more than others, although there is no research to prove this.
– The fact that you have problems having children is a sensitive area that you may not think is primarily due to work, but when I, as a regional protection officer, talk to people and touch on deeper issues, more and more people bring it up, she says.
Noise and hard work affect fertility
Not only chemicals, but also stress, hard physical work, a lot of standing, noise and vibrations are factors in the work environment that can affect either the chances of pregnancy or the development of the fetus.
In addition, age and lifestyle play a role, as do a number of substances and chemicals we are exposed to in our daily lives.
However, the fact that it is a complex issue does not diminish the need to investigate chemicals at work and link the fertility issue to the work environment, says Elaine Swartz.
– These topics are everywhere, but this means that we are exposed to them more when we are exposed to them at work as well.
Eileen Schwartz says many people don't have a good understanding of the risks and urges everyone to read product safety sheets for paints and chemicals. It mentions what risks exist and how to protect yourself. But it is not possible to control everything.
– The warnings on the product safety papers are warnings they have come up with so far, but what is in the old colors we are removing? “We have no idea what color it is or what's written on that product data sheet,” says Elaine Swartz.
For example, lead, a highly toxic substance, can be found in old paint.
Men are also affected by chemicals
Knowledge of substances that interfere with reproduction is also evolving. Research on chemicals that can cause cancer has been around for a long time, and whether they also interfere with reproduction is a more recent question, says Jenny Selander, researcher and head of the Occupational Medicine Unit at Karolinska Institutet.
– Unfortunately, not everything has been investigated. More studies on different chemicals and molecules need to be done from this perspective, both in relation to the pregnant woman and the woman before pregnancy, but also to the father in many cases.
Jenny Selander researches risks in pregnant women's working lives from different perspectives. Previous projects have addressed the impact of noise and vibration, and the results of a study on chemicals will also arrive soon.
Five topics you should avoid at work during pregnancy
1. Lead. The main work should not be performed by pregnant women. Since lead is stored in the body, it may be wise to avoid lead use even for those who want to get pregnant. Lead can also affect fertility in women and men.
2. Solvents and CMR materials. CMR substances can cause cancer, genetic defects, birth defects or affect fertility. They must be marked with codes H340/H341, H350/H351 and H360/H361.
3. Mercury and mercury compounds. Mercury is stored in the body and can cause birth defects. Therefore, avoid working with mercury if you want to become pregnant
4. Cytotoxins. Some cytostatics can harm the fetus. Special risk assessments should be performed for pregnant workers who encounter these substances in health care.
5. Carbon monoxide. Fetuses are sensitive to carbon monoxide, which is found, for example, in car exhaust and fire smoke. Even with gas welding, carbon monoxide levels can be high.
Sources: Occupational and Environmental Medicine at Sahlgrenska Hospital, Prevent, Swedish Work Environment Agency
The focus of previous research has often been on pregnant women. There are also special regulations regarding pregnant women in working life which stipulate that they must evaluate the risks and not perform certain actions.
But there are no regulations protecting those who want to become pregnant, or men protecting their fertility.
When asked if you should think about what you're working with if you're trying to have kids, Jenny Selander was initially hesitant.
– Yes, it may make sense on our part, but from a societal perspective, it is important that we protect everyone. Then you say: We must have a good and safe enough working environment.
The rules apply only to pregnant women, not to those who want to have children
Known risks that you can try to avoid are, for example, working with lead, but also cytostatics in cancer care and anesthetic gases. As well as various solvents and carbon monoxide.
The rules for pregnant women apply from the time the employer becomes aware of the pregnancy. But the fetus is already developing so much during the first weeks that many people may not know they are pregnant, or in any case do not want to be told at work.
– It's a problem that many people tell their employer too late. “I understand it may be difficult, but you should let us know as soon as you can, especially if there are risks at work,” says Jenny Selander.
Ellen Blomkvist has long missed talking about pregnancy.
In the bathroom, at a villa in the country, on this Saturday morning in October, I looked at an audition tape. Willing to deal with disappointment, as always.
Then you see it – plus!
Here chemicals are the most common
Fuels, such as gasoline, diesel and oils, constitute the largest volume of chemicals that interfere with reproduction. Refineries and chemical industries handle the larger volumes, but steel and metal works also use a lot of fuel.
If fuel is excluded, the largest quantities of reproductive-disrupting chemicals are handled in the following industries in Sweden:
- Manufacture of coal and refined petroleum products
- Manufacture of basic chemicals and chemical products
- Trade in fuels, ore, minerals and industrial chemicals
- Manufacture of plastic goods
- Glue manufacturing
- Car and motorcycle workshops
- Production of paints, varnishes, printing ink, etc
If we look at the number of items and not just the volume, the wholesale trade in chemical products and the manufacture and plating of metal and mineral goods should also be included in the list.
Source: Product Register, Chemicals Inspectorate.
Companies that manufacture or import chemical products must report this to the Product Registry. The above information applies to materials reported for private use. Only quantities exceeding one ton were included and quantities exported from Sweden were excluded.
“We broke down and cried.”
Shocked, she calls her partner. Well, he sees that too. Together they stare at the needle. He reads the instructions for the test again, even though he knows them by heart. Plus means pregnant.
-We broke down and both cried. It was unimaginable.
The following Monday they bought a new test. And it was positive too. A few months later, they saw a small nodule scattered with a beating heart on ultrasound. Everything looks good.
Elin Blomkvist told her boss about the pregnancy after just one week. She is now trying to keep a close eye on the product's safety papers, and has found several colors that no longer work.
– But it's hard. There are complicated words in safety data sheets and a lot of things to keep track of.
She also protects herself by covering herself with clothing, gloves and a mask at work.
The baby is expected to arrive in mid-summer. Then six years of waiting will finally end.
-I always thought that I would have children before I was 25 years old. And now I'm approaching 30 years old. But the important thing is that this is finally on its way.
Every fifth couple experiences difficulty conceiving
• Infertility: Between 15 and 25 percent of couples experience fertility problems at some point, meaning it takes more than a year to achieve pregnancy.
It is common that infertility, and the inability to conceive, is due to reasons in men as well as in women. Sometimes no cause can be found at all.
• Abortion: About 15 to 20 percent of all pregnancies end in miscarriage. The vast majority, 80 percent, occur before week 12 of pregnancy. It is usually impossible to determine the causes of miscarriage.
• Birth defects: Since 2010, an average of 115,000 babies have been born annually in Sweden. About 2 or 3 percent are born with some form of birth defect or chromosomal abnormality. For most infections, the cause is unknown.
Sources: Reprounion research project, National Board of Health and Social Care
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