Researchers have long attempted to pinpoint a definitive cause for endometriosis, a painful condition suffered by women that can cause infertility. No real strides had been made in this effort, which makes the recent discovery that banned pesticides may be linked to endometriosis all the more exciting for those affected by this disorder.
Endometriosis is found in up to 10 percent of women of child-bearing age. It occurs when tissue that normally lines the inside of the womb and that is normally shed during the menstrual period instead grows outside of the uterus. This misplaced tissue usually attaches itself to the lining of the pelvic cavity, ovaries, and fallopian tubes but it sometimes can be found on other internal organs and even on the brain, the lungs, and skin.
Endometriosis is difficult to detect and ranges between causing no pain at all to causing severe, debilitating pain. For those women who do experience pain, it is usually felt as an increase in the pain of menstrual cramps, chronic pain in the lower back and pelvis, pain during sexual intercourse, and difficulties with urination or elimination. In some cases, endometriosis can cause infertility or even a type of ovarian cancer. Unfortunately, endometriosis can only be accurately diagnosed through surgery during which a visual inspection of the pelvic area as well as tissue biopsies are performed.
Researchers searching for a cause of this condition measured the blood levels of two organochlorine pesticides, mirex and beta HCH, which, although banned in the United States for decades, are still found in fish and dairy products. Prior studies of these chemicals suggested that they may act as hormone disrupters, which could alter the function of the uterus and the ovaries and raise the risk of reproductive diseases.
In a study of 248 women recently diagnosed and 538 women who did not have endometriosis, researchers found that high exposure to mirex was linked to a 50 percent increased risk, while those who had been exposed to beta HCH had an increased risk of developing endometriosis of 30 to 70 percent. The results provided in this study by the Epidemiology Branch of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences showed a definite link between endometriosis and these banned pesticides.
Kristen Upson, the lead author of the study, said in a press release that “We found it interesting that despite organochlorine pesticides being restricted in use or banned in the U.S. for the past several decades, these chemicals were detectable in the blood samples of women in our study and were associated with increased endometriosis risk. The take-home message from our study is that persistent environmental chemicals, even those used in the past, may affect the health of the current generation of reproductive-age women with regard to a hormonally driven disease.”
Discovering the link between banned pesticides and endometriosis is an important first step in the field of both reproductive health and environmental study. “We hope our findings will help inform current global policymaking to reduce or eliminate their use,” said Upson. If nothing else, the study is a warning that despite our best efforts at correcting our mistakes, the damage done to the environment now can harm the health of further generations.
By Jennifer Pfalz