NIH Study Links Cadmium and Lead in Blood to Delays in Pregnancy

by Cassandra R. Elias

In the News: New NIH Study Shows Delays in Pregnancy from Exposure to Cadmium and Lead

Delays in Pregnancy from Lead ExposureIn a statement released on February 8, 2012, researchers at the National Institutes of Health and other academic research institutions, higher blood levels of cadmium in females, and higher blood levels of lead in males, are creating delays in trying to conceive children.

Cigarette smoke is the most common way to be exposed to cadmium, a toxic metal found in the earth's crust. Cadmium is used in batteries, pigments, metal coatings and plastics. 

It's estimated that smokers have twice the levels of cadmium as do non-smokers. Exposure also occurs in workplaces where cadmium-containing products are made, and from the air near industrial facilities that emit cadmium. 
 
Lead is a toxic metal also found in the earth's crust. It's also used in a variety of products, like ceramics, pipes, and batteries (and old paint!). You can be exposed to lead in the US by coming in contact with lead-based paint in older homes, lead-glazed pottery, contaminated soil, and contaminated drinking water.
 
It's already known that being exposed to these metals has a number of negative effects on human health. However the effects on human fertility had not been extensively studied, especially looking at couples rather than individuals, until now.
 
The new study was published online in Chemosphere. The study’s principal investigator was Germaine M. Buck Louis, Ph.D., director of the Division of Epidemiology, Statistics, and Prevention Research at the NIH’s Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD). 

Other authors of the study were from the NICHD, the Texas A&M Health Science Center School of Rural Public Health, College Station; The Ohio State University College of Medicine, Columbus; The EMMES Corp. in Rockville, Md.; the National Center for Environmental Health, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Atlanta; and the Rollins School of Public Health at Emory University, Atlanta.
 
"Our results indicate that men and women planning to have children should minimize their exposure to lead and cadmium," Dr. Buck Louis said. "They can reduce cadmium exposure by avoiding cigarettes or by quitting if they are current smokers, especially if they intend to become pregnant in the future. Similarly, they can take steps to reduce their exposure to lead based paints, which may occur in older housing, including during periods of home renovation."
 
The researchers enrolled 501 couples from four counties in Michigan and 12 counties in Texas, from 2005 to 2009. The women ranged from 18 to 44 years of age, and the men were over 18. 

Couples provided blood samples for the analysis of three heavy metals. Women kept journals to record their monthly menstrual cycles and the results of home pregnancy tests. The couples were followed until pregnancy or for up to one year of trying.
 
The participants were then ranked on the basis of their blood levels of lead and cadmium. The researchers also measured the participants' blood mercury levels, but they found that the exposure was not associated with the length of time it took the couple to conceive.

According to the researchers, nearly every study participant had some exposure to these common metals, although blood levels of the metals varied across participants.
 
Researchers calculated the probability that a couple would achieve pregnancy by levels of blood cadmium and lead with a statistical measure called the fecundability odds ratio. Fecundability is the probability that conception will occur in a given population of couples during a specific time period.