Frequently Asked Questions

What is Research?

Physicians, Scientists and others called ‘Investigators’ conduct research to add to our general knowledge about the world. You may see the following terms that describe research: clinical trial, survey, experiment or protocol. Research is not the same as treatment.

What is the purpose of this research study?

 We will explore how exposure to chemicals found in the environment and lifestyle choices (such as smoking) may affect reproductive health. The more we learn about these exposures, the more we can improve the environment and provide care for couples trying to get pregnant.  

Who is doing this research study?

The MGH Fertility Center and Harvard School of Public Health are collaborating on the research study. Study staff includes Dr. Russ Hauser from the Department of Environmental Health at the Harvard School of Public Health and Drs. Isaac Schiff, John Petrozza, Thomas Toth, Jan Shifren, Irene Souter, Aaron Styer, and Diane Wright from the MGH Fertility Center.   

What are the possible benefits of this research? 

Study participants will benefit because Dr. Hauser will notify those whose tests show high or abnormal levels of lead, mercury, or hormones – these individuals can then follow up with their doctors. Society will better understand how environmental chemicals relate to reproductive health. Doctors, scientists and public health advocates can then work more positively to educate the public, change government policies, and provide better care to reproductive health patients.

Will I be asked to take any medications?

No, medications are not given to you in this research study

Will I be compensated?

You will be compensated for your valuable participation (up to $975, depending on the duration of your participation in the study).

Can I participate alone?

We welcome both individuals and couples to participate in the study.

What will I be asked to do and what is the time commitment?

You will be asked to complete health and lifestyle questionnaires and provide biological samples (i.e. blood, urine, hair, etc). The initial entry visit takes about 30 minutes and the follow up visits are coordinated with your treatment at MGH.

How long will my participation in the study last?

This is a longitudinal study, so we would like to work with you as long as you are willing, throughout your treatment, pregnancy and childbirth. Your participation is voluntary and you may discontinue your involvement at any time.

What about privacy?

All information collected will be used for research only and will be kept strictly confidential.  Participation in the study does not impact your care at MGH.

Can I contact the Primary Investigator during the study?

Yes, Dr. Russ Hauser will be available to you during your participation in the study. He can be reached at (617) 432-2226 or rhauser@hsph.harvard.edu

Are there any publications by this group?

Yes, our group has published several publications. Some of them include:

  • The Environment and Male Fertility: Recent research on semen quality and environmental chemicals
  • Phthalates and human health review

What tests will be carried out?

We will test samples of blood, urine, hair and house dust for some of the following chemicals: polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), dioxins, bisphenol A, phthalates, pesticides, cotinine (from tobacco smoke). We will also test for the metals lead and mercury.  We will measure how each person breaks down chemicals since this may affect his/her risk from chemical exposures. Depending on the type of treatment participants are undergoing, we may also test follicular fluid or semen for hormones, chemicals, and the health of the cell.

What is bisphenol A?

In lab animals, Bisphenol A (BPA) has been found to decrease fertility and has also been linked to obesity and breast and prostate cancer. Polycarbonate (PC) plastic is a hard, shatter-resistant, and often clear plastic made with BPA. BPA is also found in the lining of aluminum and tin food cans and it can enter into foods and liquids. This study will help unravel the important question about Bisphenol A’s affects on human fertility.

What are dioxins?

Dioxin is an organic solid of white crystalline needles. Dioxin is not produced or used commercially in the US. It is a contaminant formed in the production of some chlorinated organic compounds, including a few herbicides such as Silvex. It may also be formed during combustion of a variety of chlorinated organic compounds. Potential health effects from exposure can include liver damage, weight loss and compromise to the body’s immune system.

What is lead?

Lead is a metal found in natural deposits as ores containing other elements. It is sometimes used in household plumbing materials or in water service lines used to bring water from the main to the home. Lead can cause a variety of adverse health effects when people are exposed to excess levels.  These effects may include interference with red blood cell chemistry, delays in normal physical and mental development in babies and young children, slight deficits in the attention span, hearing, and learning abilities of children, and slight increases in the blood pressure of some adults.

What is mercury?

Mercury is released into the environment from natural and anthropogenic sources. As a naturally occurring metallic element, mercury is also present as a trace contaminant in ores and fuels. It is also present in fish. For fetuses, infants, and children, the primary health effect of methylmercury is impaired neurological development. Methylmercury exposure in the womb, which can result from a mother’s consumption of fish and shellfish that contain methylmercury, can adversely affect a baby’s growing brain and nervous system.

How can I reduce exposure to mercury before/during pregnancy?

  • Avoid Shark, Swordfish, King Mackerel or Tilefish because of high mercury
  • Choose canned light tuna instead of canned “white” tuna (Albacore)
  • Eat a variety of fish and shellfish that are low in mercury, e.g. salmon, shrimp, canned light tuna, pollack and catfish.

What are PCBs?

Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) are synthetic chemicals which were used in capacitors, transformers, plastics, pesticides, and flame retardants.  Before they were banned in 1977, more than 1.5 billion pounds of PCBs were produced for industrial use in the United States. PCBs are very stable chemicals and tend to stay in the environment for a long time (decades). They contaminate soil, lakes and streams, and may be in animals or fish.

Studies have shown that PCBs can affect the immune, reproductive, and neurological systems of rats and mice, as well as increase the risk for some types of cancer.

What are phthalates?

Since the 1950s, manufacturers have produced phthalates in large quantities, currently at a rate of 400,000 tons a year.  Industry uses these chemicals mainly in plastics to make them soft and flexible.  Toys, food containers, glues, insect repellants, vinyl flooring, carpeting, some types of plastic containers, furniture upholstery, packaging film, and sheathing for wire and cable often contain phthalates.  Because phthalates make scents last longer, companies often use the chemical in soap, deodorant, hair spray, nail polish, shampoo, hand and body lotions, and fragrances.  However, some companies have started to produce these products without phthalates.

Medical equipment, such as plastic tubing, intravenous bags and tubing, and blood transfusion bags, may also contain phthalates.  Dr Russ Hauser’s published research includes some of the first human data on the relationship between phthalates and semen parameters. The findings indicated an association between certain phthalate metabolites in the men’s urine and reduced semen quality as well as possible damage to sperm DNA. Studies in laboratory rodents are suggestive of phthalates also affecting female fertility and pregnancy.  We want to learn if this is also true for humans.

Where can I get additional information on the studied chemicals?

More sources of information:

Search for “Pesticides”, “Dioxins”, “Bisphenol A”, “Lead”, or “Mercury”

http://www.epa.gov/

Seafood and mercury
http://www.epa.gov/mercury/advisories.htm

http://www.epa.gov/waterscience/fish/

Where to find information on what is in various cosmetics:
http://www.ewg.org/skindeep/

Dr. Hauser’s HSPH faculty page:
http://www.hsph.harvard.edu/faculty/russ-hauser/

Who should I contact to join the study?

To learn more about the study, you can talk with any nurse or physician of the Fertility Center or you can contact our on-site research nurses, Jennifer Ford and Myra Keller:

Phone: (617) 643-2505
Email: EARTH@hsph.harvard.edu