Heavy metal exposure linked to problems for middle-aged women

By Shannon Kelleher

Women with higher exposure to heavy metals may have fewer eggs in their ovaries as they near menopause compared to others the same age, a condition linked to hot flashes, weak bones, heart disease, and other health problems, according to a new study in more than 500 middle-aged women.

Exposures to cadmium, arsenic, and mercury, in particular, were linked to lower levels of a hormone that strongly correlates with the number of eggs left in a woman’s ovaries, according to the study, which was published Jan. 25 in The Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism.

“Our findings suggest that even low exposure to these ubiquitous metals may influence women’s reproductive health,” said Sung Kyun Park, a professor of epidemiology and environmental health science at the University of Michigan and an author of the study.

“Although individual women may reduce exposure by avoiding foods contaminated with toxic metals and limiting the use of the known sources of metals, a more important approach is to reduce exposure at the population-level through legislation and regulations,” he added.

While heavy metals are known to have toxic effects on the reproductive system, little research has investigated whether exposure to low levels of these metals can influence how many eggs women have in their ovaries as they approach menopause, which begins for most women between the ages of 45 and 55.

“Epidemiological evidence is scanty,” said Park, noting that studies relying on animal models have shown a potential link between toxic metals and altered ovarian function.