Let’s talk about infertility.
Things are getting personal. I’m Mahira, the founder of Spruce. I often get asked what was the motivation behind launching Spruce, what was the "lightbulb moment". Well, there wasn’t a single moment. In fact, it was a series of experiences over the last decade that led me to launch Spruce.
I suffered from unexplained infertility which defined the last ten years of my life. For anyone who has been through this journey, or knows someone who has, you know how all-consuming it can be. Your life pretty much revolves around treatment cycles to make the one thing happen that you want the most. You’d do anything to make the treatments work. I tried everything from acupuncture, meditation, Chinese medicine to dietary and lifestyle changes. I’m not even going to go into the details of trauma caused by miscarriages, a whole other topic I can talk about forever.
Throughout the ten years, I realised that we are surrounded by hidden chemicals in most products from our food to cookware to personal care and cleaning products. I swapped everyday products and where I couldn’t find alternatives, I made my own.
I carried out a massive purge in the house. We switched to organic produce to avoid pesticides that are typically sprayed on the food. I cut out all plastic containers for food storage immediately, even the ones marked BPA-Free as chemicals in plastic containers can leach out into the food. These chemicals such as Phthalates, BPA and PVC are known endocrine (hormone) disruptors and studies have linked them to reproductive toxicity. While my motivation at the time was mainly to address our health issues, over the past few years, I became more aware of how damaging plastic, especially single-use packaging is for the planet’s health. As early as 2012, the World Health Organization (WHO) cautioned the public that endocrine disruptors are likely to cause cancer and infertility and concluded that these substances are a global threat to public health.
After more than a year of poking and prodding, seeking treatments from coast to coast (I lived in the US at the time), I finally got pregnant. During my pregnancy, the amount of education about chemicals we consume was truly eye-opening. At the same time, more research has been conducted that confirms the health hazards of ingesting plastics in the form of microscopic particles. There's no hiding from the fact that we are consuming tiny particles of plastics in our food, water and air. Nano plastics are even found in the soil in which our food grows. Not surprisingly, the effects are similar to health hazards caused by chemicals in cleaning products.
Plastics can enter the bloodstream and cross the blood-brain barrier, as well as cross into the placenta.
A study investigating the effects of consumption of plastics on babies found microplastics in four of the six placentas looked at. The microplastics were found in all parts of the placentas which ended up there as a result of the mother consuming, absorbing or inhaling the particles. This can cause irreversible damage to the fetus and after the babies are born, the same study found that they can ingest 1.6 billion microplastics through bottle feeding.
My doctor specifically told me never to drink water from a single-use plastic bottle as it contains 400 times more microplastics that are harmful to the unborn child, compared to tap water. Microplastics are used in skincare and beauty product contents as fillers including lipsticks, lotions and skincare. I'm not even talking about microbeads, which are thankfully banned in most countries. Microplastics are also present in cleaning sprays that we inhale on a daily basis.
I remember vividly after my son was born, I was desperately trying to nurse when my lactation nurse made the comments that breastfeeding might be impossible for some women. Her exact words: ‘it's possible that your mother may have inhaled certain toxic chemicals in cleaning products that could have altered your physiology forever to potentially make it impossible for you to get pregnant or nurse’. Those words stuck with and still haunt me.
When I conducted more research on her comments, I discovered that the regulations on what can be packaged and sold as cleaning products have not changed in decades. That means we are inhaling the same toxic chemicals and harsh ingredients, that release poisonous gases when mixed together, endocrine-disrupting fragrances, that our mothers did many decades ago.
Having gone through the infertility journey, I now realise just how many people in my immediate friends and family circle are suffering. It happens to be a topic that no one wants to speak out about, many people suffer in silence. I am on a mission to spread more education about how our convenience-led lifestyles and especially air pollution from harmful chemicals and plastics affect our fertility and overall wellbeing.
Recent research shows that human fertility is majorly at risk and currently 20-30% of men in the world can be considered infertile due to low sperm count. This sad truth has been a reality in many other species of animals, especially ones most exposed to our chemical and plastic waste in the oceans. And now it’s hit the human race.
The first time the headlines appeared in the news that the future of the human race is threatened by falling sperm counts I couldn’t help but envision the Handmaid’s Tale. The discovery that sperm counts have declined by 50 per cent over the past 40 years, was made way back in 2017. Dr Swan, who examined nearly 50,000 men, came to the conclusion that by 2050 we will need technological assistance to procreate. She has attributed these statistics to our unhealthy lifestyles and constant exposure to chemicals. Chemicals that seep into our lives from plastics and indoor air pollution (yes from most cleaning products).
Phthalates, commonly used in synthetic fragrance and to make plastic soft and flexible, are incredibly “good” at disrupting our hormones and making our bodies think that it is producing enough for optimal health. These chemicals lower testosterone levels and decrease libido, increase the risk of ovarian failure and cause early puberty in adolescent girls. Phthalates that act as endocrine disruptor are in an array of household products - food packaging, plastic Tupperware, shampoo bottles, household cleaning products, lipstick you name it.
We are so surrounded by these dangerous chemicals that scientists are now seeing the rise of a disorder called the "Phthalate Syndrome" which manifests in lower sperm counts and underdeveloped genitalia in male babies.
What is more disturbing is that the rise in phthalate syndrome is linked to the rise in the petroleum industry and the production and widespread use of of plastics. The link is obvious. This is why we have vowed to never use synthetic fragrance in our products.
Since I started medical treatment and changed my lifestyle, I have been blessed with beautiful children. I understand my privilege as these treatments are not always successful for everyone. The lifestyle changes I made over the years do not only improve the health of my family but also help me raise conscious kids who care about the health of the planet. No convenience or ease can ever make me go back to using plastics daily in my life and starting Spruce is a way for me to share my experience and ditch plastics forever.
More in blogpost: How toxic is your cleaning routine.
Data sources: The Guardian, Plastic Soup Foundation