Infertility is rough enough without headlines implying your yoga practice is to blame. A recent study found that certain flame-retardant chemicals may make it harder for you to have a baby, but despite the downward-dog stock photos, yoga mats weren’t involved in the research.
The Headline: Yoga Mat Chemicals May Mess With Your Fertility (Forbes)
The Story: Things made of squishy polyurethane foam often contain flame retardants, and scientists have found worrying links between these chemicals and fertility problems in animals and perhaps in people. This study is the first to find a link between organophosphate flame retardants (PFRs) and human fertility, but it will take more research to prove exactly what’s going on.
Researchers looked for trace amounts of PFRs in urine samples from women at the Massachusetts General Hospital’s fertility clinic. They had plenty of these chemicals in their bodies, and in fact we all do. PFRs are in tons of different products: furniture cushions and baby products, for example. There’s so much of this stuff around us that we can also find flame retardants in our household dust and even in the air we breathe.
The study found that, among couples undergoing fertility treatments, women who had the highest levels of the chemicals were 40 per cent less likely to have a baby than the women who had the lowest levels. This kind of study can’t confirm that PFRs cause infertility, and we don’t know what the risk is for the population at large, since the study only looked at this group of mostly white, educated, high income women in Boston.
The study’s author, Courtney Carignan, points out that the findings are consistent with what we know about flame retardants and fertility from animal studies, so she feels it’s a good idea to try to avoid these chemicals.
Here’s where yoga mats don’t come in. The study didn’t mention yoga mats at all, and Carignan isn’t aware of any yoga mats that use PFRs. The chemicals are in thick foam gym mats, though, and the foam blocks that gymnasts use in landing pits. When Harvard sent out a press release about the study, she says it seems they misunderstood “gym mats” and illustrated the story with a photo of a yoga mat. (They have since changed the photo to one of a couch.)
Some yoga mats do contain phthalates, she pointed out, which have been linked to fertility problems in men. So they’re not totally off the hook. You can buy phthalate-free yoga mats, though.
If you want to reduce your exposure to PFRs, Carignan says, the first thing you should start doing is washing your hands before meals so you don’t accidentally eat PFR-containing house dust. Using less nail polish can also help, since nail polish often contains either phthalates or PFRs. After that, your next steps are a little less clear: PFRs aren’t usually listed on product labels, and they’re often used as replacements for even worse chemicals, like PDBE flame retardants. That means that even a label saying that a product is “free of harmful flame retardants” doesn’t mean you’re in the clear.
The Takeaway: PFRs might affect female fertility, but we need more research to be sure. In the meantime, stop worrying about your yoga mat and instead check out this list of furniture makers who sell products without flame retardants. Consider sending samples of your couch foam to Duke University, too. They will test foam samples for free, but it takes six to eight weeks to get results.