Even small exposures to toxic chemicals during your pregnancy can trigger adverse health consequences for you and your baby. Here's what you should know.
If you’re pregnant or breastfeeding, you may be concerned about exposure to toxic chemicals.
Chemicals used in manufacturing and agriculture are harming reproductive health, according to the International Federation of Gynecology and Obstetrics. “There are tens of thousands of chemicals in global commerce, and even small exposures to toxic chemicals during pregnancy can trigger adverse health consequences,” a group of doctors from around the world wrote in a statement.
The report notes that exposure to chemicals is unevenly distributed both within the United States and around the world, disproportionately affecting people with lower incomes.
What should you do to stay safe from environmental chemicals if you’re pregnant, want to become pregnant, or breastfeeding?
The first thing to do is examine your living environment, says Nancy Wight, MD, a neonatologist practicing in San Diego. When you visit an obstetrician or your baby’s pediatrician, talk about not only your medical history, Wight says, but also your social history. Discuss your job, where you live, and what your home is like so that you and the doctor can gauge your potential exposure to environmental hazards.
Do you work in a manufacturing environment or factory, for example? Even if you take precautions, you still have a high risk of exposure, Wight says, which could affect your health or that of your baby. “I probably would not work in a radioactive chemical laboratory,” Wight says. “I probably would change my job for a little bit.”
Still, new moms often worry too much about cleanliness, Wight says. “In the ICU, you have much more dangerous bugs than your house will ever have,” such as the common hospital-acquired MRSA superbug.
To protect you and your baby, take basic safety measures such as:
- Make sure you have working carbon monoxide and smoke detectors.
- Keep your house clean.
- Make sure everyone who interacts with your baby washes their hands and isn’t coughing.
She also suggests getting a pet. Studies have shown exposure to pets reduces the development of asthma and allergies and strengthens children’s developing immune systems.
More tips from Wight on what to avoid:
- Certain fish. “Fish is good if you’re pregnant,” says Wight, “but you don't want to eat the ones that accumulate the toxins.” She cautions that women should not eat large, predatory fish high on the food chain, like mackerel, swordfish, tilefish from the Gulf of Mexico, and shark. Most common seafood — shrimp, salmon, catfish, tilapia, and cod — is low in mercury, the Environmental Protection Agency and Food and Drug Administration (FDA) point out.
- Dietary supplements. “Mothers will often ask me, ‘can I take this particular herb or this particular concoction to increase my milk supply?’” Wight says. But the problem, she says, is that the FDA doesn’t test supplements. In addition, if they come from overseas or other even more unregulated environments, they may contain dangerous metals, steroids, or antibiotics. Be safe and check your brands with an independent consumer testing group (ConsumerLab, for example).
- Pesticides in your yard and harsh cleaning agents in your house. Use the gentlest, most natural home cleaning products you can. Also check the Environmental Working Group’s “dirty dozen,” a list of fruits and vegetables that are better to buy organic to avoid pesticide in food.
- Lead. If your home or apartment was built before about 1980, it’s likely that lead-based paint was used at some point in its history. Check with your building manager and test your home and water.
- Nonstick pans. Pans made with Teflon and other nonstick coatings emit a chemical, perfluorooctanoic acid, or PFOA, that has been detected in women’s bodies. If any of your pans are chipping, throw them out. Use stainless steel or cast-iron pans instead — both of which also last longer.
- Bisphenol A (BPA). While BPA is banned in baby products, its replacements may not be any safer. You can switch to tempered glass or stainless steel, and never microwave food in plastic containers.
To some degree, Wight says, there’s little you can do about exposure to environmental chemical hazards, aside from working with legislators to achieve better regulation. In its statement, the International Federation of Gynecology and Obstetrics called for making environmental health part of healthcare and suggested health professionals should advocate for policies to prevent exposure to toxic environmental chemicals.
“But it’s not a reason not to get pregnant, and it’s not a reason not to breastfeed,” Wight says. “The benefits of breastfeeding greatly outweigh the normal exposure to toxins in our environment. So breastfeeding is much more important.”
November 07, 2023
Janet O’Dell, RN