Toxic Chemicals to Avoid During Pregnancy
This post is authored by my co-worker Jamie McConnell, Director of Programs & Policy at Women's Voices for the Earth, and originally appeared on our Voices blog.
For the last six years, I have been working to reduce women’s exposure to toxic chemicals through my work at Women’s Voices for the Earth. What I do has taken on new meaning since I became pregnant. Because of my job, I’m very keyed into sources of exposure to toxic chemicals, and this knowledge has guided what I bring into my home.
In a lot of ways—and this is probably a result of being immersed in this work every day—I was kind of living in a bubble. I didn’t realize how many women don’t have access to basic information on how to protect themselves (and their unborn child) from exposure to toxic chemicals.
This really hit home when I went to my first O.B. appointment. I was given a big plastic bag full of information on pre-natal vitamins, pre-natal yoga classes, advertisements for diapers and bottles, a couple of pregnancy magazines—they even gave me a 400-page pregnancy book on birthing! In this big pile of stuff the one thing that was glaringly missing, in my mind, was a simple list of what chemicals to try to avoid during pregnancy.
When I actually met with my health practitioner, she did walk me through a list of things to avoid during my pregnancy: certain types of cheeses, fish high in mercury, cat poop, Ibuprofen, lunch meats, alcohol, caffeine, etc. But not one mention of avoiding toxic chemicals from household products. Where’s the advice on problematic chemicals found in plastics, cleaning products and cosmetics, for example? The omission made me think of the millions of women who don’t get this information from their doctor and are left to scour the internet for resources—or they just remain in the dark. Many women may think that if their doctor doesn’t explicitly tell them to avoid something, it’s probably safe, right? Wrong.
More and more research is linking chemicals like BPA and certain types of phthalates, for example, to birth defects, diabetes, obesity, and even ADHD. If I had my way, every OB office and midwife in the U.S. would distribute this information to their patients. In a move that made headlines this year, the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (RCOG) in Britain stated that women should be made aware of sources of exposure to chemicals in order to reduce the risks to the developing fetus.
Recently, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists and the American Society for Reproductive Medicine released a statement that said “Toxic chemicals in the environment harm our ability to reproduce, negatively affect pregnancies, and are associated with numerous other long-term health problems.” This acknowledgement and their recommendation to “educate patients on how to avoid toxic environmental agents” will hopefully lead to an increase of gynecologists and obstetricians talking to their patients about this issue.
But right now, there are a few new brochures on toxic chemicals available for U.S. health care practitioners to hand out to their pregnant patients – such as Planned Parenthood’s Green Choices webpages and the University of California San Francisco’s Toxic Matters brochure—unfortunately so far, it’s the rare lucky patient that gets to see one.
Until O.B.s in the U.S. routinely offer this information to their patients, women will need to find this information on their own. If I were to create a list of what exposures to avoid during pregnancy ,it would probably look something like this (this list is partially taken from WVE’s Ten Ways to Reduce Exposure):
1. Make Your Own Cleaning Products
- It’s easy, fun, and cheap to make non-toxic cleaners from safe and effective ingredients like vinegar and baking soda. Find recipes here.
THE FACTS: Certain chemicals in cleaning products have been linked to reduced fertility, birth defects, increased risk of breast cancer, asthma, and hormone disruption.
2. Avoid Synthetic Fragrance
- Look for cleaners, laundry detergents, and personal care products labeled “fragrance-free” Warning: “unscented” does not mean fragrance-free!
- Discontinue use of air fresheners. Click here for tips to reduce odors around the home.
THE FACTS: Synthetic fragrance can be made up hundreds of chemicals, all of which are kept secret from consumers. Common fragrance chemicals include phthalates (reproductive and developmental harm) and synthetic musks (break down the body’s defenses against other toxic exposures, linked to increased risk of breast cancer).
3. Give Your Personal Care Products a Makeover
- Read the label to avoid chemicals like parabens, sodium laureth sulfate, and oxybenzone.
- Check the Skin Deep database at www.cosmeticsdatabase.com to find safer products.
THE FACTS: Over 12,000 chemicals are used in personal care products—89% of them haven’t been reviewed for safety.
4. Go “BPA-Free”
- Ditch the canned foods and opt for fresh or frozen fruits and vegetables instead.
- Look for products packaged in glass or lined cardboard instead of cans.
- Look for plastics labeled “BPA-free.”
- Don’t take paper receipts from ATMS, grocery stores etc, if you don’t need them
THE FACTS: Bisphenol-A (BPA) is commonly found in can liners, plastic products and coated on paper receipts. BPA exposure is linked to a host of hormone-related health impacts such as increased risk of cancer, infertility, obesity and diabetes.
5. Watch Out for Triclosan
- Avoid anti-bacterial hand soap with triclosan listed on the label.
- Reduce your use of disinfectant products.
THE FACTS: Triclosan is a hormone disruptor that builds up in our bodies, and it’s been found in blood and breast milk. Studies show that it’s actually no more effective at removing germs or preventing illness that plain soap and water.
6. Choose Plastics with the Recycle Symbols #4 & #5
- Look for plastic products with these symbols signifying PVC-free plastics.
- Use glass jars or bowls to store food.
- Never microwave plastic.
THE FACTS: Polyvinyl chloride (PVC), known as the poison plastic, is found in plastic products from toys and cookware to shower curtains. PVC is linked to hormone disruption, reproductive and developmental harm, and other serious health problems.
7. Keep Chemicals Out of the House
- Take of your shoes before entering your house to avoid tracking in oils and chemicals from the street outside.
- Use a door mat to catch dirt at the door.
- Dust with a micro-fiber cloth or wet cloth and vacuum your house regularly (with a HEPA-filter vacuum if you can).
- Don’t use pesticides to kill bugs or rodents in your home
- Don’t use chemical flea colors, dips, or baths on your pet
THE FACTS: Shoes can track in toxic chemicals like lawn pesticides, coal tar from a driveway, etc. Dust carries harmful chemicals that shed off of household furniture, electronics, and other household products.
8. Turn Down the Heat on Non-Stick Cookware
- Keep the stove at or below medium heat when using Teflon or non-stick cookware.
- Opt for cast iron or stainless steel pans for cooking when possible.
THE FACTS: Teflon releases perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) when heated to 450 degrees. PFOA is linked to developmental harm and cancer.
9. Avoid exposure to paint.
- Have your partner or a friend paint the nursery
- Have them use a low or no VOC paint (HomeDepot, Lowes, and Ace Hardware carry a wide variety).
THE FACTS: Paint can contain volatile organic compounds (or VOCs) which have been linked to cancer and respiratory irritation. Though I’m sure you’re tempted to help your partner paint the nursery—don’t!—even if you use low or no VOC paint they may still contain other chemicals of concern such as heavy metals in pigments, or preservatives which prevent mold growth.
10. When possible, try to eat organic food.
- Check out the Environmental Working Group’s Guide to Pesticides in Produce to find veggies and fruits that are low in pesticides (after all, not everyone can afford to buy organic all the time!)
THE FACTS: Fruits and vegetables can contain harmful pesticides linked to birth defects and reproductive harm.
11. Avoid getting certain beauty services done during pregnancy.
- Beauty services like Brazilian Blowout (and other hair straightening symptoms), hair coloring, and perms can release nasty chemicals.
- Check out WVE’s list of salon ingredients to avoid. Make sure your stylist isn’t using products that contain these ingredients.
THE FACTS: Some hair and nail salon treatments can contain chemicals like formaldehyde, toluene, phthalates, and other nasties that are linked to birth defects, reproductive problems and even cancer.
12. Check out WVE’s Green Momma Party Guide
- The guide is a how-to for detoxing your home in preparation for baby. Included in the guide are some inexpensive, do it yourself recipes to try out with friends!
Lastly, if this list of tips seems overwhelming and exhausting…take a deep breath. There is so much new stuff to learn and know during pregnancy, and you can only do the best that you can do given your individual circumstances. Take comfort in knowing that taking care of your health, by getting good sleep, eating healthy, and getting exercise also goes a long way in boosting your body’s defenses against toxic chemical exposure that can be hard to control.
Are there any tips you have for avoiding harmful exposure? Leave a comment!