Nine Steps to a Safer Pregnancy
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, man-made chemicals collect in our bodies, leading pregnant women to worry about what may be reaching their unborn children. Fortunately, you can take simple steps to reduce these risks by being smart about what you eat, drink and breathe.
The most obvious of these factors include avoiding alcohol, cigarette smoke, caffeine and kitty litter boxes. Unfortunately, prenatal exposures to other common contaminants can affect the fetus during critical periods when vital systems are developing, says pediatrician Philip Landrigan, M.D., director of the Center for Children’s Health and the Environment at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York. Below we discuss ways to avoid nine kinds of toxins capable of crossing the placenta and harming an unborn child.
1. Avoid consumption of animal fats.
When you’re pregnant, it’s more important than ever to choose lean cuts of meat, trim away fat, and opt for fat-free dairy products. Here’s why: Some toxins linked to prenatal nervous system and hormonal damage are stored in fatty tissue. These include polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), which pose risks of reduced intelligence to the developing fetus; brominated fire retardants; dioxins; and other pollutants that persist in our air and water.
2. Put a stop to insecticides in your home and workplace.
Organophosphates are a family of insecticides that attack the nervous system. Some of the more dangerous organophosphates, chloripyrifos (Dursban and Lorsban) and diasinon (Spectracide), which have resulted in lower birth weights, were phased out of residential and school use by 2003, and four others were removed from the market by 2006. However, other organophosphates are still in circulation, like tetrachlorvinphos, which is found in pet flea collars, as are similar compounds called pyrethroids. Pesticides also release inhalable volatile organic compounds.
So how to safely protect your home from pests? Researchers at the Columbia Center for Children’s Environmental Health (CCCEH) recommend that pregnant women switch to sticky traps and other bait stations, which are “safer, last longer, and are more effective.” They should also keep surfaces clean of food residue, remove trash and treat cracks with boric acid—classified by the EPA as of low toxicity—and then seal with caulk. (Keep boric acid and baits out of the reach of children and pets.)
3. Select foods to minimize pesticide residues.
Many toxic pesticides are still used widely on food crops, even if they are banned for household use because of health risks. Prioritize your grocery list to purchase organically grown apples, bell peppers, celery, nectarines, peaches, pears, potatoes, spinach and strawberries. Even after washed and peeled, these fruits and vegetables, when conventionally grown, can harbor pesticide residues that can be harmful to you and your unborn child.
4. Pass on high-mercury fish.
Mercury is a potent neurotoxin that can harm a developing fetus. Say no to high-mercury fish such as fresh tuna, canned albacore, wild bass, swordfish and tilefish. (One meal of fish with moderate mercury levels, such as canned light tuna, can be eaten once a month.) But continue eating low-mercury fish—such as sardines, wild salmon and farmed striped bass—which contain omega-3 fatty acids that are beneficial to your baby. For more tips on eating the right fish and protecting yourself from mercury, see “Mercury Contamination in Fish.”
5. Let old paint lie.
Because lead has been banned from gasoline since 1996 and in paint since 1978, most exposures now come from old lead-based paint. This heavy metal, which can also contaminate water and soil, can interfere with nearly every aspect of fetal development, causing brain and kidney damage, according to the CCCEH. If your house has lead paint in good condition, cover it with fresh paint rather than remove it, which releases lead dust into the air. To test paint for lead, see epa.gov/lead/pubs/leadinfo.htm#check.
6. Make sure your water is safe to drink.
Your local utility must, by law, provide you with an annual “Right to Know” report once a year listing the EPA-recognized pollutants that exist in your water at potentially unsafe levels. Trihalomethanes, for instance, can increase the risk of miscarriage. If you suspect there’s lead in your pipes, allow the tap to run for 30 seconds to clear them before using water. Find lead-testing services at epa.gov/safewater/faq/sco.html.
7. Breathe naturally fresh air.
Despite the appeal of scents of lavender and lilac in your home or office, don’t be fooled by synthetic air fresheners, even those that are labeled “unscented” or “all natural.” Air fresheners often contain hazardous chemicals known as phthalates that aren’t even identified in the list of ingredients. Phthalates are known hormone disruptors, and five types (one of which is found in air fresheners) were indicated to cause birth defects in a study conducted by the state of California. For more information, see "Hidden Hazards of Air Fresheners."
8. Steer clear of vehicular and smokestack emissions.
Research conducted by Columbia University links “combustion-related” chemicals called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) with shorter gestation periods, resulting in smaller babies. PAHs are in car and bus exhaust and in emissions from residential heating and power generation. Before exercising outdoors, check the EPA’s Air Quality Index at Airnow.gov. And keep windows closed during peak traffic hours.
9. Stay away from phthalates in vinyl, personal-care products and cleaning products.
Phthalates, the known hormone system disruptors that are also found in air fresheners, are widely used as plasticizers in nail polishes and vinyl and as solvents in synthetic fragrances. Avoid soft vinyl products and cosmetics containing “fragrance”; also see lists of phthalate-free cosmetics at the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics.
- Bisphenol A (BPA)
- Hexavalent Chromium
- Methylene chloride (dichloromethane)
- Perchloroethylene (Tetrachloroethylene, PERC, PCE)
- Propoxur (Flea and Tick Pesticide)
- Sulfur Dioxide
- TDCP/TCEP (Chlorinated Flame Retardants)
- Tetrachlorvinphos (Flea and Tick Pesticide)
- Trichloroethylene (TCE)
- Triclosan and Triclocarban (Antibacterials)