Pregnant women are often advised to minimize their exposure to chemicals so as to reduce harm to their unborn child. The effects of chemical exposure on pregnancy are somewhat uncertain, but experts from the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (RCOG) in a Scientific Impact Paper (released in 2013) still promote being fully aware of the sources of chemical exposure. After all, isn’t it better to be safe rather than sorry, especially when it comes to the health of your baby?
Even though there is a lot of guidance on correct lifestyle choices that women can incorporate during pregnancy, there is no concrete advice that elaborates on the risks of chemical exposure to unborn children. However, exposure to environmental chemicals has been linked to adverse health effects in women and children, including preterm birth, low birthweight, congenital defects, pregnancy loss, impaired immune development, as well as impairment of fertility and reproduction in both the mother and child in later life. Dr Michelle Bellingham, co-author of the paper, said, “While there is no official advice on this topic available to pregnant women, there is much conflicting anecdotal evidence about environmental chemicals and their potentially adverse effects on developing babies. The information in this report is aimed at addressing this problem and should be conveyed routinely in infertility and antenatal clinics so women are made aware of key facts that will allow them to make informed choices regarding lifestyle changes.” The paper deals with some of those concerns.
Under normal lifestyle conditions, people are exposed to chemicals through the consumption of food, household items, medicines, and more. Some people suffer from an aversion to such chemicals and are said to have multiple chemical sensitivity (MCS). MCS can include a wide-range of symptoms, such as headache, fatigue, dizziness, nausea, congestion, itching, sneezing, sore throat, chest pain, changes in heart rhythm, breathing problems, muscle pain or stiffness, skin rash, diarrhea, bloating, gas, confusion, trouble concentrating, memory problems, and mood changes. Thus, people with MCS have to be more aware of their environment and exposure as opposed to others. The new paper alludes to the fact a lifetime of chemical sensitivity actually prepares women for a healthy pregnancy. Obviously, those with MCS have to be doubly careful during pregnancy due to the unique challenges they may face as a result of chemical exposure.
Chemical Challenges Faced During Pregnancy
According to the paper, pregnant mothers should be aware of four types of exposure. These are chemicals in food, personal care and household chemicals, over the counter medications and herbal remedies, and chemicals with endocrine-disrupting potential. In terms of food, most people remain unaware of the fact that it is the food packaging that contains harmful chemicals as opposed to natural food itself. Thus, fresh food will generally contain fewer non–food chemicals and/or lower levels than processed oven–ready/microwave–type meals. Personal care products such as hairspray, moisturizers, sunscreen, and more contain various forms of chemicals within them. The usage of these products has increased exponentially over the years, and even though applied superficially, they can have unwanted ramifications during pregnancy. For women with MCS, cosmetics are a big source of allergies, leading to itching, fatigue, and colds. Treating a cold when pregnant is far from pleasant, and increased fatigue over and above an already tiring circumstance is best avoided.
Some over-the-counter medications like paracetamol are recommended safe to use in the early stages of pregnancy. However, recent studies have shown that protracted paracetamol use can increase the risk of cryptorchidism and offspring asthma. This is just one of many examples of the adverse effects or chemicals via medications. It is integral to fully examine the side effects of any medication on pregnancy and discuss the same with a medical professional. Endocrine disruptors are those chemicals that affect the hormonal makeup within the human body. Hormones play a key role in fetal development, so being aware of chemicals with endocrine disrupting potential is vital. BPA plastics, PBDEs, and phthalates are examples of those which have the power to disrupt fetal development.
Considering the potential risks of chemical exposure, experts suggest a “safety-first” approach, which is to assume there is risk present even when it may be minimal or eventually unfounded. While it’s always easy to control chemical exposure due to the nature of our modern-day lifestyle, certain things can be done to ensure minimal exposure:
- Choose fresh foods over processed and packaged foods
- Avoid storing food in plastic containers — instead, use glass.
- Avoid personal care and cosmetic products unless absolutely necessary.
- Do not purchase new household items — microwaves, nonstick pans, cars — when pregnant or nursing.
- Avoid paint fumes
Ultimately, whether you are chemically sensitive or not, this is good advice for all women. While it’s important to be more careful during pregnancy, it stands to reason that this advice should be followed even in everyday living to ensure overall health and well-being.