The Royal College of Obsteterics and Gynaecology, May 2013 has acknowledged chemical exposure as a risk factor to health babies: Dealing with potential, but Unproven, risks to Child Health.
The concept that maternal exposure to certain chemicals and drugs during pregnancy and lactation can have lasting negative effects on the health and well- being of the foetus or baby is not new. The effect of smoking, alcohol, certain medicines and illegal drugs are all well documented. Chemical exposure is well researched and known about but this is the first time it has been acknowledged by a Royal College as significant and something we should all be aware of.
It is increasingly recognised that the predisposition to some adult health disorders are determined by the quality of the baby’s development in the womb and soon after birth. The chances of getting adult diseases such as obesity, diabetes and heart disease have all been proven to be affected prenatally. So Mums that make a positive healthy life style choice during the planning and maintenance of pregnancy and breastfeeding are giving their baby a good start in life. But now there is the added consideration of chemical exposure.
Research has linked exposure to some chemicals in pregnancy to cause miscarriage, preterm birth, low birth weight, congenital defects, childhood morbidity, obesity, cognitive dysfunction, impaired immune system, asthma, early puberty, adult disease and morbidity mainly due to heart disease and cancer. It is also linked to fertility in both men and women and the impairment of testicular development.
However there is a lot of uncertainty about these chemicals as the effects may be small or insignificant on its own but then – there is an ‘accumulative factor’ and that is very hard to prove. We are also surrounded by so many chemicals it is hard to prove which ones to avoid and how much exposure you can have before it has a harmful effect.
Some of us are also more sensitive or susceptible to these chemicals than others which also make research and advice harder.
The chemicals in questions are:
bisphenol A in drinks and food cans
Phthalate esters in food wraps, plastics, carpets, fabrics, personal care products and glues
Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) – in the air we breathe from burning products such as cigarette smoke, barbeques and bonfires.
Accumulation of heavy metals (mercury and lead) in fish like tuna, shark and shellfish – it is now recommended to have oily fish just once a week if pregnant or breastfeeding rather than twice a week.
A lot of pesticides and toxins are often stored in fat cells such as those in fatty meats and oily fish.
Eating fresh fruit and vegetables is strongly recommended even though they will contain some pesticide residue. Foods can be contaminated from the handling equipment used in food packaging and chemicals can leach from the food packaging and containers or from cans into the food and drinks.
Personal care products such as makeup, moisturisers, sunscreens, perfumes, soaps and hairspray are another source of exposure to chemicals. The manufacturers do not have to name all ingredients if they are not considered an active ingredient. ‘Natural’, ‘non-toxic’ and ‘green’ are all unregulated words. Phthalates are often in these products. The phthalates are also in many baby lotions, powders and shampoos. Babies have very pure and sensitive skin and absorb everything applied to them so they get a higher exposure.
House hold cleaning products, air fresheners, furniture, carpets/fabrics and DIY products such as paint and glue are also full of various harmful chemicals. Perfluorinated compounds (PFCs) help make materials resistant to stain, oil and water – all very useful except it is linked to cancer, immune system and reproductive problems
Polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDE) are used in flame retardants for furniture, electronics and cars.
Over the counter medicines such as drugs or dietary supplements can contain phthalates in the tablet coating- once again not listed as an ‘inactive ingredient’. Even paracetamol has vague links to affects on the new-born testes and also asthma which are very difficult to prove either way conclusively. ‘Natural’ products have also not been under any testing for safety use in pregnancy even if labelled ‘safe for pregnancy’! So what can you take?
One of the effects of the chemicals is to affect the hormones in the body. BPA plastics, PBDEs and phthalates are examples of these. They can mimic or block certain hormones which then affect normal foetal development. One such effect is to interfere with the masculinisation of the male foetuses. However high exposure is needed for this to occur but the accumulative effect of multiple chemicals all at low levels is hard to prove.
So what should you do to lower your risk to exposure?
Eat fresh food rather than processed foods
Do not heat oils above their ‘smoke point’ at which time they generate toxic fumes. Peanut, palm and sesame oils are the safest to use when frying. Olive oil comes in second and is good for lower heat cooking such as sautéing.
Reduce your consumption of foods or snacks in cans or plastic containers
Store foods in glass rather than plastic
Use drink containers that are not plastic
Minimise personal care products
Minimise the purchase of new household furniture, fabrics, non-stick frying pans and cars while pregnant or breastfeeding.
If using non-stick frying pans, throw away once scratched or chipped and do not heat up oils to high temperatures. New ‘100% PFOA and PTFE free’ non-stick pans are better but it is using new technology so we do not know everything about these products. Cast iron, enamel coated and stainless steel pans are better and last longer so do not fill up landfill sites.
Avoid use of garden/household/pet pesticides or fungicides.
Avoid paint fumes unless eco-friendly which are now available
Only take over the counter medicines when really necessary
Do not assume a product is safe in pregnancy even if it says so!
Use more eco-friendly products in the home – maybe we should even be switching back to vinegar, baking soda and lemon juice!
There are so many unknowns out there especially with regard to the accumulation of chemicals and their interactive effects that this advice is very safe and good and not just another scare story.
Dr Claire Winstanley © July 2013