Pregnant women should be aware of the sources and routes of chemical exposure in order to minimize danger to their unborn baby, even though it is still unknown what effects these chemicals could have, suggests research from the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (RCOG).

Historically, there have been many recommendations on healthily lifestyle choices women can adopt during pregnancy, but there is no standard information on the potential risks that some chemical exposures could pose to the fetus.

Exposure to substantial amounts of environmental chemicals has been associated with negative health effects in women and children, including:

  • pregnancy loss
  • congenital defects
  • low birthweight
  • pre-term birth
  • impaired immune development
  • impairment of fertility of the mother

Under normal conditions, pregnant women are exposed to hundreds of chemicals at low levels, and exposure to these chemicals can occur in many ways – via household products, over-the-counter medicines, personal care products, and through food.

Intake of acetaminophen (paracetamol, Tylenol) and use of household cleaning items such as pesticides, have been well-reported sources of chemical exposure. This latest study identified less well-known sources that may also pose a threat.

For instance, the authors establish that it is not just the type of food that poses a risk to pregnant women, but also the handling equipment and packaging materials used to hold it.

The same threat may be true for personal care products such as sunscreens, shower gels, and moisturizers. These dangers are not evident because manufacturers are not required to name all potentially harmful chemicals on the label.

The authors recommend “safety first” as the best approach to these chemical exposures. This means they should assume there is a risk present even if it not obviously apparent.

The research recommends:

  • using fresh food when possible, decreasing food in cans/plastic containers
  • reducing use of personal care products
  • avoiding all pesticides and paint fumes
  • taking over-the-counter medications only when necessary

Dr Michelle Bellingham, Institute of Biodiversity, Animal Health and Comparative Medicine, University of Glasgow, and 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.”

Professor Scott Nelson, Chair of the RCOG Scientific Advisory Committee, added, “There are growing concerns over everyday chemical exposure effects because many chemicals have the potential to interfere with the hormone systems in the body, which play key roles in normal fetal development. Realistically, pregnant women are exposed to a complex mixture of hundreds of chemicals at low levels, but methods for assessing the full risk of exposure are not yet developed.”

A study conducted in 2011 and published in Environmental Health Perspectives, suggested that many pregnant women have multiple chemicals inside them – some that have even been banned for over 30 years. Experts were alarmed by this finding, because little is known about what impact these chemicals might have on the mothers and their unborn children.

Written by Kelly Fitzgerald