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Posted at 12:00 AM ET, 01/14/2011

Nearly all pregnant women harbor potentially harmful chemicals

By Jennifer LaRue Huget

The first study to measure the number of potentially toxic chemicals in the bodies of pregnant women finds that virtually all women who are expecting harbor multiple contaminants -- some of them known to be harmful to humans.

Research published this morning in Environmental Health Perspectives analyzed data for 268 women from the National Health and Nutritional Examination Survey (NHANES) from 2003-04, checking for the presence of 163 different chemicals in the women's blood, urine and serum. Many chemicals (such as PCBs, organochlorine pesticides, PFCs, phenols, PBDE flame retardants, phthalates, polycyclic 14 aromatic hydrocarbons and perchlorate) that are associated with adverse health effects were found in 99 percent to 100 percent of pregnant women, and nearly all women carried multiple contaminants. Some of the contaminants studied, such as mercury, bisphenol-A, heavy metals and hormone disruptors, can cross the placenta and thus affect the fetus. Many of the chemicals remain in current use, though others have been banned.

The study does not go so far as to definitively link the presence of these chemicals in women's bodies with any particular health outcomes for those women or their babies. But the authors note that some of the chemicals they tracked already have been associated with ill effects: Mercury is linked to neurological problems, for instance, while phthalates can affect the male reproductive system.

The study found such chemicals in the bodies of non-pregnant women, too. But it's of course a whole different ballgame when you're talking about chemicals that can interfere with a developing fetus.

So what's a woman to do to protect herself and her baby? I asked the study's lead author, Tracey Woodruff, director of the Program on Reproductive Health and the Environment at the University of California San Francisco School of Medicine, who responded via e-mail:

There are personal choices pregnant women can make to reduce their exposures to environmental chemicals, but the significant, long-lasting change only will result from a systemic approach that includes proactive government policies. Pregnant [women] should continue to eat a healthy diet, avoid smoking and cigarette smoke (all part of doctor's advice). Some of the other things that can be done are here in our Web site: Here are a few [examples]: removing dust, washing hands before meals, choosing organic foods that are less likely to have pesticide residues, choos[ing] personal care products that have less toxic ingredients. On our Web site [see link, above] we link to resources on the Web to help consumers sort through the many choices out there.

I'd like to hear from pregnant women: Are you concerned about chemicals to which you and your baby may be exposed? Would you consider taking the steps Woodruff recommends to help protect your health and your child's?

By Jennifer LaRue Huget  | January 14, 2011; 12:00 AM ET
Categories:  Environmental Toxins, Infant health, Motherhood, Parenting, Reproductive Health, Women's Health  
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Next: U.K. experts question 6 months of exclusive breastfeeding


So FDA will be forcing a recall?

Posted by: granitesentry | January 14, 2011 10:52 AM | Report abuse

As a mother of two who is currently pregnant, I feel that pregnant women are bombarded with what to be concerned about during pregnancy – some within your control and some out of your control. Each woman feels a little different about the same issues when they are pregnant, but I think it’s important to focus on the things we can control like nutrition and safe food handling. We put together some tips on both:

Wendy Reinhardt Kapsak
Senior Director, Health & Wellness
International Food Information Council Foundation

Posted by: wreinhardtkapsak | January 14, 2011 1:02 PM | Report abuse

This related paper in the Journal of Biomedicine shows a link between exposure and DNA damage.

"Overall mortality, cancer mortality for several causes and congenital anomalies, previously known to be higher than regional averages, have been positively correlated to waste exposure"

Posted by: sharktooth | January 14, 2011 1:30 PM | Report abuse

What about the mother's own hormones and bodily chemicals?
Excess adipose tissue is alive and produces many chemicals including estrogen that can definately effect the baby. It also places undue strain on the immune system and leads to things like chronic low-grade systemic inflammation.
Both of these issues and especially the links between them (like hormone disruption from volatile organic chemicals and others contributing to over-eating and thus obesity) should be explored much more.

Posted by: ashtar377 | January 14, 2011 5:08 PM | Report abuse

Probably there is a correlation between the levels of these assorted chemicals and many of the behavioral syndromes that plaque our youngsters. We will avoid the necessary actions by government until we stop driving.

Posted by: n7uno | January 15, 2011 4:18 AM | Report abuse

And yet the government implores all pregnant women to get a mercury-laced flu shot (yes, the flu shot still has a heaping dose of mercury in it; look it up if you don't believe me).

Posted by: crashprevention | January 15, 2011 8:30 AM | Report abuse

I'm not pregnant but as a woman of childbearing age who plans to have children, this is already a huge concern for me. It's really stunning the levels of known toxic chemicals we are exposed to in our daily lives and how little the government does to address the issue.

Posted by: willow8300 | January 15, 2011 7:11 PM | Report abuse

Willow8300, my thoughts exactly. I do wonder if the study takes into consideration whether or not a woman actively avoids exposure to such toxins, and if that makes a difference.

Posted by: MzFitz | January 17, 2011 10:10 AM | Report abuse

Willow8300, my thoughts exactly. I do wonder if the study takes into consideration whether or not a woman actively avoids exposure to such toxins, and if that makes a difference.

Posted by: MzFitz | January 17, 2011 10:11 AM | Report abuse

Unfortunately this is just more of the same scare tactics used by people pushing agendas. It's a shame that journalists don't fully think about what they write.

The mere presence of a chemical doesn't mean anything. We now have the ability to detect chemicals in the parts per billion range. The thing about toxicity though is not the mere presence of a chemical, but how much of the chemical is present and does it have an affect.

Our bodies are very good at processing chemicals out of it, so doing urine tests only means the chemicals are able to be processed out (thus not remaining in our body to begin with).

Yes, the extremeists will try to alarm saying "but any chemical is bad" but let's face it, our entire world is made of chemicals. YOU are made of chemicals. You have to start thinking about how much chemical is bad and stop focusing on the mere presence because technology has made it much easier to detect even the smallest amounts.

Posted by: qualitydon | January 18, 2011 8:59 AM | Report abuse

Learning about pharmaceut­icals in our water, toxins in our pregnant women, and how certain toxins as well as poor diets are linked to cognitive decline of the fetus, shouldn't we be looking at how all of these assaults may synergisti­cally work together? I love the story of the blind men and the elephant. Each is correct in their assumption of what the elephant is in part, but all are wrong as a whole. In looking at the rise of disease, while some research has been done not enough has been done to find out if and how these drugs and toxins are part culprit. We also know that if something is in our water, it can be in our soil, part of our food chain. Has anyone tested various vegetation and wild birds for pharmaceut­icals? I wrote a blog on this 'Pregnant Women Cry Over New Studies “Toxins and Drugs and Poor Diets….Oh My!” which has various references to the studies that are available, but so many more still need to be done. To me I believe our best defense currently until more is known is supporting the body, the metabolic system etc through essential nutrition. The average person doesn't eat or drink well and either doesn't appreciate the importance of that in direct correlatio­n to health, or doesn't have the knowledge to know what essential nutrients are.

Posted by: lisageng | January 19, 2011 6:54 PM | Report abuse

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