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A pregnant woman gets plenty of well-meaning advice — everyone in the check-out line offers an opinion about her diet, her weight, and which parenting philosophy she should read up on.  But it’s easy to overlook some items considered “necessities” of daily life, though investigating their ingredients reveals cause for unease.  

And while the placenta works to protect the fetus, it’s challenged to cope with the recent onslaught of manufactured toxins, many of which pass directly through.

Several food additives found on nearly every American grocery store shelf have been banned in the European Union and elsewhere.  Items in our bathrooms and bedrooms may be subjecting us to unmonitored chemistry experiments every day.  A recent study highlighted several environmental toxins particularly dangerous to the developing fetus.  If you or someone you care about is expecting a child, consider this a time to take the best possible care of yourself.  Protecting an unborn baby’s health can be a great motivator to cut out unnecessary products and conveniences.

1. Canned food

Since the 1960’s, food packagers — including many organic brands — have used bisphenol-A (BPA) in can linings and plastic containers.  BPA mimics estrogen in the body and has been associated with hormone abnormalities, ADHD, and obesity in children; as well as elevated cancer and diabetes risk.  While some brands now offer BPA-free canned goods, many expecting moms are choosing to go can-free during the sensitive developmental years of pregnancy and early childhood.

To further reduce BPA exposure, use glass or stainless steel containers for leftovers, and never microwave plastic.  While you’re at it, avoid handling receipts.  They are often coated with BPA easily absorbed through the skin: cashiers and bank tellers should wear gloves.

2. Pesticides

Farm workers, though most at risk, aren’t the only ones with detectable pesticide residues in their systems.  Some broad-spectrum toxins, like clorpyrifos, are found on food crops as well as domestic ant sprays, roach traps, and exterminator treatments.  A Columbia University study linked prenatal exposure to clorpyrifos with changes in brain structure and permanent IQ and memory deficits — even at levels below EPA toxicity thresholds.

Don’t use pesticides to rid your home of insects while pregnant; particles are dispersed, inhaled, or ingested.  Many effective alternatives include diatomaceous earth and traps utilizing electricity or pheromones.  To avoid agricultural spray residues, buy organic food.  If you live in a farming area, find out what you may be exposed to aerially and take steps to protect yourself during peak spraying times.

3. Cosmetics

Pregnancy is a great time to take advantage of that “natural glow” and throw away the make-up and other “beauty” products such as creams and cleansers.  Chemicals either known or suspected to endanger human health include BHA, DEA, parabens and coal-tar dyes, to name just a few.  The Environmental Working Group has developed a searchable database so consumers can find out what is in their products, with information about each chemical’s specific risks.  Better yet, choose non-toxic products so you don’t have to become a scientist to guess how your shampoo may be affecting your unborn child.  Most natural food stores carry a variety of pregnancy-safe personal care products.

4. Unfiltered water

Though pregnant women are always told to “drink lots of water,” doctors don’t always mention possible water contaminants.  Depending on the source and treatment of your water supply, as well as the plumbing in your home, this life-sustaining liquid can harm as well as help.  Early lead exposure is well known to impair physical and mental development.  Long term, excess copper can damage liver or kidneys in children.  More than 60% of the American public water supply is fluoridated, and fluoride occurs naturally in many private wells.  Though promoted to prevent tooth decay, there is growing concern that fluoride can act as a neurotoxin, lowering children’s IQ over time.  Manganese, another common natural element in aquifers has been implicated in causing developmental disorders, as well as Alzheimers, Parkinson’s, and MS — even with ongoing low doses through shower water.

Bottled water is a poor option, due to both environmental impact and potential toxins in the plastic.  Test your water, or install a filtration system.  Your care will benefit the health of your entire family.

5. Paints and solvents

Excited expectant parents often jump into home improvement projects such as fixing up a nursery or playroom.  Before you roll out the drop-cloths, check the label on your interior paint.  Paint and paint thinner — as well as many other products such as detergents, nail polish, adhesives, antifreeze, and spot remover — contain toluene, a benzene-derived solvent believed to cause fetal damage with repeated exposure.  You could also expose yourself to tetrachoroethylene, a carcinogen also used in dry-cleaning.  Solvents easily pass through skin and lung tissue, and their use has been linked to hyperactivity and aggressive behavior.

Household paints are a major cause of indoor air pollution, releasing volatile organic compounds (VOCs) continuously, though their release diminishes with time.  VOCs include many suspected or known carcinogens, and cause acute allergic reactions in some individuals.  It’s worth it to pay a little more for low-VOC or no-VOC paint and literally breathe a little easier.  If you’re an artist, switch to watercolors or acrylic paints instead of oils.

6. New furniture

Much new furniture is treated with flame retardants, such as polybrominated diphenyl ethers, or PBDEs, shown to impair nervous system development and disrupt estrogen and thyroid hormones.  One study showed that small children’s PDBE levels were triple their mothers.  They accumulate in breast milk, and studies suggest that disruptions caused in early development persist into adulthood.

Mattresses are notorious off-gassers, emitting up to 61 chemicals into your bedroom air, where you are likely to spend more than one third of your time.  Popular “memory foam” models rate highest on chemical off-gassing.  If you can afford it, consider a natural latex mattress, which are often wrapped in wool for comfort and fire protection.

Phthalates are found in new shower curtains and other soft, flexible plastics such as upholstery, and are most dangerous for pregnant women and babies.  They are likely carcinogens and endocrine disruptors, thought to cause problems in reproductive development.  If those aren’t reasons enough to avoid all new furniture purchases during pregnancy, any pieces using pressed wood (it’s often hidden) will add formaldehyde, a known carcinogen, to the mix of toxic gasses.

7. Food dyes

Go ahead and indulge in a little dark chocolate, but skip the brightly colored candy-coated treats.  Although it’s too early to know for sure, preliminary research is raising lots of questions about the hidden costs of dyes designed to enhance many processed foods’ visual appeal.  The American Academy of Pediatrics now acknowledges these dyes may cause hyperactivity and ADHD. Look out in particular for Blue #1 and #2, Yellow #5 and #6, and Red #40 — they have all been outlawed in Europe, after finding possible links to DNA mutations and cancer.  These controversial dyes are not limited to the candy aisle; artificial dyes are found in salad dressings, baked goods, beverages, even some dairy products.  Every day there seems to be a new food additive causing alarm, such as the recent revelation that hundreds of brands including Subway were using the additive azodicarbonamide, used to manufacture yoga mats and other foamy plastics.

To opt out of the confusion and anxiety, use as many whole, unprocessed foods as possible.  Certified organic is your best bet for convenience foods.

8. Cleaning products

If it has to be kept in a child-safe cabinet, try to eliminate it from your home while pregnant.  In one US study, each cleaning product tested contained up to eight different chemicals classified as toxic or hazardous under federal law.  Triclosan, an endocrine disrupter; ammonia, which may damage liver and kidneys; and 2-Butoxyethanol, linked with blood disorders, are just a few.  One third of industrial fragrances are toxic, but regulations don’t require companies to disclose these ingredients.

Switch to simple but effective alternatives such as baking soda and water for scrubbing and deodorizing, or white vinegar for window washing or disinfecting.  Many natural dish and laundry products are formulated without toxic chemicals.  Added benefits include healthier ecosystems, and easier childproofing with fewer potential poisons in the cupboards!

If these products are really so hazardous, why are they still on the market?

It would be nice if choosing safe products was as simple as following standard FDA or EPA guidelines.  Unfortunately, the answers are not always so clear.  Products such as DDT, asbestos, and lead paint were considered safe for decades before the devastating results of ongoing exposure were declared sufficiently conclusive.

The pace of competitive product development has raced ahead of science’s ability to fully evaluate new chemical risks.  Many popular chemicals are relatively new, and long-term effects of low doses are difficult to evaluate.  All of the chemicals listed here have demonstrated toxic effects, but no one can say for sure what the “safe” exposure level might be.  Most children who develop health problems mentioned above will never know what caused their condition, and in some cases — behavioral problems, for example — the effects are subjective and tough to pin down.  Given what’s at stake during pregnancy, many of us choose to play it safer than usual — the peace of mind is worth it.