Chemicals and Pregnant Women: Taking Care of Your Unborn Baby

A major analysis by University of California scientists of typical pregnant women across the US found widespread evidence of toxic chemicals in their blood, often at levels that have been linked to a higher risk of developmental and reproductive problems in babies in other studies. Beyond this, the pregnant women in this study were typically exposed to mixtures of various toxic chemicals at one time, with effects we have yet to understand.

Another study, done at the academic fertility center in Boston found that maternal preconceptive exposure to toxic chemicals, especially phthalates, increased the risk of preterm birth. This is the first study to show that chemicals in the body around the time of conception may negatively contribute to the future fetus. 

The need for future studies in this area is very important and as we continue to learn more about the effects of chemicals on our wellbeing and health, it is prudent to take precautions where we can and work on increasing our general health by having a good diet and getting daily physical activity.  

Chemicals and Pregnant Women: Taking a Peek Behind the Curtain

While it might be tempting to be anxious because of these landmark studies or to ignore them because it seems too overwhelming, I recommend a different response. These studies are not a warning of a scary new epidemic of problems arriving with next year’s babies.

Instead, they are a peek behind the curtain at what might be the hidden story behind the marvelous kids we already see on today’s playgrounds across the country. Most are very healthy – among the healthiest kids in history. Yes, too many are overweight. Too many have asthma. Too many have allergies. Too many have learning problems. Too many start puberty early. More than half have some chronic illness. But this isn’t slowing kids down as much as the devastating infectious diseases of the past. It is a vibrant generation of children.

Our time reminds me of the era when germs were first discovered – invisible, impossibly small organisms that had already been causing human disease. Their detection paved the way for great improvements in health.

We are now able to detect toxic chemicals, at what were recently impossibly low levels to detect, that may already have been causing human disease. I’m hopeful that this will pave the way for great improvements in health, and a focused look at prenatal health.

All Products Are Eco-products

This topic reminds me of the study I helped design and launch with the Environmental Working Group in 2005, where we found an average of 200 industrial chemicals already in babies at the moment of birth. Environmental chemicals weren’t just polluting air, soil, and water “out there” somewhere; they were polluting the innermost sanctum of the womb.

The distinction between a product’s impact on the “environment” and on us is, in the long run, irrelevant. We are part of the environment.

All products and their manufacture have environmental consequences. We make eco-choices every time we buy. The question is whether we are selecting better environmental impact or worse environmental impact. Our choices add up. And matter.

Public Policy Changes Your Body

One of the most striking aspects of the University of California study was that the toxic chemical profile was different in pregnant women living in different states, varying with the chemical regulations there. This makes sense. We already knew on a national level that when lead was removed from gasoline by public policy, the lead levels in our children plummeted.

Public policy about regulating chemicals isn’t boring or irrelevant; it’s meaningful and intensely personal. The issues are often complex, but the results can change our bodies. Pay attention to these issues, and let your voice be heard.

Your Choices do Matter

Many industrial chemicals were found coursing through the blood of pregnant women. Some chemicals were found in women all across the country because of background levels widespread in the environment. Some varied state by state, according to environmental regulations there.

But for some chemicals, the levels varied widely, as do the choices individual women make in the products they use in their homes and on their bodies. The antibacterial chemical triclosan is perhaps the best example of this. For most of us, there is no proven benefit from using this chemical. Meanwhile, many experts are concerned about triclosan causing bacterial resistance, increased allergies, thyroid hormone problems, and sex hormone imbalances.

Some women have a lot of triclosan in their bodies; some have almost none. Pregnant women in this study had more, on average, than non-pregnant women the same age.

Five percent of pregnant women had triclosan levels more than 35 times higher than the average (median) pregnant woman in the study. It’s stored in the fat.

Where does a woman get exposed? It’s obvious on the label of antibacterial liquid hand soaps. But it’s in lots of other products as well, from spoons to socks and from toys to trash bags. Many women were surprised to learn that it is sometimes found in cosmetics and even toothpaste (Colgate Total).

The Products you Use Change your Body

But what to do? Green and natural claims on labels can make it tough to tell the difference between good products and good marketing. Triclosan feels complicated – and that’s just one chemical. I have two simple suggestions.

  1. I suggest pregnant women or those with young families take an online field trip to Skin Deep where you can easily check your favorite brands and see what’s in them and what it means. It’s a simple red, yellow, or green light system. Pay special attention to things you use on the skin, in the mouth, or that you spray in the air. These are areas that can more easily absorb the chemicals. You might love what you discover about your favorites – or choose to switch to one of the many safer brands.
  2. Instead or in addition, you may want to shop at a trusted online or real-world store where everything in the store has been selected to be healthy, safe, and smart – after doing the research every mom would do IF she had unlimited time and resources.

When you pick products for yourself when you’re pregnant, you’re choosing for the two of you.

What to Do About Chemicals and Pregnant Women? A Green Solution; Leafy Green That Is!

Yes, we want to reduce exposure to toxic chemicals during pregnancy, both through simple personal choices and through public policy.

But there’s also growing evidence that certain potent nutrients found in some plant-based foods can prevent, reduce, or repair damage from toxic exposures when they do occur.

Researchers at Duke University demonstrated expected problems such as obesity, altered reproductive function, and increased cancer risk in animals whose mothers were exposed to the plastic chemical BPA during pregnancy.

Here’s the exciting part: when the pregnant mothers also got extra folic acid, a nutrient most common in green leafy vegetables (think “foliage”), this completely erased the BPA damage in their offspring. It worked through a process called epigenetics, the turning on and off of key genes.

Spinach and kale chips aren’t the only protective foods, but they are a good start. There are a rainbow of foods known to prevent and repair damage from threats in the environment.

All-star Foods for Pregnant Women, Children, and – Really – for All of Us

  1. Green leafy vegetables, such as kale (think kale chips) and spinach (maybe load up your smoothies with these!).
  2. Whole soy (think edamame). I understand soy is controversial (see my take on the controversy), but soy had the same effect as greens in some studies.
  3. Cherries. Tart cherries in particular can be powerful at reducing both inflammation and oxidative damage.
  4. Yogurt. Beneficial bacteria are part of the frontline of our defense. And getting plenty of calcium can help keep lead we’re exposed to out of our bloodstreams, and our baby’s.
  5. Mustard seeds. Mustard has been used medicinally since the time of Hippocrates, and more recently to protect from damage from environmental chemicals. They are famously small, but herbs and spices often contain the most concentrated nutrients of all all-star foods.
  6. Cumin. Part of the great flavor of modern Tex-Mex cuisine, cumin has been used around the world in traditional Latin dishes, as well as in the curries of India and the Middle East. Studies are finding that it can prevent and repair damage of many kinds.
  7. Turmeric. This yellow curry spice (and it’s major ingredient, curcumin) is the superstar of the team. I’ve seen more studies into its health benefits than with any other herb or spice. If your family is going to learn to love one spice flavor, it’s hard to think of a better choice.

This group is colorful and powerful. Protective effects of healthy foods add to and enhance each other. Take advantage of these powerful flavors and add them to your favorite recipes or try some new recipes! Take a look at some of my favorite recipes here.

Bon appetit et bonne santé!

References and Resources

Balasubramanian, K. Molecular Orbital Basis for Yellow Curry Spice Curcumin’s Prevention of Alzheimer’s Disease. Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry 2006; 54(10): 3512 –3520. 

Dolinoy DC, Huang D, and Jirtle RJ. Maternal nutrient supplementation counteracts bisphenol A-induced DNA hypomethylation in early development. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS)2007; 104(32):13056-13061.

Dorai, T, Cao, Y.C, Dorai, B, et al. Therapeutic Potential of Curcumin in Human Prostate Cancer. III. Curcumin Inhibits Proliferation, Induces Apoptosis, and Inhibits Angiogenesis of LNCaP Prostate Cancer Cells in Vivo. Prostate 2001; 47(4): 293–303. 

Egan, ME, Pearson, M, Weiner, SA, et al. Curcumin, a Major Constituent of Turmeric, Corrects Cystic Fibrosis Defects. Science 2004; 304(5670): 600–602. 

Kirakosyan A, Seymour EM, Urcuyo Llanes DE, Kaufman PB, Bolling SF. Chemical profile and antioxidant capacities of tart cherry products. Food Chem. 2009; 115:20–5.

Liu RH. Health benefits of fruit and vegetables are from additive and synergistic combination of phytochemicals. Am J Clin Nutr. 2003; 78:S517–20.

Martinez-Tome, M, Jimenez, AM, Ruggieri, S, et al. Antioxidant Properties of Mediterranean Spices Compared with Common Food Additives. Journal of Food Protection 2001; 64(9): 1412–1419.

Nagabhushan, M, and Bhide, SV. Curcumin as an Inhibitor of Cancer. Journal of the American College of Nutrition  1992;11(2):192–198. 

Nakamura, K, Yasunaga, Y, Segawa, T, et al. Curcumin Down-Regulates AR Gene Expression and Activation in Prostate Cancer Cell Lines. International Journal of Oncology 2002; 21(4): 825–830.

Seeram NP, Momin RA, Nair MG, Bourquin LD. Cyclooxygenase inhibitory and antioxidant cyanidin glycosides in cherries and berries. Phytomedicine 2001;8:362–9.

Shah, BH, Nawaz, Z, Pertani, SA, et al. Inhibitory Effect of Curcumin, a Food Spice from Turmeric, on Platelet- Activating Factor- and Arachidonic Acid-Mediated Platelet Aggregation Through Inhibition of Thromboxane Formation and Ca2+ Signa. Biochemical Pharmacology 1999; 58(7): 1167–1167.

Shishodia, S, Amin, HM, Lai, R, Aggarwal, BB. Curcumin (Diferuloylmethane) Inhibits Constitutive NF-Kappab Activation, Induces G1/S Arrest, Suppresses Proliferation, and Induces Apoptosis in Mantle Cell Lymphoma. Biochemical Pharmacology 2005; 70(5):700–713.

Thimmulappa, R.K, Mai, KH, Srisuma, S, et al. Identification of Nrf2-regulated Genes Induced by the Chemopreventive Agent Sulforaphane by Oligonucleotide Microarray. Cancer Research. 2002; 62(18):5196–5203.

Woodruff, TJ, Zota, AR, and Schwartz JM. Environmental Chemicals in Pregnant Women in the US: NHANES 2003-2004 Environmental Health Perspectives 2011. 

Zhang Y, Mustieles V, Yland J, et al. Association of Parental Preconception Exposure to Phthalates and Phthalate Substitutes With Preterm Birth. JAMA Netw Open. 2020; 3(4).

Last medical review on: January 05, 2021
About the Author
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Dr. Greene is a practicing physician, author, national and international TEDx speaker, and global health advocate. He is a graduate of Princeton University and University of California San Francisco.
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