Leading up to and during pregnancy, women are told to avoid alcohol and cigarettes, to make sure they get enough folate and omega-3 fatty acids, and to get adequate sleep and exercise. Most are told little or nothing about reducing their exposure to chemicals despite evidence suggesting that ingredients in plastics, vehicle exhaust and cosmetics additives can have profound impacts on babies’ health.
In recent years, the field of maternal-fetal medicine has started to respond. In 2013, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists issued a committee opinion, reaffirmed this year, “calling for timely action to identify and reduce exposure to toxic environmental agents while addressing the consequences of such exposure.” The International Federation of Gynecology and Obstetrics voiced a similar opinion in 2015, and the following year nearly 50 prominent U.S. doctors and scientists created Project TENDR: Targeting Environmental Neuro-Developmental Risks to call for reducing chemical exposures that can interfere with fetal and children’s brain development.
Yet, a recent survey suggests that most doctors don’t discuss exposure to pollutants with their pregnant patients.
“Fetal development is a critical window of human development, and so any toxic exposure during that time, during pregnancy, doesn’t only have a short-term effect at that moment, but really an effect that lasts the entire lifetime,” said Nathaniel DeNicola, who was on the committee that reaffirmed the ACOG opinion.
In 2011, University of California at San Francisco (UCSF) researcher Tracey Woodruff and colleagues reported finding traces of dozens of harmful chemicals in 99 percent or more of the 268 pregnant women whose urine they analyzed; among them were organochlorine pesticides, perchlorate, phthalates and cancer-causing compounds found in vehicle exhaust and smoke.
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