Family Matters

Pregnant Women Awash in Chemicals. Is That Bad for Baby?

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In addition to big bellies, pregnant women are toting around dozens of chemicals, including some that have been banned for decades and others used in flame retardants, sunscreens and non-stick cookware.

“We looked at data on 163 chemicals and found that many of them are present in virtually all pregnant women,” says Tracey Woodruff, director of the Program on Reproductive Health and the Environment at the University of California-San Francisco (UCSF).

Woodruff counted the number of chemicals that pregnant women are exposed to and discovered that 43 of the 163 chemicals tracked were found in more than 99% of pregnant women. (More on Can a New Blood Test Make Babies with Down Syndrome Disappear?)

Those chemicals included polysyllabic tongue-twisters such as polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), organochlorine pesticides, perfluorinated compounds (PFCs), phenols, polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs), phthalates, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) and perchlorate. Also found was benzophenone-3, an ingredient in sunscreen.

Some of the chemicals were found in concentrations that have been linked to problems with brain development in childhood and fertility concerns potential, according to Woodruff’s research, which is being published today in Environmental Health Perspectives.

Woodruff crunched data on 268 pregnant women from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which collected blood and urine samples from participants in its National Health and Nutritional Examination Survey (NHANES) 2003-2004.

Bisphenol A (BPA), the controversial plastic-hardening chemical that baby bottle manufacturers have phased out in the wake of consumer protests — was found in 96% of the pregnant women. BPA, which is still used as a liner inside metal food and beverage cans, has been associated with hormonal disruption and adverse brain development. (More on Time.comStudy: BPA Exposure May Reduce Chances of IVF)

“We should be concerned about the number of chemicals pregnant women have in their bodies and we should we taking steps to find out what the implications are for exposure to multiple chemicals,” says Woodruff, who is also an associate professor in the UCSF Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology and Reproductive Sciences.

The U.S. Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976 hasn’t been updated since its creation, says Woodruff, which is reason enough to demand an overhaul. The law allows chemicals to be distributed in products without first being declared safe.

“If you go into a drugstore and buy shampoo, it can have chemicals in it that could be harmful,” says Woodruff. “We need to be re-examining the laws because chemicals are not being sufficiently tested and regulated.” (More on Time.comFlame Retardants in Everyday Products May Be a Health Hazard, Scientists Say)

Until then, pregnant women can take some precautions to try to reduce their chemical exposure:

Eat a healthy diet low in fats. “Some of these chemicals like to hang out in fat,” says Woodruff.

Wash your hands throughout the day as dust can harbor chemicals.

Choose personal-care products wisely, opting for those with fewer, less toxic ingredients.