What You Need to Know About Chemical Exposure During Pregnancy

Doctors aren’t talking about it even though they know they should

Updated 10/25/18

Stocksy

There’s no doubt that there’s an over-policing of pregnant women and their bodies. There is constant scare mongering in the headlines, saying that you have to eat something or the baby will suffer—but then the very next moment women are told they can’t eat that very same thing or the baby will suffer. They shouldn’t gain too much weight, but they shouldn’t gain too little. We remind them that it’s their duty to be constantly vigilant and place a completely unrealistic, often nonsensical burden on them, filled with competing advice.

And yet, with all of the advice that’s flying around (much of it completely nonscientific) there is one very big, very real bit of advice that doesn’t come up. Exposure to chemicals during pregnancy is a real thing—and we’re not talking about it. But, more than that, doctors aren’t talking about, even though they know they should.

As much as I’m hesitant to pile on one more thing that pregnant need to worry about, this one has been backed by science and is definitely worth your attention. Chemical exposure is a real problem and, though it’s definitely not something to start feeling guilty about or panicking over, it’s good to be informed. Here’s what you need to know.

Exposure to Chemicals Is Ubiquitous

We're all at risk of chemical exposure—and it has major health consequences. These consequences don't just affect full-grown adults; they can also affect a developing fetus. The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists have been very clear on this point—so much so that it published an entire report on it. “Exposure to environmental chemicals and metals in air, water, soil, food, and consumer products is ubiquitous,” the report said. “An analysis of National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey data from 2003–2004 found that virtually every pregnant woman in the United States is exposed to at least 43 different chemicals.”

When testing the blood or urine of pregnant women, it’s not unusual to find chemicals that we would normally see in cleaning supplies, plastics, and other substances you probably wouldn’t want anywhere near your fetus. The report also pointed out that because chemicals can gather in the womb, fetuses sometimes end up with more exposure than the mother. Exposure was also found to be exacerbated by socio-economic concerns, with those living in poverty receiving greater exposure.

The consequences can be huge. The report pointed out that prenatal exposure to certain pesticides has been linked to an increase in the risk for cancer in childhood. And yet, despite the high risk and the scale of the threat, doctors aren’t talking about it.

A Profession-Wide Reluctance

With the huge threat posed by chemicals—and the fact that, depressingly, they seem to exist practically everywhere and in everything—you might imagine that chemical exposure would come high on the list when talking to pregnant women about risks, but that’s far from the truth. In fact, one study found that 85 percent of doctors don't feel comfortable bringing up chemical exposure with their patients—and only 40 percent bring it up at all. Perhaps most worryingly, only 10 percent said that they’d even know how to advise their patients on reducing chemical exposure, if it even came up. The rest, presumably, wouldn't even know where to begin.

And that may be part of the problem. With the ubiquity of chemicals, talking to a patient about reducing exposure can feel futile—as it’s virtually impossible to avoid exposure altogether. Not only that, many doctors are already aware of the stress and pressures placed on pregnant women and don’t want to add to the pile. Plus, not everyone can afford organic food or change their job or their home because of pollutants. It’s just not realistic.

Simple, Clear Guidelines

But just because it’s not always realistic or there are certain limitations to the changes that can be made is no reason to avoid the topic altogether—far from it. Instead, pregnant women need something clear and comprehensive to help them navigate the confusing and often overwhelming world of potential chemical exposure. And, luckily, there are some signs that this could be in the pipeline. In fact, groups like the Environment and Reproduction Special Interest Group at the American Society for Reproductive Medicine provides resources and exposure assessment forms for doctors to help instigate the conversation and tackle the issue.

Pregnant women are under so much stress and conflicting advice, that it’s easy to feel hesitant about adding to their load. But when there are scientifically backed risks that the entire obstetric and gynecological profession agrees on, it’s too important to ignore. Yes, bringing it up can be difficult and we need clear advice, rather than hysterical or catastrophizing language. But what’s obvious is, we need to be opening up the conversation—rather than shutting it down.

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