Environmental toxins and pregnancy

January 10, 2013

There is increasing evidence that exposure to environmental chemicals at levels encountered in daily life can have negative effects on women’s reproductive and children’s developmental health. Research from the UCSF Bixby Center’s Program on Reproductive Health and the Environment (PRHE) shows that nearly every pregnant woman in the US has measureable levels of multiple such chemicals in her body.

Exposure to certain environmental chemicals has been linked to birth defects; premature deliveries, stillbirths, and infants with low birth weight; and problems with nervous system development. New evidence also suggests that some environmental chemicals in men’s and women’s bodies are linked with reduced fertility.

Yet a recent PRHE survey shows that most Obstetrician-Gynecologists do not talk to their prenatal patients about environmental chemicals. Nearly all Ob-Gyns in the survey routinely talked to pregnant patients about alcohol, smoking, and weight gain. Most (86%) also discussed how to limit workplace hazards, and some (44%) talked about the risks of certain types of fish containing high levels of mercury. But few (5-19%) physicians discussed common sources of environmental chemicals like pesticides, air pollution, processed and canned foods, cosmetics, and the fumes from gas and other solvents.

With so many sources of environmental chemicals and increasing evidence of their harm during pregnancy, women need specific information about how to reduce their exposure. Most of the Ob-Gyns in the survey (86%) believed that could help their patients reduce their exposure, but they were concerned that this is not their area of expertise. Ob-Gyns noted the need for clear-cut practice guidelines on environmental chemicals and reproductive health, and that they trust information from the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists.

Reducing or preventing preconception and prenatal exposure to environmental chemicals can have multiple benefits lasting a lifetime. PRHE has developed free resources that clinicians and families can use to learn about and discuss the issue of environmental chemicals and reproductive health.