When you’re pregnant, I know that there is nothing more important than the health and wellbeing of your baby. But while our doctors tell us what to eat during pregnancy (no sushi!) and make sure that we exercise, there’s not enough emphasis on the chemicals we are exposed to during pregnancy.
I think that needs to change!
There are thousands and thousands of chemicals in use in the world right now, many of which are toxic and some of which aren’t even tested for safety. That’s a truth to swallow and it’s especially concerning when you’re pregnant.
Chances are the furniture you have in your house off-gases toxic chemicals, and the paint in your home decor does, too. Your neighbors may use pesticides on their lawn and your makeup and cleaning products may contain unsafe chemicals. Even some of the most unsuspecting products contain the highest levels of toxic chemicals.
Because these chemicals are in so many everyday products, it’s really easy to be exposed to them.
The good news is that many of the chemicals you come in contact with will not harm your baby. And some chemicals, whether natural or man-made, are only toxic at high doses (think of table salt, for example). The danger is that exposure to large amounts of toxic chemicals can increase your baby’s risk of congenital disorders. And the other good news is that there are so many things you can do to avoid the things that will cause harm.
And then there’s the fact that research is still up in the air about which chemicals will possibly harm pregnant women and their babies. For these reasons, I have always taken a conservative approach during pregnancy. Because it’s always better to be safe than sorry. That’s why I compiled a list of chemicals that are known to be dangerous and need to be avoided while you’re pregnant.
But first – breathe. This list is meant to empower you, not stress you out! Knowing what’s dangerous is more than half the battle and will help you be conscientious during your pregnancy.
Here’s the list of 10 household chemicals to avoid during pregnancy!
1. Pesticides and Herbicides
At first, these chemicals may seem like no big deal. After all, millions of homeowners use these chemicals to ward off pests and kill weeds on their property. Large-scale farmers use pesticides regularly to get rid of the pests that could destroy their crops.
The problem is that pesticides and herbicides are known to affect developing fetuses and newborn babies. One study indicated that fetuses whose mothers had higher exposures to pesticides had smaller head circumferences at birth.
Unfortunately, the effects of pesticides are much farther reaching than immediately after birth. Prenatal exposure to pesticides has been linked to increased risk of autism, tremor in childhood, and decreased IQ even at 7 years old. In fact, prenatal exposure to chlorpyrifos, a commonly used pesticide in the United States, has even been associated with changes in brain shape and size.
A study focused in California, and areas with high levels of pesticide exposure indicated an 11% increased the probability of preterm birth and a 20% increased likelihood of low birth weight.
“Some studies indicate that the greatest risk of exposure to pesticides is during the first 3 to 8 weeks of the first trimester when the neural tube development is occurring. If you discover you are pregnant and live near an agricultural area where pesticides are used, it is advised you remove yourself to avoid exposure to these chemicals.”– American Pregnancy Association
How can you avoid pesticides during pregnancy? It’s smart to avoid pesticides and herbicides as much as possible while you’re pregnant. That means you also shouldn’t be spraying these chemicals in your home and in your own yard. In fact, this is usually the largest source of exposure – right within our own homes! You can also find out what chemicals, if any, your HOA or management company is using on common areas in your community. If you need to petition them, use the helpful resources provided by the wonderful Non-Toxic Communities non-profit organization.
While eating more organic food and less conventional (non-organic) food is one way to avoid pesticides in your food, that’s not the only way. Choose in-season produce, and as much as possible, know about the history of the foods you choose.
In addition, avoid areas such as farms or golf courses, where large amounts of pesticides are sprayed. Pesticide droplets that fall on your skin can absorb into your body and cross the placenta to reach your baby.
Formaldehyde is an environmental pollutant that is found in a variety of household products. It can be found in furniture and cabinetry, especially if made from pressed wood like MDF or particle board. Your couches, carpets, and fabric softeners can be sources of formaldehyde as well. Sometimes, formaldehyde is used as a preservative in cosmetics, shampoo, and nail polish.
Typically, we are exposed to formaldehyde by breathing indoor air that is contaminated. Items that contain formaldehyde off-gas, spreading it throughout the air. It’s also a by-product of cigarette smoking and unvented, fuel-burning appliances, such as gas stoves and space heaters.
We know that exposure to formaldehyde can have toxic effects on the immune system. Studies showed that exposure during pregnancy could result in low birth weight and the inability to fight off inflammation.
Formaldehyde is known to cause cancer as well. Evidence also shows that exposure to formaldehyde can increase the risk of preterm birth and low birth weight. , which can have lifelong effects on your baby’s health and risk of developmental delays.
How can you avoid formaldehyde during pregnancy? To avoid formaldehyde, stay away from areas where people are smoking (or even areas where people smoke on a regular basis, even if no one is smoking there right at the moment). You should do this anyway, because prenatal exposure to cigarette smoke is a major risk factor for your baby’s health and can increase their risk of SIDS.
Keep rooms with gas stoves and space heaters well ventilated and run a HEPA air filter in your home. And skip the mani-pedi during pregnancy. (I personally don’t use any nail polish during pregnancy. Even after pregnancy, I still like to get my nails done – just without the polish or the use of any polish remover.)
Avoid using synthetic fragrances such as perfumes and air fresheners. And since clothing can be a big source of formaldehyde exposure, wash all new clothing well (multiple times in hot water, preferably!).
If you need help choosing cleaner products for your pregnancy, these guides will be helpful:
- The Best Clean Makeup Brands for Pregnant and Breastfeeding Mamas
- The Gentle List: Non-Toxic Brands I Love and Recommend (this includes everything from skincare to maternity clothing to furniture)
3. BPA, BPS, and Other Bisphenols
Chances are if you pick up a can of soup or vegetables in the store, you’ll find that it’s labeled with “No BPA.” BPA stands for Bisphenol A, and it’s just one of several bisphenols that you might come in contact with.
BPA is a chemical commonly used in plastics, especially food and beverage packaging. It mimics estrogen in the body of both men and women. In cases with extremely high exposures, BPA is linked to congenital disabilities.
We know that BPA is problematic in general, and that’s why there is a significant push to get rid of BPA in products. Some other examples of problems caused by BPA include:
- Early onset of puberty
- An increased risk of breast and prostate cancer
- Erectile dysfunction
- Heart disease
- Behavioral problems in children
Even at lower doses (which are more common now) BPA disrupts the body’s endocrine system. Fetal exposure to BPA is connected to developmental and reproductive damage, and even potential increased cancer risk. It has been shown in animals that BPA can reach offspring both through the placenta during pregnancy and in breastmilk.
While the FDA banned the use of BPA in sippy cups and baby bottles in 2012, it can still be found in other places. Food cans have a plastic lining in them, and up to 10% of these cans may have BPA in their liner.
When the public demanded BPA be removed from foods containers, manufacturers scrambled for a replacement chemical, and settled upon Bisphenol S (BPS). BPS is part of the same class of chemicals as BPA. However, recent studies performed on mice show that BPS affects maternal behavior and brain with outcomes depending on generation, dose, and the postpartum period. For this reason, BPS is considered not a safe substitute for BPA, but you also won’t commonly find this labeled on products.
How can you avoid bisphenols during pregnancy? To avoid bisphenols, limit the amount of restaurant food and pre-prepared foods you eat. At the grocery store, choose foods stored in glass containers. Alternatively, plastic containers with recycling codes 1, 2, 4, or 5 are also safe. Just DON’T choose plastics with recycling code 7.
These articles may also be helpful as you reduce your use of plastics:
- How to Use Less Plastic: 17 Things You Can Do Now
- The Best Glass Baby Bottles
- The Best Non-Toxic Sippy Cup Alternatives
- The Best Stainless Steel Baby Bottles
4. PFAS Chemicals
PFOA is Perfluorooctanoic acid and PFOS is perfluorooctane sulfonate, both of which belong to a class of chemicals called perfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS). These chemicals contain fluorine and are used to make non-stick, stain-resistant materials (of which, the classic example is Teflon).
But Teflon isn’t the only place you can find perfluoroalkyl substances such as PFOA and PFOS! For example, you can find PFASs in:
- Pizza boxes
- Furniture and carpeting
- Stain-resistant clothing
- Non-stick coated pots & pans
- Microwave popcorn bag
- Fast-food containers such as the paperboard containers used for rice bowls
Exposures to PFOAs during pregnancy increases the risk of lower birth weight in babies. Researchers at John Hopkins found that women with elevated levels of PFOAs in their blood gave birth to infants with reduced birth weight and head circumference. ther studies link PFOAs with infertility problems, low sperm quality, and elevated cholesterol levels.
Those aren’t the only problems associated with PFOAs. Some of the other potential effects on humans include:
- Cholesterol changes
- Liver problems
- Immune disorders
- Thyroid dysfunctions
- Increased levels of uric acid
Doctors believe that exposure to high levels of PFOAs may lead to impaired fetal development, skeletal issues, cardiovascular problems, testicular cancer, kidney cancer, and thyroid cancer.
Much like bisphenols, perfluoroalkyl substances are endocrine disruptors that are linked to reproductive effects, metabolic effects (such as links to obesity and elevated cholesterol levels), and other issues.
In addition, these chemicals are persistent, meaning they stay in the environment a long time after they’re made. They also bioaccumulate, or stay in the human body for long periods. Unfortunately, we all have some level of PFOAs in our system.
But there’s a silver lining: If you reduce your daughter’s exposure to PFOS and PFOA, you’ll be in turn lowering your grandchildren’s exposure when she becomes pregnant years later!
How can you avoid PFAS during pregnancy? Fortunately, there are a few easy ways to avoid PFAS. If you eat popcorn, choose air popped varieties instead of bagged. Ditch your traditional non-stick cookware – especially if it’s been scratched. Some safer substitutes to switch to include ceramic, which is great for eggs, stainless steel, or cast iron (great for basically everything else!). Don’t use anything that’s waterproof, including waterproof furniture, clothing, mascara, or other items.
You’ve probably noticed products, especially in the beauty aisle, labeled as containing “No Parabens.” And maybe you’ve wondered if that matters. Parabens are a preservative (I talk more about preservatives a bit later), and like so many other synthetic chemicals, they can mimic estrogen. Evidence links parabens to an increased risk of cancer.
The problem with parabens is that they seem to be everywhere. You can find them in shampoo, moisturizers, and deodorants. It can be easy to end up with an excess amount of parabens in your system when they’re in multiple products that you use each day.
Europe banned the use of parabens, but the United States fails to do so despite the evidence that parabens accumulate in the body over time. Parabens can cross the placenta, posing a significant health risk after high exposures.
“One study found that pregnant mothers with the highest paraben levels had a greater chance of having preterm birth and that babies conceived to these mothers had decreased gestational age at birth, lower birth weight, and decreased body length.” – Mustela USA
The effects of parabens don’t stop there. Some evidence suggests that exposure to parabens can develop an ill-functioning reproductive system. A study showed that pregnant moms with high levels of parabens had an increased risk of preterm labor, lower birth weight, and decreased body length. The same study also indicated that babies exposed to high levels of parabens have an increased problem with social interactions, learning, and memory functions.
How can you avoid parabens during pregnancy? Choose clean makeup and personal care products that are made with simple organics. Avoid anything that contains ingredients that end in “paraben” such as: methylparaben, isopropylparaben, propylparaben, and benzylparaben.
Plastic seems to dominate our world, and phthalates are a chemical that is added to plastics to soften them . For example, phthalates are used to make body lotion spreadable and even put into hair spray! In addition, they’re added to food packaging. Coated time-release pharmaceuticals can contain phthalates. All these phthalate uses means that we’re exposed to them more often than we realize.
Once again, these compounds are hormone disruptors. Evidence shows that phthalates are linked to effects on sex hormones in men and women. Also, they increase the risk of congenital reproductive disabilities, such as reducing a woman’s chances of getting pregnant. Phthalates can also increase risk of premature birth. Research completed through animal studies shows that phthalates impact birth outcomes, such as gestational age and birth weight. It also can affect sperm production and anatomical abnormalities.
Phthalates also affect the nervous system and the respiratory system. The National Institute for Health linked prenatal exposure to phthalates and ADHD in kids. In addition, phthalates have been associated with developmental delays, causing issues with motor skills used in everyday activities. They may cause slowed language development as well. And finally, studies suggest that phthalates and asthma have a connection.
There are many ways to lower your exposure to phthalates. The biggest thing is to avoid synthetic fragrance. Do not use any products that contain “fragrance”, “parfum”, or other non-descript fragrance ingredients.
Also, choose hair and personal care products that are phthalate free (they’re likely labeled as such on the bottle). In addition, avoid vinyl (often found in waterproof covers). Where possible, use silicone products in place of other plastics.
7. Benzophenone or “Benzones”
Another example of xenoestrogens (estrogen mimickers), benzones are a class of sunscreens that you should avoid in pregnancy. Instead, make sure you use mineral-based sunscreens containing titanium dioxide or zinc oxide. And one of the coolest things to know about sunscreen is that there’s no difference between adult and baby/children’s sunscreen. So I use the same sunscreen that my kids use!
Of course, if you’re looking for a tinted sunscreen or just a more adult choice, there are a couple of other brands I like. Check out the master list of non-toxic products for more sunscreen recommendations.
8. Preservatives, Especially Sodium Benzoate and Phenoxyethanol
Preservatives can be found in anything from chips to lotion. Companies use preservatives in items that you might not even realize “need” one, and that makes it tricky to avoid totally. There are many different preservatives used in products, but two common preservatives that you want to make sure to you avoid are sodium benzoate and phenoxyethanol.
Sodium benzoate is used as an antimicrobial agent that stops the growth of mold, bacteria, insects, and microorganisms. However, benzoates are linked to allergies, asthma, and skin rashes. We also know that sodium benzoate converts to benzene, which is a known carcinogen. in the presence of Vitamin C. Also, high intakes of this chemical increase the risk of ADHD symptoms.
Phenoxyethanol is a naturally occurring chemical, but it also can be synthetically produced. It is commonly added to cosmetics, shampoos, and lotions. Phenoxyethanol can be found in other things as well, like paint and cleaning products.
Studies show that phenoxyethanol has toxic effects on the brain and nervous system, even in moderate amounts. Not only is it a suspected carcinogen, but studies show that it irritates the eyes, skin, and respiratory tract.
The European Union classifies it as an irritant, and a survey completed by the Europa EU shows that phenoxyethanol causes harmful reactions at low doses.
Check ingredient lists for sodium benzoate and phenoxyethanol. You’ll often find these in personal care products, so again, check my clean beauty guide and the master list for clean product recommendations. You’ll also find preservatives in cleaning products, household products, and even some foods. But if you mostly buy whole, natural foods from the perimeter of the grocery store, you will have less concern about preservatives in your foods.
9. Hormones and Antibiotics in Your Food
Hormones and antibiotics are regularly used in food production throughout North America. There is a lot of controversies that surround the use of these chemicals in livestock.
Unless you purchase all of your meat from a local, organic, grass-fed farmer, the chances are high that some hormones are present in almost all meat products. The FDA and WHO claim that these hormones are safe for eating, but not everyone is convinced of their safety. For example, the European Union banned the use of all hormone growth promoters in livestock.
We know that high levels of hormones can cause adverse side effects in the human body, but parents and doctors wonder if ingesting hormones can change our levels as well. If they can alter our hormones, then you have to wonder what side effects we might experience.
One study compared mothers and sperm quantity and quality based on their beef consumption. Nearly 20% of mothers with high beef consumption birthed sons who had sperm concentrations below the international threshold for subfertility. That indicates that there might be a connection between hormones and fertility problems.
Let’s not forget that livestock, in particular, cattle, is treated frequently for mastitis, which is an infection in the udder. These infections require antibiotics, but the unsanitary conditions in large commercial farms increase the frequency of occurrences.
The overuse of antibiotics creates a higher resistance to certain bacteria, making it harder to treat infections. Bacterial strains are becoming stronger and more resistant to antibiotics over time. Researchers worry that consuming animal products that contain antibiotics will, over time, make antibiotics less effective to treat infections in humans.
How can you avoid this? Don’t worry — you do not have to become a vegetarian if you don’t want to. In fact, there are many benefits to consuming meat, so I am not encouraging you to drop meats from your diet whatsoever. (Not to mention, your protein and nutrient needs skyrocket during pregnancy.) Simply choose organic, grass-fed and pasture-raised meats whenever possible. Avoid fast foods and eat as well as you can during your pregnancy.
10. Lead, Mercury, and Other Heavy Metals
Exposure to lead is dangerous. It’s a potent neurotoxin that can cause permanent brain damage, nervous system disorders, and hyperactivity, along with behavior and learning difficulties. Lead exposures can also reduce a child’s growth, both in utero and after birth.
Many people assume that risks from lead exposure are over because lead paint was banned in 1978, but this is unfortunately not the case. The lead in old paint, water pipes, and even soil doesn’t just disappear. So we can be exposed to old lead in our community, and many children continue to be exposed to lead from homes built prior to 1978.
Exposure to lead may occur during pregnancy when the mother drinks tap water contaminated with lead. It can leach out of old or poorly maintained water pipes. We can see a modern-day example of this in Flint, Michigan.
“In 2015, researchers at Virginia Tech revealed the problem: water samples collected from 252 homes through a resident-organized effort indicated citywide lead levels had spiked, with nearly 17 percent of samples registering above the federal “action level” of 15 parts per billion (ppb), the level at which corrective action must be taken. More than 40 percent measured above 5 ppb of lead, which the researchers considered an indication of a severe problem.” – NRDC
More commonly, lead exposure happens in older homes, built before the early 80s. While lead paint was banned in 1978, there may be layers of lead paint underneath more current coats of paint. Window sills and door frames are most likely to contain lead paint.
If you are in an older home, it is easy to get a test kit and check your home for lead paint. If you find lead paint, DO NOT remove it yourself. Paint dust can be inhaled and expose you (and your baby) to much more lead than you would be exposed to if you just left it alone.
Instead, you can hire a certified contractor to remove the lead from your walls, but that will be very expensive. The best alternative is likely to paint over the old paint. This will encapsulate the lead, keeping your family safe.
If you live in an industrial area or in an area with older homes, also check your soil before you begin gardening. Lead might be present in your soil, and if you plant crops in this soil, they may uptake lead. Then, when you eat your produce, you may unknowingly eat lead. You can get a soil test kit, or simply make a raised bed garden with potting soil.
Avoiding Chemicals While Pregnant
When you stop and think about it, we are surrounded by chemicals that could be potentially dangerous to our bodies and our unborn babies. It can be overwhelming at times, but that’s why we need to take small steps to reduce our chemical exposure.
Be conscious of the choices you make and the products that you use to find the safest ones for you and your family.
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