When women are pregnant, their world suddenly becomes a different place. Their number one priority is to protect the fetus they carry on their journey to birth.
There are, of course, some obvious and well-known dangers to a developing fetus that should be avoided, such as x-rays radiation, smoking, alcohol, and certain foods. But what about lesser-known, perhaps invisible factors that might cause harm?
Here we look at how women can safeguard themselves and their fetuses from potentially harmful chemicals.
What are the Potentially Harmful Chemicals to Avoid During Pregnancy?
Harmful toxins can be present in the air, water, the workplace or everyday products. Substances with the potential to harm can be breathed in, absorbed, or consumed by a pregnant woman. They can then affect the fetus via the bloodstream and the placenta. What are some of the biggest offenders?
- Air pollution: contaminants such as carbon and nitrogen monoxide found in the air, especially in densely populated areas. In addition, air can contain tiny organic or biological particles and molecules, such as soot. Poor air quality is, unfortunately, something pregnant women have little control over.
- Water pollution: water can contain contaminants from untreated sewage, agricultural or industrial chemicals that are illegally dumped in the water, and stormwater runoff that releases city waste, such as heavy metals. One of the most worrying contaminants is microplastics, which have already been found in the placenta and meconium. Similar to air pollution, women unfortunately do not have much control over poor water quality.
- Cigarette smoke: everyone now knows the risks of smoking, not just on personal health, but on the fetus. Healthcare providers will always advise against smoking or coming into contact with secondhand smoke. According to the World Health Organization, being exposed to second-hand smoke during pregnancy is connected to a 23% risk of stillbirth and a 13% increased risk of congenital malformation.
- Household chemicals: cleaning products, paint and other household chemicals may be a risk during pregnancy. It’s essential to avoid them or at least cover up when using these. For example, using gloves or wearing a face mask can help. For peace of mind, try using a more natural alternative. So many sustainable cleaning products are available on the market today that are free from toxic chemicals.
- Garden products: readily available insecticides, weedkillers and pesticides can be a risk to the health of women and the fetus. Many common brands are already banned in certain parts of the world due to the harm these chemicals can cause. For example, Roundup has been banned in several countries around the world due to the health concerns surrounding glyphosate.
What are the Risks to the Fetus?
Fetuses exposed to environmental pollutants, contaminants and chemicals, including tobacco smoke, could be susceptible to low birth weight, preterm births or even stillbirth. Harmful substances may also contribute to conditions such as asthma and allergies later in life for the fetus.
There is growing concern about plastics and the detrimental effects they may have on the developing fetus. Plastics like bisphenol A (BPA), used in food containers and drink bottles, could leech into the food and be ingested by the mother. The fetus could consume this chemical via the placenta or breast milk.
As BPA behaves like estrogen hormones, it is possibly believed to be an endocrine (hormone) disruptor. Hormones are essential to a healthy reproductive system but premature exposure to hormonal disruptors mean the fetus’ future hormonal function and ability to develop and reproduce are negatively impacted. Research into the effects of exposure before birth is currently underway in the US. The National Toxicology Programme (NTP) in the US is carrying out a long-term study on BPA before and after giving birth. The study aims to uncover whether BPA exposure could increase the risk of cancer.
How Can Women Safeguard Themselves and Their Fetus?
Notably, the body has its own defence system and the placenta, which nourishes the fetus until birth, also protects it. It does this by filtering out and reducing the harmful substances that can transfer from mother to fetus. But it can’t block everything, and certain damaging chemicals or compounds, even microplastics, can pass through and reach the fetus.
Women look to their healthcare providers for essential advice regarding safeguarding their fetuses. However, healthcare providers might not have the most up-to-date information, especially regarding environmental toxins such as plastics. It is crucial, therefore, for women to educate themselves. Protecting themselves and their babies from harmful chemicals also involves some common sense and logic.
We interviewed Dr Marie Renié of English Doctor Barcelona on the LifeSaver Project Podcast Show hosted by The Planet Calls, about the risks of potentially harmful chemicals, and she had some excellent advice.
- Regarding outdoor air pollution, Dr Renié suggested avoiding going out when it is at its peak. This often occurs during very hot or foggy weather. Air pollution levels are regularly included in the weather forecast, so listen ahead and be prepared.
- Dr Renié also had advice regarding indoor air quality. Damp, dust, condensation and mould can affect health in many ways, but it can be improved with adequate ventilation and by using dehumidifiers. She also suggests avoiding air fresheners and scented candles as they release compounds directly into our living spaces. Candles made of paraffin in particular release carcinogenic soot when burnt. This release cannot always be seen by the eye. This soot can cause respiratory issues and aggravate the conditions of people who already have lung or heart problems and asthma. These candles are also detrimental to the environment. The emissions from paraffin-based candles contain most of the same chemicals released when burning diesel fuel.
- Cigarette smoking and exposure to smoke should be avoided at all times. If possible, even avoid contact with a smoker’s clothing as garments hold onto the residue of tobacco. Smoking while pregnant can result in tissue damage in the fetus, particularly, in the brain and lungs. Some studies also have found a connection between cleft lip and maternal smoking. Other researchers believe there to be a relationship between tobacco and miscarriage.
- When painting or using household chemicals, wear protective gloves and a mask. Wash exposed skin afterwards, especially after any accidental splashes.
- Dr Renié also has advice concerning cosmetics, vitamins and beauty products such as nail polish and hair dye. Skin is a living, breathing organ and can absorb anything applied to it. She suggests avoiding them during pregnancy or seeking more natural alternatives. For instance, in excess, vitamin A and its derivatives (retinols commonly found in food and skin creams) can pass through the placenta. Retinoids are a type of vitamin A that healthcare professionals recommend women avoid during pregnancy. Some studies believe vitamin A, in high amounts, to be potentially harmful to the fetus.
Dr Renié realises that information regarding the risks to a fetus can be overwhelming and a great source of anxiety. However, she also recommends that pregnant women stay optimistic because child mortality has reduced drastically around the world in the last decades. Moreover, this figure is still reducing. Pregnancy is, after all, a time of joy and great excitement, and it is important not to let unnecessary stress overtake these feelings.
How the LifeSaver Project is Helping Pregnant Women and the fetus
Research regarding harmful environmental chemicals and their effect on the fetus is vital but is also extremely limited. This is where the LifeSaver Project can change the way research is undertaken.
Its digital in silico/in vitro alternative enables expedited testing of environmental contaminants, pharmaceuticals and other potentially damaging factors without harming maternal or fetal health. It will also reduce animal testing and could ensure better fetal health and birth outcomes.
The female body is a miraculous living machine, highly developed to protect a growing fetus. But it is always important to keep safe during pregnancy. Pregnant women looking after their own health during pregnancy provide the fetus with the best possible start. Meanwhile, the LifeSaver Project is working towards a new era in testing that will significantly improve the outcomes for unborn babies worldwide.