Problems during pregnancy

If there is ever a time in our lives when even low levels of a chemical pollutant could have a serious impact, it is surely when we are a foetus developing in the womb.

The exposure to chemicals during early development can cause any number of problems including miscarriages, premature births or birth defects.

There are also problems that can develop later on in infancy such as neurological development or childhood cancers which may be linked, as well as illnesses which develop many years later in adulthood e.g. adult cancer or cardiovascular disorders.

It is worrying to think that so many chemical pollutants are found in pregnant women. A study by the University of California identified 163 contaminants in pregnant women and also found that polychlorinated biphenols, organochlorine pesticides, perfluorinated compounds, flame retardants, phthalates, phenols, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons and perchlorate were detected in 99-100% of these women.

Pregnant women can be exposed to many of these chemicals in their own homes.

Researchers involved discovered that the levels of many of the chemicals analysed were similar to the levels which other scientific studies have linked to health effects. This was the case with some phthalates which were detected at levels associated with feminisation in young males, and with mercury, which was found at levels linked with effects on neurological development (similar to some flame retardants). We can assume that we are all exposed to a number of different pollutants, and that future mothers will have various chemicals in their body that could also produce these effects. Perchlorate, PCBs, PBDEs and triclosan, for example, can all affect maternal thyroid hormones, and other phthalates can affect the development of male reproductive organs.

Levels of DDE, perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOS: a perfluorinated compound), benzophenone 3 (solar filter in creams), monoethyl phthalate (MEP), bisphenol A etc. were also detected in pregnant women, as well as others which pregnant women could be exposed to, which are found in  food, tap water, beauty products and cosmetics, air, paint, varnishes, solvents, pesticides, cleaning products etc.

Scientific studies have linked many substances in our homes to adverse effects during pregnancy.

For example, chemicals linked with fetotoxicity (which can cause miscarriages), chemicals which may induce congenital defects, cause premature births or low birth weights, or cause defects in cerebral development or reproductive organs.

Phthalates, for example, are common pollutants in our homes and have been linked to an increased risk of premature births.

Amongst other possible effects, young males can undergo hormonal changes such as feminisation or insufficient development of sexual organs.

The use of pesticides in the home during pregnancy has been shown by various studies to increase the risk for children of suffering from leukaemia or non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

The use of some pyrethroid pesticides during pregnancy has been linked by one study to a notable decrease in mental development in newborn children and infants up to 3 years old.

Some levels of organophosphate pesticide residues in mothers have been shown to affect the mental development of children.

According to scientific research, using certain air fresheners in our homes could lead to an increased risk of suffering from headaches and postnatal depression. In children less than 6 months old who live in houses where these products are used daily, there was an increased number of cases of earaches and diarrhoea.

There have also been studies which show a correlation between the use of chemical products in the home during pregnancy and childhood asthma. One study determined which products pregnant women were using and how frequently. These products included: disinfectants, bleach, carpet cleaner, window cleaner, washing powder, aerosols, turpentine, air fresheners (sprays, bars or aerosols), paint stripper, paints or varnishes and pesticides or insecticides. They found that women who used these products more often had a higher risk of their children being asthmatic, due to prenatal exposure or due to subsequent exposure during the early stages of their life.

Many studies such as this have been carried out but, according to the Spanish Society of Gynaecology and Obstetrics (SEGO), women are hugely uninformed about the risks of these chemicals.

Some disorders and associated problems

  1. Chemicals strongly linked to fetotoxicity: formaldehyde, solvents, ethylene-based glycol ethers, trichloroethylene, tetrachloroethylene, toluene, xylene, ethylene oxide, 1,1,1.trichloroethane, arsenic, bisphenol A, by-products of water chlorination, trihalomethanes, chloroform, dibromochloropropane, fungicides, lead, mercury, methylene chloride, triazines and soot. Chemicals linked with fetotoxicity with less evidence: acrylamide, antimony, cadmium, carbon tetrachloride, dioxins, electromagnetic fields, PCBs, pentachlorophenol, phthalates etc.

  2. Chemicals linked to general congenital defects: solvents, ethylene-based glycol ethers, mercury, ionising radiation, arsenic, bisphenol A, ethylene oxide, pesticides, vinyl chloride etc.

  3. Chemicals linked to congenital cardiac defects: solvents, trichloroethylene, 1,2-trichloroethane, ethylene-based glycol ethers, atrazine, benzene, chlorination by-products, trihalomethanes, mineral oils, insecticides etc.

  4. Chemicals linked to defects in the reproductive system: 2-diethylhexyl phthalate, pesticides, arsenic, atrazine, benzylbutyl phthalate, bisphenol A, cadmium, dibutyl phthalate, diisononyl phthalate, dioxins, ethylene-based glycol ethers, solvents, toluene, trichloroethylene etc.

  5. Chemicals linked to neural tube defects and defects in the central nervous system (including eye defects e.g. congenital cataracts, anencephaly, hydrocephalus): arsenic, chlorination by-products, mercury, trihalomethanes, benzene, cadmium, ethylene-based glycol ethers, manganese, solvents, toluene, trichloroethylene, vinyl chloride etc.

  6. Chemicals associated with skeletal impairments (shortening of the limbs, sindactilia, polydactilia): arsenic, 1,1-dichloroethane, atrazine, bromoxynil, chlordecane, ethylene glycol ethers, ethylene oxide, manganese, pesticides etc.

  7. Chemicals linked to cleft lip and cleft palate: 1,2-dichloroethane, cadmium, by-products of chlorination, trihalomethanes, chloroform, solvents, ethylene-based glycol ethers,  trichloroethylene, pesticides, dioxins etc.

  8. Chemicals linked to low birth weights, low baby weight during pregnancy, intra-uterine growth retardation: 1,1-dichloroethane, arsenic, by-products of chlorination, lead, mercury, organochlorine pesticides, organophosphates, PCBs, solvents, toluene, trihalomethanes, dioxins, ethylene oxide, perfluorinated compounds, tetrachloroethylene, trichloroethylene etc.

  9. Chemicals linked to premature birth: benzene, DDT and DDE, ethylene oxide, lead, soot, phthalates, 2-ethyhexyl phthalate (DEHP), phenoxyacetic herbicides etc.