Safety First: hidden toxins to avoid during pregnancy

By Madhavi Gupta, MD

Chemicals and pregnancy: does your home have hidden toxins? 

Growing babies are extra-sensitive to toxins. You probably already know that if you’re planning to conceive or are already pregnant, you need to quit smoking and avoid alcohol. But you’ll also want to minimize your exposure to harmful chemicals by using green cleaning products in your home and safe cookware and personal care products. 

According to the Centers for Disease Control, exposure to even small amounts of toxins during pregnancy, infancy, childhood, or puberty can lead to diseases (1). The key is to be aware without getting overwhelmed. Once you know the most pressing risks — from mercury to phthalates in personal care products to triclosan in household cleaning products — you can learn how to mitigate them. 

 

Our Safer Home Checklist: a guide to avoiding household toxins while pregnant

The list of hidden toxins can be overwhelming, but there are some common culprits. We’ve put together a list of toxic household chemicals to avoid during pregnancy and the reasons why. And we’ve compiled our best tips into a shorthand Safer Home Checklist to help you avoid toxins in your home. Made by our team of experts, this checklist can help take your worries away–so you feel truly relaxed in your home as you prepare for your baby. 

You can also download a printable version of our Safer Home Checklist so you know what to avoid when you’re expecting.

Download the checklist.


✔ Drink filtered water. Make sure to drink plenty of water. Water helps flush toxins out of your system and keeps your amniotic fluid at healthy levels. Purify your tap water with a filter. Water filter pitchers are inexpensive and filter out toxins such as heavy metals, chlorine, and pesticides (2). 

 

✔ Limit canned foods: The toxic plasticizer BPA has been removed from most can linings due to consumer pressure. But the replacements are related chemicals that may not be much safer. Eat more fresh and frozen foods and limit your use of canned goods (3).

 

✔ Use safe cookware and food storage containers: Avoid non-stick cookware like Teflon®. Choose safer options such as cast iron, stainless steel, ceramic, and glass. Don’t put plastic in the microwave or dishwasher, even if it says “microwave-safe.” And refrain from storing or buying food in plastic (4). Here’s why:

Plasticizers
Many food and drink containers are made with plasticizers such as bisphenol A (BPA) and phthalates. Until recently, BPA — linked to neurological, cardiovascular, reproductive, and endocrine damage — was found in the linings of most food cans and in some plastics, including baby bottles. According to the Center for Environmental Health, low levels of exposure can cause harm “especially when people are exposed at critical developmental stages, such as during fetal development or puberty. Due to consumer pressure, today about 95 percent of cans are BPA-free. The trouble is, the replacements, which are often other bisphenols, are not well studied and may not be any safer (5).

Since plasticizers like BPA can migrate from plastics into food even when not heated, invest in some glass storage containers, wrap your leftovers in reusable beeswax-covered cloth instead of plastic wrap, and purchase products in glass rather than plastic when you have the choice. This is especially important for oily foods like nut butters and liquid oils, acidic foods such as orange juice, and salty foods like olives, since plasticizers have an affinity for fats, acids, and salt (6).

How to Avoid: The safest move is to limit your use of canned foods and eat fresh and frozen produce instead. Use metal, ceramic, or glass containers. Don’t put plastic containers in the microwave or dishwasher, as the heat may cause chemicals to break down and leach out into food. “Microwave-safe” means safe for the container — not for you! 


Teflon® 
Non-stick cookware is coated with Teflon®, the brand name for the chemical polytetrafluoroethylene. Teflon® used to contain a hazardous chemical called PFOA, which has been linked to liver and kidney problems. It was removed in 2013, but older nonstick pans will still have the chemical. Even in its new formulation, Teflon® can release fumes that cause flu-like symptoms when it is overheated. Teflon® can also flake off when the pan is scratched, meaning it ends up in your food (7).

How to Avoid: People love Teflon® for its non-stick qualities, but there’s a safe and effective alternative that’s been around for centuries: cast iron. When a cast iron pan is seasoned by spreading a layer of oil and heating it, the oil becomes polymerized, creating a beautiful and non-toxic non-stick finish.

✔ Use green personal care and cleaning products: One common question is whether it’s safe to use cleaning products during pregnancy. For good reason. Personal care products can also be hiding places for toxins. Check labels, and avoid parabens, triclosan, and phthalates, which often show up as “fragrance.” Consider making your own green cleaning products. When it comes to choosing safe cleaning and personal care products during pregnancy, here’s what to watch out for: 


Parabens
Parabens are synthetic preservatives found in many personal care products, such as deodorants, soaps, lotions, shampoos, scrubs, toothpastes and makeup. These chemicals are very similar in structure to human estrogen (8). “Of greatest concern is that parabens are known to disrupt hormone function, an effect that is linked to increased risk of breast cancer and reproductive toxicity,” states the non-profit Campaign for Safe Cosmetics.

How to Avoid: Read labels. Parabens go by many names. The most common parabens are methylparaben and propylparaben, but ethylparaben, butylparaben, and isobutylparaben are also used.


Phthalates
Phthalates are a family of synthetic chemicals found in cosmetics, lotions, shampoos, and air fresheners. Animal research suggests they may cause cancer or reproductive and developmental problems. Growing babies are particularly vulnerable (9).

Classified as hormone disruptors, phthalates have been implicated in early puberty. A study of Puerto Rican girls with premature breast development found 68 percent had “significantly high levels of phthalates” in their blood. Dr. William Rea, director of the Environmental Health Center explains, “Very often, it’s not just one phthalate that causes a problem. The chemicals in consumer products and food work in combination, just as they do in our medications.” 

How to Avoid: Unlike parabens, phthalates are not usually listed on labels. A good clue that a product contains them is the catchall word “fragrance,” since phthalates are often used in fragrances to give scents staying power. Use natural, organic, or toxin-free cosmetics and personal care products (such as lotions, creams, sunscreen, deodorant, and nail polish) that are either unscented or scented with natural essential oils. Do not use air fresheners; they are loaded with phthalates.


Triclosan 
Antibacterial soaps and lotions, detergents, deodorants, cosmetics, plastics, and fabrics often contain the biocide triclosan. Aside from creating antibiotic-resistant superbugs, triclosan may lead to disruption of thyroid hormones (10).

How to Avoid: You don’t need antibacterial soaps and cleansers to protect yourself from bacteria. Plain soap and water will do the trick.


Glycol Ethers
Many household cleaning products, such as glass cleaners and all-purpose sprays, contain chemical solvents called glycol ethers. Not only do male workers exposed to glycol ethers have reduced sperm counts; exposed pregnant women have a higher chance of having children with birth defects (11).

How to Avoid: Use green cleaning products with non-toxic ingredients like castile soap, or consider making your own cleansers with baking soda, tea tree oil, and vinegar.



✔ Avoid pesticides in your home and yard:
Don’t apply pesticides or herbicides in your home or garden. If you rent, ask your landlord not to spray inside or out.


Pesticides and Herbicides
These are inherently toxic substances, designed to kill animals and plants. Children of women exposed to gardening pesticides or who live near farms may have a higher risk for oral clefts and disabilities related to the neural tube, heart, and limbs (12).

How to Avoid: Use sticky traps for insects and horticultural or neem oil in the garden.



✔ Delegate cleaning the litter box:
Cat feces can contain a parasite called toxoplasma that poses a risk to pregnant women. If there are no other adults in the household, wear gloves and a mask when you change the litter.

Toxoplasma
People infected with this common parasite usually have no symptoms, but it can cause flu-like symptoms in pregnant women or eye or brain damage to their developing babies. Toxoplasma is spread through eating undercooked meat, touching contaminated soil, or contact with cat feces (13).

How to Avoid: Cook your meat well, wear gloves while gardening, and if you have a cat, have someone else in the household take charge of litter box duty. If there are no other adults in the home, wear gloves and a mask while you clean the box.

 

✔ Redecorate consciously: New furniture, carpets, and mattresses are typically loaded with hormone-disrupting chemicals that sometimes take years to off-gas. Preconception and pregnancy is not the time to bring that stuff into your home.


✔ Skip the remodel too: Remodeling often involves paint, vinyl, finishes, and other toxic substances. Unless you can do it completely non-toxically, let it be for now. Here’s why:

VOCs and Semi-VOCs
Emitted as gases, volatile organic compounds include a wide range of chemicals, including formaldehyde. They’re what you smell when you paint your walls, finish your wood floors, put down a new vinyl floor, or hang a new shower curtain. They’re also abundant in upholstered furniture and mattresses. So are flame retardants like PBDEs, semi-VOCs that have been found in high concentrations in human breast milk (14,15).

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, “while people are using products containing organic chemicals, they can expose themselves and others to very high pollutant levels, and elevated concentrations can persist in the air long after the activity is completed.”

How to Avoid: Hold off on a remodel if you’re trying to get or are already pregnant. If you simply must paint the baby’s room or refinish the wood floor, choose a no-VOC paint or finish. But skip the vinyl flooring and wall-to-wall carpet altogether. Those materials can off-gas for years. Stay away from furniture stain guards too. 

If you choose to redecorate, do so consciously. Opt for wool area rugs, non-toxic couches and armchairs, and organic mattresses, and steer clear of baby clothes doused in flame retardants. You may also want to invest in a good air purifier. While HEPA filters are made to filter particles from the air — such as dust, smoke, dander, mold, and pollen — in order to tackle gaseous pollutants like VOCs you’ll also need an absorbent filter such as activated carbon. Finally, air your house out regularly, and keep windows open when you can.
 

 

✔ Be careful what you bring into the home. There are many household items or conveniences so common you might not consider them when thinking of chemicals to avoid when pregnant. Don’t use mercury-containing compact fluorescent light bulbs, skip the dry cleaner, and say no to chemical flea collars and shampoos.

Mercury
Fish isn’t the only way you can be exposed to mercury. It’s also present in compact fluorescent light bulbs, or CFLs. Normally, that’s not a problem. But according to researchers, when you drop one and it breaks, the vapor released can exceed the amount considered safe for humans (16).

How to Avoid: Choose LED, halogen, or ceramic metal halide light bulbs instead of CFLs.


Perchloroethylene
There’s a reason your freshly dry-cleaned clothes stink; they’ve been bathed in chemicals. The most commonly used dry cleaning chemical is perchloroethylene, which is classified as a “likely human carcinogen” by both the EPA and the National Academy of Sciences. While the biggest risk of perc is to dry cleaning workers, scientists have discovered high levels of perc residue on dry cleaned clothes (17). 

How to Avoid: Try to find a cleaner that uses either liquid carbon dioxide or a process called “wet cleaning,” which uses eco-friendly detergents, water, and gentle agitation to remove stains and winkles. If there’s not one in your area, don’t despair. Most “dry clean only” clothes can be safely hand-washed by following the right directions.


Toluene 
Even the seemingly innocuous paraffin candle isn’t safe. Made from petroleum, a byproduct of gasoline, paraffin candles release the chemical toluene. In high amounts, toluene has been found to cause developmental effects, including attention deficits and limb anomalies, in children of pregnant women (18). 

How to Avoid: Choose beeswax candles instead. Not only are they non-toxic, they smell divine!


EMFs
Electromagnetic fields are a topic of hot debate. Power lines, X-rays, appliances, computers, WIFI routers, and cell phones all give off EMFs to varying degrees. While the industry insists EMFs are safe, not all scientists are so sure. In fact, the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) has stated EMFs are “possibly carcinogenic to humans.” Until we know more, it’s best to reduce your exposure (19).

How to Avoid: Use speaker mode or a headset when talking on your cell phone, and stay away from bluetooth headsets altogether. Turn your WIFI router off at night, and put your cell phone on airplane mode. Step away from the microwave while it’s on. And avoid unnecessary X-rays.


Flea chemicals
Have you ever wondered how toxic flea collars must be if they can kill fleas on contact? And what happens if Fido decides to roll around on the couch where you and your family watch TV or read each night? A landmark study by the Natural Resources Defense Council found that weeks after flea collars were placed on cats and dogs, high levels of pesticide residue remained. “Residue levels produced by some flea collars are so high that they pose a risk of cancer and damage to the neurological system of children up to 1,000 times higher than the EPA’s acceptable levels,” writes NRDC’s Senior Scientist Miriam Rotkin-Ellman (20).

How to Avoid: The best and safest way to rid your pet of fleas is to use a flea comb daily. Prepare a bowl of hot soapy water. Comb through your pet’s fur thoroughly, and each time you find a flea, place it in the soapy water. (The soap prevents the flea from jumping out; it will soon sink to the bottom of the bowl.) It’s time consuming but effective and toxin-free.

 

A strong offense: take good care of yourself

The saying goes that the best defense is a strong offense and while chemical toxins are something to address head on, it’s always a good idea to look after your overall health and that of your growing baby. It’s not only your environment that needs a little extra attention and preparation for this new life stage. Eat well, stay hydrated, get exercise and the rest you need to stay healthy and well. Prenatal vitamins can help prepare you and your baby and supplement the important nutrients you need.

 

Simple steps to a healthier home

We are constantly exposed to hidden toxins in and around our homes, from the way we store and prepare our food, to the personal care and cleaning products we use, to the everyday items whose fumes we breathe. In fact, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, the air inside your home is likely two to five times more polluted than the air outside its walls (21). With your growing baby so sensitive to these toxins, now is the time to remove what you can from your environment — and it’s a good idea to keep these habits going for a fresher, cleaner, safer home once baby arrives. Your whole family will appreciate the difference.

The good news is that with a few simple steps, you can dramatically limit your exposure to hidden household toxins.


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