How to Protect Your Unborn Baby from Toxic Substances

Toxic Substances

It’s always smart to do our best to avoid artificial chemicals and other harmful substances in our lives; but it is all the more important for a woman who is expecting a child. A baby developing in the uterus is much more sensitive to many substances that the mother may be better able to tolerate. And some toxic agents can result in birth defects, other life-long adverse consequences, or even death.

While the list of harmful substances for unborn baby and mother is increasingly long in our modern times, the following are important steps you can take during your pregnancy, to help insure the well-being of both you and your unborn infant.

1. Schedule prenatal appointments with your doctor:

It is important to be under the care of a physician at this time, so that he or she can monitor the health of both you and your baby. Common pre-existing conditions in the mother-to-be can be treated, and the baby’s healthy growth can be followed. Some health conditions, like high blood pressure, can worsen during pregnancy and should be treated. Also, some diseases that wouldn’t do a lot of harm to the mother in the short term, can be very dangerous for the unborn baby and need to be taken care of.

You should also tell your doctor about all prescription, over-the-counter or naturopathic (alternative) medications or supplements that you are taking. If you take a regular multivitamin, your doctor needs to know about that, too, as vitamin levels will need to be changed while you’re pregnant or breastfeeding.

2. Use only medications that your doctor has said are safe to use while you’re pregnant:

Don’t assume that because a medicine is common and sold over the counter, it is safe. Many prescription antibiotics are notoriously harmful to unborn babies; but so are common medicines like non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) such as aspirin, Motrin and Advil.

For aches and pains, a pregnant woman can take acetaminophen (brand name: Tylenol), once you clear it with your doctor. But don’t overdo it; look instead for natural ways to relieve physical pain, such as doing low-impact regular exercise and stretching (avoid using your stomach muscles to any degree, though), eating a healthy diet and avoiding habits or situations that produce headaches.

An expecting mom should never use the severe-acne medication isotretinoin (brand name: Accutane), as it has been found to greatly increase the risk of major, even fatal birth defects, including heart malformations and profound mental retardation.

Oral contraceptives can cause hormonal defects and should be avoided once you become pregnant. Tell your doctor if you were using these when you conceived, so that tests may be performed.

3. Avoid alcohol, cigarettes and illegal drugs:

Both alcohol and cigarettes are known serious teratogens (substances that cause physical defects and deformities in the unborn child). While your baby won’t come out defective if you consume an alcoholic drink on rare occasion or smoke a cigarette once in a blue moon (and we do mean rarely), most American doctors advise pregnant women to avoid these two substances altogether while pregnant or nursing.

Cigarettes, marijuana and cocaine all slightly increase blood pressure upon exposure, as well as speed up heart rate. But at the same time, they decrease the amount of oxygen that reaches the heart and brain of the smoker.

In the case of cigarette or marijuana-smoking, carbon monoxide particles from the smoke bind to oxygen-carrying hemoglobin molecules in the blood, causing these molecules to be unable to release their oxygen load when they arrive at the tissues and organs. In the case of cocaine, the drug causes strong natural vasoconstrictors to be released into the blood, causing veins to contract.

In both cases, the heart is beating faster and thus requiring more blood, but oxygenated blood volume is decreased. This causes a blood/oxygen deficit for the tissues and organs. With extensive long-term use, this oxygen deficit can cause permanent damage to tissues and organs.

For the unborn baby, reduced oxygen supply caused by above chemicals can result in miscarriage, low birth weight, premature birth or placental abruption, where part or most of the placenta detaches from the uterine wall prior to labor. Placental abruption means the pregnancy cannot continue; the condition can lead to severe bleeding from the mother, and can result in death of the infant or even the mother. Prematurity and low birth weight can lead to serious physical complications for the baby at birth, and life-long problems such as learning disabilities and mental retardation.

Cigarettes, marijuana and cocaine also promote platelet aggregation, which can produce blood clots or increase plaque buildup on vascular walls. This in turn increases the risk for sudden cardiovascular events like heart attack or stroke in the mother (with the resulting consequences on the infant).

A final note about cigarettes: because secondhand smoke has been found in studies to be harmful to unborn babies, make it a point not to be around people who smoke. If you or your partner need help quitting, talk to your doctor.

4. Use Caffeine in moderation:

The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists advises women to moderate caffeine consumption, drinking no more than a couple of cups of coffee a day. High caffeine consumption has been found in studies to be linked to low birth weight.

5. Avoid toxins in your food:

Get into the habit of eating whole, natural foods with minimal or no processing. Read ingredient labels and be on the lookout for artificial colors, flavors, fillers and preservatives. Eat plenty of fruits, vegetables, whole grains and lean proteins; eat foods high in calcium, iron and folate.

Go easy on sugary foods and avoid artificial chemical sweeteners. Buy organic produce when available (preferably locally grown), as that will cut down on your exposure to chemical herbicides, pesticides and genetically modified foods. Eating organic meats and dairy will eliminate exposure to growth hormones and greatly cut down on antibiotics that are given to farm animals.

Many American doctors recommend that pregnant or nursing women eat no more than two servings of fish a week, to lessen risk of exposure to toxic mercury. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), more than 600,000 babies are born in the United States with high levels of mercury in their systems. Mercury can lead to neurological, cognitive or developmental problems in the child. Most of the mercury exposure comes from eating fish.

Pregnant women should avoid fish that accumulate higher levels of mercury — big fish like swordfish, shark, king mackerel and tilefish. Safer fish are: canned light tuna (not Albacore, as it has higher mercury content), salmon, pollock, sole, trout and tilapia.

Avoid raw fish (sushi), sprouts, unpasteurized juices, unpasteurized dairy products and soft cheeses; these all can sometimes have high levels of bacteria.

Fully cook all meats, fish and eggs, to avoid bacteria. Refrigerate all perishable foods after two hours, cook leftovers thoroughly, and wash your hands often.

Heat deli meats or cold cuts until steaming, to kill possible bacteria that can get on them during handling (at supermarket or even at the factory source). These meats also almost always have chemical preservatives and usually have high salt content; artificial chemicals and excess salt are best avoided in general, but especially when you are pregnant.

Additionally, use glass or lead-free ceramic containers in the microwave (if you use a microwave oven at all); avoid using plastic containers or cling wrap when microwaving foods, to prevent chemicals in the plastic possibly leaching into your food. Never microwave food in Styrofoam containers.

Teflon-coated pots and pans are safe, as long as you don’t turn up the heat on high (i.e., they’re good for warming foods or for foods that cook fast, like eggs, pancakes or cheese-stuffed quesadillas). If the coating starts coming off over time, some of it is probably going into your food. Avoid using abrasive scrubbers or utensils when using Teflon cookware.

6. Avoid toxins in your water:

Many American cities have water supplies that test positive for an assortment of toxic chemicals; as a health-conscious mom, stick to bottled water, or better yet, buy a good water filter for your home. The Environmental Working Group’s National Drinking Water Database is a great online resource, where you can type in your zip code and check what chemical pollutants your municipal water has, if any; this can help guide your choice of water filter to buy.

If your tap water has a funny, metallic taste when you first open the faucet every day, that taste is probably lead. Let water run for a few moments before using.

Use cold tap water for cooking (or filtered water), as the heat in hot water causes fumes from the chlorination to be released (excess chlorine exposure can cause irritation of the eyes and nasal passages).

Also, look for BPA-free plastic containers for your food and water, or use glass, lead-free ceramic or stainless steel containers.

7. Ventilate your home well and avoid exposure to chemicals from any home-remodeling:

Opening windows helps a lot in dissipating the air pollution that builds up in homes over time. Check for any sources of water leaks or moisture, to avoid mold growth.

If you’re remodeling your home to accommodate your new baby or for any reason, be sure that you block the area being worked on from the rest of the house with some type of covering or wall, to lessen your exposure to chemical fumes from paints, varnishes, treated woods, etc. Look for lead-free paints. Also, ventilate the area being remodeled well.

8. Avoid harsh all-purpose cleaners around the home, opting instead for natural cleaners:

There is a growing number of natural cleaning products available at stores and online here in the United States, though they can get a little pricey (and sometimes still contain artificial chemicals). If you want to cut down on cleaning costs, and avoid exposure to cleaning chemicals, natural alternatives like vinegar and water, baking soda and water, or Borax do a good job. Non-chlorinated bleach can also be diluted with water as an all-purpose cleaner.

9. Use natural fertilizers and pesticides in the garden and in your home:

Certain plants and plant essential oils are great for repelling insects in the garden … or on your skin!

These plants and their oils help keep mosquitoes and flies away (but don’t harm butterflies or bees):

Lemon balm, marigolds, catnip, lavender, peppermint, rosemary, eucalyptus, tea tree, different basil varieties, garlic, clove.

Whether you keep them in pots or plots around the garden, or you purchase the essential oils and apply them to your skin, these plants can be a natural, beautiful and even great-smelling way to keep the critters away. (Note: as a few people have allergic reactions to essential oils, please consult with your doctor before using them.)

Likewise, avoid chemical flea collars, dips or baths for your pet, and look for natural solutions. (Essential oils repel fleas and ticks, too!) While on the subject of pets, avoid touching cat feces with your bare hands, to avoid risk of toxoplasmosis, an infection caused by a parasite found in the feces of cats and similar animals; it’s safe to be around cats while pregnant, but don’t handle their waste with your bare hands.

10. Reduce your use of conventional grooming products, or look for natural alternatives:

Natural personal care product brands are blossoming online and at specialty stores, though they can be quite expensive. For moisturizing skin, lips and hair, good, natural and affordable moisturizers include: cocoa butter, coconut oil and olive oil. Cocoa butter is great because of its chocolaty smell, and coconut oil is nice because it has no taste or odor and melts readily when applied to warm skin. All three of these plant oils have antioxidants that also promote cellular health and will help keep skin young.

11. Nail polishing and hair coloring:

Many expecting moms will ask themselves, is it safe to do their nails or color their hair? The answer depends on what doctor you ask. The general belief seems to be that it’s perfectly okay to do your nails or color your hair while pregnant, if you don’t do it too much.

One study published in the journal Epidemiology in 1994 found a 60% greater risk of spontaneous abortion in licensed cosmetologists who worked in salons where nail-sculpting chemicals were often being used by other cosmetologists. But for a woman who only polishes her nails or colors her hair now and then, it should be no problem. You may want to cut down on how often you do these while your’re pregnant, and wash your hands with soap and water after removing nail polish, to wash off polish-remover residue. Also, do your nails in a well-ventilated area, and if you color your hair, keep color on for the shortest amount of time indicated on packaging.

12. Discuss with your obstetrician or gynecologist all work-related exposures to chemicals:

If you’re in an industry where chemicals abound, you may have some decisions to make, such as switching jobs before you attempt pregnancy; your doctor will be able to advise you on what your estimated risk might be.

Be careful not to inhale fumes when you pump your gas (or ask someone else to fill up your vehicle).

13. Limit your screen time:

Here again, you may have big choices to make, if your job involves you sitting in front of a computer or using electrical or electronic equipment at close range for long parts of the day. Information about the potential health hazards of ongoing exposure to man-made electricity is not abundant, and studies on the subject have been limited.

But we do know that prolonged cellular phone use has been linked to brain tumors in multiple, multinational studies. And it’s also true that the American Academy of Pediatrics strongly recommends that children under two years of age not have any screen time at all, since their brains and nervous systems are still developing fast and could be adversely impacted by ongoing close-range exposure to electronics.

We also know that the cause of 70% of all birth defects is “unknown” (source: March of Dimes).

So, as a pregnant woman, or when you have your baby close to you after you give birth, it may be smart to limit your time doing anything that involves an electronic or electrical device.

Other good tips to decrease your exposure to man-made electricity (besides moving to the country) are to shut off power sources when you go to bed at night (this can be done easily by using surge-protection power strips that turn off everything plugged into them by clicking just one switch). Limiting time spent driving or riding in a motorized vehicle will also lessen electrical exposure.

By Lisa Pecos