June 26, 2012 by Kimberly Beauchamp, ND
Figuring out what to avoid when you’re pregnant can be tricky. Fortunately, scientists have discovered many substances that could be harmful for pregnant women and their babies, making it easier to know what to sidestep.
Less is known about some of the newer chemicals in many of the products that we use every day. In these cases, a moderate approach is probably best. You can’t worry about everything, so make the effort to avoid the better-known hazards. Then, relax and enjoy your pregnancy!
Checklist for a Greener Pregnancy
Laundry and cleaning: Developing babies are very sensitive to many of the chemicals and additives that can be found in cleaning products.
Manufacturers of these goods aren’t required to tell you all of the ingredients on their labels. In case they do, here are someyou should avoid:
- nonylphenol ethoxylates,
- trisodium nitrilotriacetate (NTA), and
These chemicals have been linked to a number of health problems, including hormone disruption and cancer.
For most of your cleaning needs, pure liquid soap, vinegar, and baking soda can get the job done. Equal parts of vinegar and water make a terrific window cleaner. Add a little baking soda to some castile soap to remove tough bathtub stains.
Non-toxic laundry detergents are available from companies like Seventh Generation. Soap nuts are another all-natural alternative to traditional laundry detergent. The nuts can be re-used, and leave no detergent residue on clothing.
Personal care and beauty: As with cleaning products, there’s little regulation about what goes into the products that you may use on your hair and body each day.
Here are some of the most important ingredients to avoid in cosmetics and body care products when you’re pregnant:
- triclosan (in antimicrobial soaps),
- lead (in some makeup and hair dyes),
- mercury (a preservative in some cosmetics),
- parabens (hormone-disrupting preservatives),
- formaldehyde (in shampoos and cosmetics), and
- sodium lauryl sulfate (used to make products like toothpaste and shampoo foam).
Phthalates are another additive frequently found in cosmetics as “fragrance.” These compounds are also used to make products like nail polish and lotions flexible or soft. Phthalates may interfere with normal reproductive organ development, especially in boys.
If you’re thinking of dying your hair while pregnant, most experts advise waiting until the end of the first trimester.
The Environmental Working Group has a searchable database to help you find safer personal care products for pregnancy and beyond.
Kitchen and bath: Following a few simple steps can help reduce your baby’s exposure to many toxins in the home.
Choose your plastics wisely. Some commonly used plastics contain hormone-disrupting compounds such as bisphenol A (BPA) and phthalates. The recycling code found on the bottom of containers can help identify the more problematic plastics. Safer plastics bear the numbers 1, 2, 4, and 5. Avoid plastics with the numbers 3 and 7.
Never heat plastic containers in the microwave, even if the item is labeled microwave safe. Heating releases chemicals from the plastic.
Opt for stainless steel, glass, or cast iron cookware instead of non-stick items.
Choose cloth shower curtains instead of PVC (vinyl).
Food: Eating organically grown food is one of the easier—though usually not cheaper—ways of avoiding harmful substances while pregnant.
Fatty foods like butter, milk, and meat tend to concentrate pesticides, so it’s important to look for organic versions of these foods.
Some fruits and vegetables—like strawberries, apples, green peppers, and spinach—contain high levels of pesticide residues, so these are also best eaten organic. It’s not as important to find organically grown asparagus, corn, avocado, pineapple, mango, and broccoli, as these tend to be much less contaminated.
While fish is a great source of omega-3 fatty acids that your baby needs for proper brain and nervous system development, several types of fish have dangerously high levels of contaminants, including mercury and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs).
Pregnant women should avoid eating albacore tuna, tilefish, king mackerel, swordfish, and shark. Safer fish include wild salmon, catfish, and rainbow trout.
Be sure to avoid nitrites and nitrates (found in many processed meats), raw fish, undercooked meat, and soft cheeses. Microwave popcorn is also on the ‘no’ list, as the bags contain toxic compounds called fluorotelomers that may transfer to the food.
Water: If you haven’t done it already, it’s a good idea to get your tap water tested for lead and other contaminants. There are dozens of great water filtration solutions—from portable pitchers to whole-house systems—to clean up any problems that might be discovered in your water.
Store filtered water in stainless steel or glass containers, and don’t reuse disposable water bottles.
Medicine cabinet: Some of the biggest dangers to your unborn baby might be the easiest to overlook. Medications including isotretinoine (Accutane®) and ibuprofen may cause severe birth defects or fetal death. Discuss your medications with your doctor to decide which ones can be safely taken during pregnancy.
Bedroom and furniture: The foam in furniture—including couches and mattresses—may contain a group of fire retardants called polybrominated diphenyl ethers, or PBDEs. These compounds may be toxic to the liver, thyroid, and neurological system.
But before you invest in a whole house of new furniture, inspect what you already have. Protect worn or torn foam with a cotton or wool cover. When it’s time to upgrade, less expensive eco-friendlier options are available from several manufacturers, including IKEA.
Lead paint: Homes built before 1978 are likely to have some lead paint. Lead can also be found in older painted toys, plastic shopping bags, drinking water, house dust, and soil. In pregnant women, lead exposure can cause neurological damage to the baby, pregnancy complications, and preterm delivery.
If you’re inspired to get rid of all the lead in your home right now, it’s probably best to wait. As a temporary fix, non-peeling areas of lead paint can be covered with an approved lead sealant. When it comes time to remodel, hire a certified lead abatement professional who can minimize exposure to your family.
Calcium can help bind lead in the body, lowering the amount that may reach your baby. Probiotics may also have this effect, making foods like yogurt—which is high in both calcium and probiotics—an ideal choice for pregnant women.
Air: What we breathe is just as important as what we eat and put on our bodies.
In general, it’s best to avoid all scented products while pregnant. This includes air fresheners, candles, and incense. They may contain hormone-disrupting and cancer-causing chemicals.
Have your home tested forradon, a gas that can seep into the house from the underlying rock. Radon is a leading cause of lung cancer.
Carbon monoxide detectors are also a must in every home. Carbon monoxide is an odorless gas that can deprive the body of oxygen and may result in serious harm to mother and baby.
If you need to re-paint, use a zero-VOC paint. VOCs, or volatile organic compounds, are a group of chemicals including formaldehyde and benzene. These substances lend paints their characteristic smell, and many are known to be carcinogenic and toxic to the nervous system.
What else can you do?
Put off dental x-rays and fillings. Having any kind of x-ray should be avoided during pregnancy, unless absolutely necessary. And dental filling materials may contain BPA or mercury. Your teeth can most likely wait until after the baby is born.
Don’t smoke. There are dozens of toxic chemicals in cigarette smoke. Pregnant women who smoke are more likely to have a pre-term delivery and low birth weight babies. The risk of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS) is also higher among babies of mothers who smoked while pregnant. If you smoke, quitting is one of the most important things you can do for the health of your unborn baby.
Wash your hands. Washing your hands throughout the day can help keep many hazardous chemicals and other compounds from ever reaching your baby.
Open the window. Indoor air quality is notoriously worse than what’s outside. Whenever possible, crack a window for some fresh air.
Relax. Really. Because you just can’t control everything in your environment. Remember to do things that make you feel good, too, like taking a walk or having dinner with friends, and fully enjoy this special time.
Disclaimer: The information contained in this blog is for educational and/or informational purposes only, and is not intended to diagnose, treat, or prevent any condition. If you have any concerns about your own health or that of a family member, you should always consult with a healthcare professional.