Chemicals: a worry for pregnant women?

pregnant woman Pregnant women already face an array of health messages

There are many things that pregnant women should definitely avoid. Chief among these are cigarettes.

There is overwhelming evidence that smoking is harmful to the developing baby, can lead to premature birth and low birth weight, and increase the risk of cot death.

There is also irrefutable evidence that alcohol can be harmful - the official advice is to avoid it completely, although some research says it is not damaging in small amounts.

Add to that some soft cheeses, raw eggs, some oily fish, raw shellfish, liver, high levels of caffeine, all of which have been shown to present real health dangers.

Now the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists has issued a paper - looking at the "potential but unproven" risks from exposure to environmental chemicals in pregnancy. It says the purpose is to raise awareness and not to scare women. But the list of things they suggest avoiding is so extensive it is hard to see how it won't cause alarm.

These include everything from shower gel to cosmetics, food in tins or wrapped in plastic, new cars and new furniture, and non-stick frying pans.

How the RCOG suggests pregnant women can reduce exposure to chemicals

  • use fresh rather than processed food
  • reduce use of food and drinks in tins and plastic containers
  • minimise use of moisturisers, cosmetics, shower gels and fragrances
  • avoid buying new furniture, fabrics, non-stick frying pans and cars when pregnant or nursing
  • avoid paint fumes
  • avoid garden/household pesticides

The RCOG says it wants to arm women with the facts to enable them to make an informed decision.

But its report says "it is impossible to assess the risk, if any of such exposures" to the cocktail of chemicals we all encounter.

Safety first

Furthermore the authors says "it is unlikely that any of these exposures are truly harmful for most babies".

But it then goes on to specifically recommend women adopt a "safety first" approach and assume there is a risk "even when it may be minimal or eventually proven to be unfounded."

Among the chemicals listed is bisphenol A (BPA), found in drinks and food cans, and phthalates, found in everything from plastics, carpets, cosmetics, to cars.

Start Quote

This report is really unhelpful and does not provide mothers-to-be with useful advice. ”

End Quote Alastair Hay Professor of Environmental Toxicology, University of Leeds

The lead author, Dr Michelle Bellingham told me that the paper was aimed at health professionals advising women at ante-natal classes. "We are trying to empower women, not scare them. There is a void at the moment in terms of information about chemicals."

But Alastair Hay, Prof of Environmental Toxicology at the University of Leeds said "This report is really unhelpful and does not provide mothers-to-be with useful advice. What I would have preferred to see from the RCOG is good clear advice, such as don't smoke in pregnancy and restrict caffeine intake."

Prof David Spiegelhalter, Winton Professor for the Public Understanding of Risk at the University of Cambridge, said: "These precautionary 'better safe than sorry' recommendations are not necessarily cost-free. They may feed anxiety, and detract attention from the known harms of bad diet, smoking and excessive alcohol. And it is unclear how any benefits can ever be assessed."

The precautionary principle is well-established in medicine. In 2011 the EU banned BPA in baby bottles. But the Food Standards Agency has this advice on BPA: Independent studies have shown that, even when consumed at high levels, BPA is rapidly absorbed, detoxified, and eliminated from humans and, therefore, is not a health concern.

We all encounter health hazards on a daily basis and must take personal responsibility for our health. There are important health messages about how to stay healthy in pregnancy. But perhaps the RCOG risks undermining those by issuing this long list of products which women might choose to avoid in order to reduce potential yet unproven risks.

Fergus Walsh Article written by Fergus Walsh Fergus Walsh Medical correspondent

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  • rate this

    Comment number 149.

    paint fumes may seem strange but 30 odd years ago I very briefly worked as an industrial painter & ever since going anywhere near cheap fresh paint (expensive paint is ok) makes me feel ill, come out in rash & my skin feels like its had something nasty poured over it. I don't know what it is in the paint but its pretty toxic to me so I can believe its effecting others albeit in a less obvious way

  • rate this

    Comment number 148.

    The human race will become extinct because women are too afraid to get pregnant.

  • rate this

    Comment number 147.

    There has been some research associating Aluminium with Alzheimers & tea is high in aluminium as are many other foods but aluminium absorption is only significant if stomach acidity levels are very high - tea without milk raises stomach acidity levels. The aluminium Alzheimers link is highly contentious though & the latest research is tending against the link

  • rate this

    Comment number 146.

    145 Zerodebt - Do you have any data at all to support your claims, or is it just supposition? Life expectancy is still climbing, so this alleged sickness doesn't seem to be doing much.
    And aluminium has shown to be completely safe in all normal instances. Just don't eat a bar of it and you'll be fine.

  • rate this

    Comment number 145.

    Limitations on number of words here.
    We are plagued with chronic illnesses. Human genes have not changed n the past 100 years- yet we have been so much sicker on the past 30- maybe fewer infections (AIDS and malaria aside), but there is parallel with the past 30 years growth and ill health.
    I am not the one saying this- many scientists have been raising alarms.
    Aluminium is neurotoxic.


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