The Toxic Truth: How Everyday Products Threaten Healthy Pregnancies
By Erika Schreder and Sharyle Patton
You can follow the stories of women who are chronicling their struggles with toxins in pregnancy and during breastfeeding on our blog: All Things Mothering.
July 17, 2012 news update: FDA Bans BPA from Bottles and Sippy Cups
Amy Ellings knows a lot about being healthy. In fact, she has worked to teach others about health and nutrition for the past ten years. So when she agreed to have her blood and urine tested for toxic chemicals as part of a study by the Washington Toxics Coalition and Commonweal on chemicals in pregnant women, she wasn’t expecting a lot of bad news.
In her own words, “When I found out I was pregnant, my priorities suddenly became all about making sure the baby was healthy. I did a lot of reading on having a healthy pregnancy, and quit drinking coffee, ate a lot of organic foods, ate a healthy diet, exercised, took vitamins, got regular check-ups, and took classes.”
She was in for a surprise. Amy’s test results showed sky-high levels of toxic bisphenol A and phthalates, which can interfere with hormone function. Her body was also contaminated with mercury, which can damage brain development, and other chemicals that build up in our bodies and breast milk.
The study, Earliest Exposures, found that babies enter the world already having been exposed to toxic chemicals. The study was a joint project led by the Washington Toxics Coalition and Commonweal, two organizations that have been on the forefront of testing people for toxic chemicals in their bodies. These kinds of tests have been made possible in the plast decade by major leaps in the abilities of certain specialized laboratories to detect chemicals in people.
For this study, the researchers wanted to look at exposures to toxic chemicals during the very most vulnerable period of life—when a fetus is developing in the womb. Researchers tested nine women from Washington, Oregon, and California who volunteered to donate samples of blood and urine during their second trimester of pregnancy.
The tests measured levels of five chemical groups in the blood and urine of pregnant women. The chemicals include phthalates, mercury, perfluorinated compounds (or “Teflon chemicals”), bisphenol A, and the flame retardant tetrabromobisphenol A. Tests also measured levels of thyroid hormones, which are important for a healthy pregnancy.
What our results show is that fetuses develop in an environment that exposes them to known toxic chemicals, with chemicals from everyday products contaminating their mothers’ bodies.
The study detected 11 to 13 chemicals in each of the pregnant women. The chemicals found include:
- phthalates, used in vinyl (PVC) plastic items like shower curtains, floors, and toys;
- bisphenol A (BPA), found in polycarbonate water bottles and food and beverage cans;
- mercury, which contaminates healthy food like fish;
- and “Teflon chemicals,” used to make stain proofing treatments for clothing, carpeting, and food packaging.
These chemicals can cause reproductive problems and cancer, disrupt hormonal systems such as the thyroid, and impair brain development. For more details on the study, see http://www.watoxics.org/earliestexposures.
Exposures before birth are of special concern because the developing fetus is highly vulnerable to the effects of toxic chemicals. The fetus develops quickly in the womb, and that development is easily derailed by toxic chemicals. The fetus also has a very limited ability to detoxify foreign chemicals.
Amy’s baby was born in good health, and Amy continues to make the same kinds of healthy choices she made during her pregnancy. After learning her results, she is even more careful. “I know it’s difficult to know the sources of the toxic chemicals in my body,” she said, “but once I learned more about some of the products we are using, I got a new shower curtain, non-plastic, just in case the old one was exposing me and my family to phthalates. I am breastfeeding my son, but when I’m at work he drinks from bottles that are BPA-free. Also, I shop for baby personal care products that are free from artificial fragrances or ‘parfum.’” And Amy always looks for baby toys from trusted companies whose products have tested free of toxic chemicals.
The moms in the study were universally frustrated that their healthy choices hadn’t worked to keep toxic chemicals out of the womb. Connie Galambos Malloy, a study participant from Oakland, California, complained, “Despite my best efforts, my body has been invaded by toxics from all angles. I’m angry that chemical companies can get away with putting harmful chemicals on the market.” Choosing safer products is important, but busy moms don’t always have the time to research which products are most likely to be free of toxic chemicals. And most manufacturers don’t list the chemicals they use to produce their goods, so research can be frustrating.
Companies get away with using harmful chemicals in their products because, by and large, no one’s minding the store. It comes as a shock to most people that manufacturers of everyday products don’t have to make sure the chemicals they’re using are safe. They don’t even have to tell anyone what those chemicals are.
That’s because U.S. chemical regulations are stuck in the 1970s, when we still allowed smoking on airplanes and kids didn’t wear seatbelts. Since the U.S. toxics law was passed, in 1976, the Environmental Protection Agency has required testing of only 200 of the approximately 80,000 chemicals now on the market.
More and more scientists and physicians are coming to the conclusion that a substantial part of the blame for rising rates of learning disabilities, cancer, and other chronic problems lies with these unprecedented chemical exposures.
“As this study shows, even the most careful mother can’t protect herself from exposures to chemicals, so the answer is to phase them out of products,” said Dr. Ted Schettler, a physician and toxics expert. “With increasing rates of chronic diseases, like asthma, diabetes, and breast cancer, we need to update our country’s laws to ensure that harmful chemicals aren’t used in products mothers and children use every day.”
More than 100 organizations, made up of nurses, physicians, cancer specialists, environmental health advocates, and parents’, have banded together to change these laws. They have formed the Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families coalition, brought together by common concern about toxic chemicals in our homes, places of work, and products we use every day.
What they’re asking for probably won’t sound revolutionary to the average parent, but it’s a whole new way of dealing with the thousands of chemicals in everyday products. It starts with getting rid of the worst of the worst chemicals, ones like mercury that don’t degrade but instead build up in our bodies and last for many years in the environment.
Besides tackling the worst of the worst, their strategy calls for replacing chemicals that can cause serious health problems, like cancer, learning disabilities, and infertility. Instead, companies should use only chemicals they have tested fully for safety—and they should tell people what chemicals they’re using.
And since states like Washington, Maine, California, and Connecticut have been on the forefront of addressing toxic threats, new federal laws should make sure states can still set higher chemical safety standards.
Molly Gray, a study mom who tested positive for 13 toxic chemicals, took her story of struggling for years with miscarriages before her successful pregnancy. In February, she delivered her message at a Senate hearing,. saying, “Something is wrong when I, as an educated consumer, am unable to protect my baby from toxic chemicals. I and all other parents should be able to walk into stores and buy what we need without winding up with products that put our families' health at risk.”
The moms in the study are doing more than getting angry—and so can you. Let your representatives in Congress know that the only way to protect the most vulnerable, including young children and developing fetuses, is to ensure that only the safest chemicals are used in products, and that you want a major update to the Toxic Substances Control Act.
For up-to-date information on progress in changing federal laws and how you can get involved, follow http://www.saferchemicals.org.
In the meantime, there is plenty that each person can do to minimize our own and our kids’ exposures to toxic chemicals. The Washington Toxics Coalition’s “Safe Start for Kids,” at http://watoxics.org/healthy-families/safe-start-for-kids-1, makes it easy to make the best decisions for our families while we wait for Congress to get our toxics laws out of the ’70s and into a safer, healthier future.
Tips for Avoiding Toxins in Pregnancy
- Choose your fish wisely. Avoid high-mercury fish, such as king mackerel, marlin, shark, swordfish, tilefish, and tuna steaks. Instead, choose wild salmon, sardines, anchovies, Atlantic herring, Dungeness crab, Pacific cod, Alaskan black cod, tilapia, farmed catfish, clams, mussels, and Pacific oysters.
- Avoid canned foods and fast foods to limit your exposure to bisphenol A and “Teflon chemicals.”
- Eat organic food as much as possible, especially these foods found to be most contaminated with pesticides: peaches, apples, sweet bell peppers, celery, nectarines, strawberries, cherries, pears, grapes (imported), spinach, lettuce, and potatoes.
- Stay away from PVC/vinyl products, as they often contain phthalates.
- Choose fragrance-free personal care products, and consider giving up perfumes, nail polish, and hair dye, which may contain harmful chemicals.