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Study Finds Pregnant Women "Awash" In Chemicals, What's The Take Away?

Researchers from the University of California San Fransisco (UCSF) have detected 43 chemicals, including several that have been banned since the 1970s, in the blood and urine of 99-100% of the pregnant women they screened.

Alarming headlines have been quick to follow: Time magazine tells pregnant women they are “awash” in chemicals. We’re marinating in this stuff. All pregnant women are affected. No matter their personal choices. Yikes.

This kind of information can be really disturbing when you’re pregnant for obvious reasons. Your body and brain have been rewired towards a certain level of vigilance; from super smelling abilities in the first trimester to a hyper-awareness of your baby and the environment postpartum. To read that you’re stewing in PBDEs, phthalates, PCBs, DDT and BPA — all chemicals that have been linked to a handful of harmful repercussions from cancer to damaged reproductive health—is not going to go unnoticed.

But what does it all mean? And what can you do?

I was actually not that surprised to read about this research. We have known for some time that there are over 200 known chemicals in umbilical cord blood. This is the first study to actually tally up the chemicals in pregnant women: Researchers from UCSF  analyzed data for 268 pregnant women from the National Health and Nutritional Examination Survey (NHANES) 2003-2004 and found 43 known chemicals in 99-100% of the women tested. Apparently these women represent a good cross-section of the population. Among the chemicals detected were PCBs, organochlorine pesticides, PFCs, phenols, PBDEs, phthalates, and PAHs.  Researchers also found PBDEs, compounds used as flame retardants that have been banned in many states including California, and DDT, a pesticide banned in 1972. 96 % of the women had BPA in their blood.

BUT.

We don’t know what these chemicals are doing, how they work, or do not work, in conjunction with one another to cause, or not cause, any harm.

We don’t know what levels of these chemicals would need to be in a pregnant woman’s body to bring on real risk to the fetus.

The researchers themselves are the first to say this is NOT a study that includes information or data about *HOW* these chemicals affect pregnant women. Tracey Woodruff, PhD, MPH, director of the UCSF Program on Reproductive Health and the Environment, said that it “was surprising and concerning to find so many chemicals in pregnant women without fully knowing the implications for pregnancy.”

“Our findings indicate several courses of action. First, additional research is needed to identify dominant sources of exposure to chemicals and how they influence our health, especially in reproduction,” said Woodruff. “Second, while individuals can take actions in their everyday lives to protect themselves from toxins, significant, long-lasting change only will result from a systemic approach that includes proactive government policies.” (My emphasis.)

There’s such a strong focus on what pregnant women shouldn’t do (don’t lie on your back, don’t eat tuna, etc) that risk in pregnancy can start to seem entirely within the realm of each woman’s personal lifestyle choices. Yes, it’s a good idea to stop smoking and try to stay healthy. But there’s a lot more that can be done: We can do more research on how these chemicals affect our fetuses. And we can regulate chemicals that are suspected of doing harm. We need to shift the focus from blaming mothers and start looking at how we can protect them.

Amidst the sea of alarming headlines I found a very sober, reassuring analysis of this study by Christine Lepisto at, of all places, the environmental activist website Treehugger.com. Lepisto sensibly parses out the issues raised by this study and tells pregnant women flat out: “Hakuna matada, don’t worry.” Some of these chemicals, Lepisto points out, may not be harmful on their own in small amounts. But, “when we do find suspicions building about a bad actor, like the recent case of BPA, we need to regulate first and study later — the precautionary principle must outweigh the free market principle.”

The research is published in Environmental Health Perspectives this month.

To read the terrific, anxiety assuaging context provided via Treehugger.com,  look here.

photo: Craig Larson/Flickr

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