With every breath you take
How to protect your baby from environmental toxins.
- Wash produce before eating.
- Avoid eating large amounts of animal fat, where contaminants can linger.
- Don’t exercise outdoors on smoggy days.
- Avoid fumes from gasoline, cigarettes, paints and household chemicals.
- If you drink from a household well or live in a farm area, make sure the water has been tested, especially for pesticides and nitrates.
- Avoid eating fish and shellfish caught in contaminated waters. Call your regional U.S. Environmental Protection Agency office for information on fish advisories in your area.
The biggest health hazards
Greene and other medical experts say the compounds known to pose the greatest risk to the unborn are familiar to us all: alcohol and tobacco. Don’t drink or smoke, and avoid secondhand smoke. If your partner smokes, urge him to stop.
John W. Larsen, M.D., a professor of obstetrics and gynecology and director of the Wilson Genetics Center at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., says pregnant women should be cautious, but not obsessive, about their environment. In other words, don’t worry if you accidentally inhale bus fumes or cigarette smoke. “I don’t worry about the air we breathe or the water we drink as much as I worry about smoking and alcohol,” Greene says. “That’s where we should be most concerned. People are unduly sensitive these days. You’re trying to be protective when you’re pregnant, but sometimes people overdo it.”
Larsen and Greene do warn, however, that women in special circumstances, such as farm laborers and industrial workers, can put themselves and their babies at risk because of consistent exposure to chemicals. Women who are renovating old houses should be careful that they aren’t scraping off lead paint and inhaling the particles. Artists and welders should be cautious around glass, potter’s clay and other materials that may contain lead. The obstetricians also remind women, pregnant or not, that all meats should be handled and cooked in a safe manner to avoid the threat of salmonella, Listeria, E. coli or other bacteria, which can lead to preterm labor.
In an era when environmental hazards can be frightening, Linda Birnbaum, Ph.D., director of the Experimental Toxicology Division at the EPA and a diplomate of the American Board of Toxicology, has this advice: “Everything in moderation.” If you eat many kinds of fruits, vegetables, meats and grains, you won’t be getting heavy doses of contaminants from a single source. Women who have limited diets — such as Canadian Inuits or Great Lakes anglers — face the most danger. But for most of us, the risk is much lower, as long as you use common sense. On that night in the Imperial Valley citrus grove, I believed that my baby and I were safe, sealed in the truck. Still, I couldn’t help but worry as I watched the airplane’s lights flicker in the darkened sky. There was a tiny life growing inside me, and he was already reliant on his mother for defending him against the world’s dangers. Could I be doing the wrong thing?
You can’t live in fear of your environment, but a pregnant woman can’t play it too safe. So it was with a great sigh of relief that I watched the plane disappear on the horizon and we drove off — me, baby and mosquito.