From the moment you find out you’re pregnant, your desire to keep yourself and your child as healthy as possible kicks into high gear. That means eating a balanced diet, exercising sensibly and making your surroundings safe. The most difficult part: protecting yourself and your unborn child from toxins present in the air we breathe, the food we eat, the water we drink and the household products we use. Although we don’t have room to list every potential hazard (nor should you worry about them all), here are the most important ones to watch out for at home, at work and outdoors.
The air we breathe
“Indoor pollutants are often more hazardous than those outside,” says Ted Schettler, M.D., M.P.H., science director of the Science and Environmental Health Network and co-author of In Harm’s Way: Toxic Threats to Child Development. “Cooking, cleaning, certain hobbies—all of these things can emit harmful chemicals.”
A study published in the Journal of Exposure Analysis and Environmental Epidemiology reveals that toxic chemicals, including lead, pesticides and other contaminants, are routinely found in household dust. What’s more, cleaning recirculates chemicals, creating a “personal cloud” of exposure that’s even higher than normal indoor-air concentrations.
“If you use household sprays [e.g., hair spray, deodorants or aerosol cleansers], you’re creating a cloud of synthetic chemicals and nasty solvents around you,” Schettler says. “It’s not only the presence of hazardous chemicals but the concentration and duration of exposure that matters.” That said, you probably don’t need to worry if you’ve been using these products in normal amounts; just follow the “Breathe-Easy Tips,” below, to decrease the risks.
A constant desire for a nice smelling room can spell trouble, however. A recent United Kingdom survey of more than 10,000 mothers and their children linked daily use of air fresheners (including sticks, sprays and aerosols) with a 32 percent increase in infant diarrhea compared with homes where air fresheners were used once a week or less. And, moms living in air-freshened homes had 10 percent more headaches.
Unfortunately, freshening a room with a few scented candles made from paraffin wax also can be damaging. When fragrance oils are incorporated into paraffin candles, they produce more soot and can even release carcinogens such as benzene and toluene. If you rely on candles to de-stress, use safer soy candles (they’re widely available online), which tend to burn without emitting harmful chemicals. Or, instead of candles, consider a vase of fresh, sweet-smelling flowers.
One of the most devastating contaminants for both you and your baby is tobacco smoke, regardless of whether you’re the one smoking. In a study of nonsmoking women, newborns’ levels of cotinine (a chemical that forms in the body when exposed to nicotine) are actually higher than their mothers’. Exposure to secondhand smoke during pregnancy is linked to lower birth weight and increased risk of cancer in both mom and baby. Don’t smoke (while pregnant and as a new mother) and avoid areas where others are smoking. Don’t allow anyone to smoke inside your home or car.