Choose organic foods when possible to avoid pesticides, added hormones and antibiotics.
Could the products you use and the foods you eat be exposing you and your family to health risks? Too much contact with certain chemicals in household cleaners, some plastics and foods can cause harm to a fetus, ranging from developmental defects such as autism to brain and nervous system damage, even cancer. These chemicals cross the placenta and are carried through the umbilical cord, affecting the fragile, developing fetus. Here are some easy, safe alternatives to protect all of you.
The dirt on household products
All-purpose, glass and cabinet cleaners
Potential harm These products often contain toxic chemicals such as ammonia. "That's the stuff in smelling salts; it can make an unconscious person conscious," says Mark Woodin, Sc.D., professor of epidemiology and biostatistics at Tufts University School of Medicine and professor of environmental health at Tufts University School of Engineering in Boston. "A chemical that powerful may have the potential to cause birth defects in a fetus."
Alternatives Use nontoxic cleaners such as Vermont Soapworks Liquid Sunshine Spray & Wipe (vermontsoap.com), Seventh Generation Free & Clear Natural Glass & Surface Cleaner (seventhgeneration.com), Howard Naturals Kitchen Cabinet Cleaner & Polish (howardnaturals.com) and Sun &Earth Glass Cleaner (sunandearth.com).
Drain and oven cleaners
Potential harm The ingredients (such as lye and sulfuric acid) that unclog drains and banish baked-on grease from your oven emit dangerous fumes that, if misused, can cause burns and blindness. Allowing these powerful chemicals to enter the body through the skin or via inhalation is harmful; swallowing them can be fatal.
Alternatives To unclog sink and tub drains, pour 1/2 cup of baking soda down the drain, followed by 1 cup of vinegar. Let the mixture bubble for 15 minutes, then let hot water run for one to two minutes. To clean the oven, apply a paste made from 1 cup baking soda, 1/4 cup washing soda (available in the laundry aisle of most supermarkets) and water (experiment with the amount of water needed to make a paste) and soak overnight. Lift off the mixture the next day and rinse. Or, try Method Grapefruit Mandarin Kitchen Spray (methodhome.com) or Seventh Generation Natural Citrus Cleaner and Degreaser (seventhgeneration.com).
Floor finishes, varnish removers and paint thinners
Potential harm Most of these products contain toxic solvents that can irritate the skin, eyes, nose and throat. Volatile organic compounds (VOCs) also found in these products can cause nervous system damage and cancer, among other negative health consequences. Animal studies show that the solvent toluene readily crosses the placenta and that if a pregnant woman inhales organic (carbon-based) solvents, many of which are carcinogens, her baby may experience developmental delays. "Pregnant women should not be in the house when solvents are being used," Woodin says.
Alternatives Put off remodeling projects or make sure you're out of the house during the construction and for several days after it's complete. Seek out products that carry the Green Seal; awarded by the Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit organization of the same name, it signifies that a product is safe and environmentally friendly.
Pesticides and weed killers
Potential harm Some human studies show a link between pesticide exposure during pregnancy and childhood cancer, although other studies have not confirmed that suggestion. Animal studies have shown low birth weight and higher rates of fetal loss only when the pesticide exposure was high enough to be poisonous to the mother animal; mixing and applying these products yourself seems to pose more risk than low-level or indirect exposure. It's probably best to err on the side of caution and avoid them entirely.
Alternatives Manage insects and other pests with nontoxic methods, including natural pest-control products (go to fitpregnancy.com/greenresources for information). Spray full-strength white vinegar on weeds to kill them.
Mold & mildew removers
Potential harm Mold--the black spots lurking on your shower curtain or growing between your bathroom tiles--is a fungus. (Mildew and mold are interchangeable terms.) Fungicide-containing cleaners can be harmful to humans, affecting the central nervous system and causing respiratory problems, light-headedness and eye irritation.
Alternatives Wipe mildew spots with a vinegar-soaked cloth, or spray vinegar on the spot and let it sit for a few minutes. If the mildew leaves a stain, wipe the area clean with a little hydrogen peroxide.
Contaminants on your plate
Think you don't have to worry if you only eat "natural" and organic foods? Some experts claim the greatest risks during pregnancy have more to do with food handling and selection than with how food is grown. In fact, according to Roberta Anding, R.D., a national spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association, one of the most worrisome issues for pregnant women is food-borne illness from bacteria such as Listeria monocytogenes. "Avoid unpasteurized juices; soft cheeses such as Brie, feta, blue and Camembert; raw sprouts; raw milk products; and raw or undercooked meat or fish," she advises.
But how foods are grown also is important. According to the Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit organization that researches and exposes health threats, people can lower their exposure to pesticides by up to 90 percent if they avoid the 12 most contaminated conventionally grown fruit and vegetables and instead eat the least contaminated (see lists at the end of this article).
"Whether organic or conventional, it's important to wash all produce carefully," Woodin says. "And don't expect a quick rinse to obliterate pesticides." Try a 30-second rinse, followed by a 15-second wash in slightly soapy water, then a final rinse. Or, use a natural produce wash such as Bi-O-Kleen, made from grapefruit seed extract (bi-o-kleen.com) or Veggie Wash, made from citrus, corn and coconut (veggie-wash.com).
Assuming you're not a vegan, you also have to be vigilant about animal products. Conventionally raised animals often are fed hormones and antibiotics to enhance growth, increase milk production and prevent disease. These chemicals are subsequently passed on to consumers via the animals' meat and milk. Buying organic meat and dairy products guarantees you get food that's free of hormones and antibiotics. What's more, a recently released study from the Union of Concerned Scientists, a Cambridge, Mass.-based nonprofit alliance of independent scientists and citizens, found that meat and milk from grass-fed cattle have higher levels of beneficial omega-3 fatty acids, and the meat is leaner than that from conventionally raised cattle.
When it comes to fish, large, long-lived varieties such as swordfish and sea bass contain high levels of methylmercury, which can damage the fetus's developing brain. "The larger the fish, the more likely it is to have unsafe levels of mercury," Anding says. According to current U.S. Food and Drug Administration recommendations, pregnant women can safely eat an average of 12 ounces of low-mercury fish each week. Choose from a variety of smaller seafood, such as shellfish, salmon, catfish and tilapia. Avoid eating larger fish, such as shark, swordfish, tilefish, sea bass, tuna steaks and king mackerel, and limit canned tuna to once per week.
Prolonged or repeated exposure to even small amounts of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), pollutants that concentrate in the fatty tissues of fish, can cause developmental and neurological damage to fetuses, babies and children. To avoid PCBs, trim the fat, remove the skin and fillet the fish before cooking, then discard the cooking juices.
The Green Home
After losing their 5-year-old daughter to a nonhereditary form of cancer called Wilm's Tumor, linked with pesticide exposure, environmental architect Jim Chuda and his wife, Nancy, started the Children's Health Environmental Coalition (checnet.org) and set out to create a "green home" in the Hollywood Hills of Southern California. They used sustainable resources, nontoxic finishes, solar power, a water filtration system and "healthy" decor, such as natural-fiber rugs, to create an elegant and contemporary home that's environmentally friendly. Here are some of their techniques:
Increase ventilation The Chudas' home has easy access to fresh air through large windows. Keeping windows and doors closed traps dangerous pollutants indoors, especially when you're vacuuming, dusting, frying, folding clothes or painting. Open them when doing these activities.
Purchase safe cleaning products Look for products that list all ingredients or have been certified by an independent "green" organization such as Green Seal.
Install a water filter The green home has a whole-house filter system; water filters remove lead, chlorine, mercury and other chemicals. For a list of effective filters, visit nsf.com.
Furnish naturally Choose fabrics made from natural fibers, such as wool rugs. The Chudas' home has both cork and bamboo flooring, which don't emit toxic fumes.
Plant a pesticide-free garden It's easy to grow your own herbs and vegetables if you're so inclined. Go to eartheasy.com for natural pest-control ideas.
5 Things You Should Never Do
1. Don't mix cleaning products If chlorine-containing products such as bleach make contact with ammonia-based glass cleaner, dishwashing liquid, metal cleaner, toilet bowl cleaner or rust remover, potentially fatal fumes can result. Always follow label directions.
2. Don't microwave foods in plastic containers that contain BPA Polycarbonate is a plastic commonly used to make baby bottles and infant dinnerware. Bisphenol A (BPA), molecules used to create polycarbonate, can leach into high-fat and acidic foods when heated. BPA has been found to alter functions in the developing brain cells. Make sure to transfer foods into a glass bowl or nonplastic container when heating.
3. Don't use solvents in confined spaces Solvents in cleaners, glues, adhesives and similar materials release fumes that can be harmful to you and your baby.
4. Don't use paint containing VOC (volatile organic compounds) in your home VOC exposure can damage the liver, kidneys and central nervous system and cause many other ill health effects; some are known to be human carcinogens. When it's time to paint the nursery, use a low-VOC primer such as Benjamin Moore Eco Spec Interior Latex Primer Sealer and no-VOC paint such as Baby's HealthyHues (healthyhome.com) or Sherwin-Williams Harmony Interior Latex Paint (sherwin.com). To determine if the paint you are using contains VOCs, check the label or product literature; a low-VOC brand of latex paint should have no more than 250 grams per liter. Also, choose water-based latex paint instead of oil-based, which tends to have higher levels of toxic ingredients. Ask a paint professional if you need help.
5. Don't change the litter box during your pregnancy Cat feces sometimes contain a parasite called toxoplasma gondii that may cause toxoplasmosis, a rare but serious infection that can result in brain and eye damage in the fetus. Ask your partner to take over this duty.
The Dirty Dozen
The column at left below lists the 12 most pesticide-laden produce foods when grown conventionally; the other lists the least contaminated, according to a study done by the Environmental Working Group. When eating foods from the most contaminated list, go organic whenever possible.
Most Contaminated Least Contaminated Apples Asparagus Bell peppers Avocados Celery Bananas Cherries Broccoli Grapes (imported) Sweet peas Nectarines Cauliflower Peaches Kiwis Pears Mangoes Potatoes Onions Red raspberries Papayas Spinach Pineapples Strawberries Sweet corn