With every breath you take

How to protect your baby from environmental toxins.

The mosquito was welcome company. I told myself that as long as it survived the aerial onslaught of chemicals, my unborn baby and I were safe, too.

I was sitting in a pickup, the windows rolled up tightly, just the lone mosquito and me inside. Across the narrow road, an airplane sliced back and forth over an orange grove. A fine white mist of pesticide drizzled down on the 40 acres of citrus below.

I was exactly halfway through my pregnancy, 20 weeks, and had conscientiously eaten balanced meals, swallowed vitamins daily, and avoided secondhand smoke and alcohol. But here I sat, almost directly below a crop-duster.

An environmental reporter for 12 years, I was on assignment in California’s farm-rich Imperial Valley, interviewing Native Americans living under the cloud of frequent pesticide spraying. I didn’t expect to be caught in the middle of one of those clouds, but suddenly, that is exactly where I found myself. As I scribbled notes, I sniffed for any telltale fumes and watched the mosquito out of the corner of my eye, just to make sure it didn’t drop dead on the dashboard.

I know the risks that ongoing exposure to toxic chemicals can pose to a child as it forms in the womb. But I also know enough about environmental problems to put my own risks from this one incident in perspective. Experts believe that for the typical pregnant woman, the amount of toxic residue found in today’s food, air and water poses little danger to her fetus. “Exposure of the average person under normal circumstances to any kinds of toxins is incredibly low,” says Michael Greene, M.D., director of maternal/fetal medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston.

Wherever we live, our bodies carry traces of chemicals that are left behind by the air we breathe, the water we drink and the foods we eat. Although those compounds can pass through the placenta to a fetus, only the most concentrated, consistent toxic exposures pose serious threats to pregnant women and their unborn children.

How to limit your exposure

The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists advises that pregnant women avoid exposure to pesticides and industrial chemicals during pregnancy, especially during the vulnerable first trimester, when a baby’s vital systems are developing. Some physicians and environmentalists also suggest that pregnant and nursing women follow such precautions as these:

  • 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.