Arsenic: A Pregnancy Danger Lurking in Your Tap Water?

According to a recent study, you need to be more concerned about arsenic than you think—especially if you're pregnant—and it can lurk in totally unsuspecting places.

Arsenic: A Pregnancy Danger Lurking in Your Tap Water? kozirsky/Shutterstock

Arsenic could negatively affect fetal growth, even when consumed in low levels during pregnancy, according to a recent study. And here's the surprising part: You could be exposing yourself to it when consuming something as seemingly innocuous as drinking water or common foods like rice, leafy greens and poultry.

Related: What You Eat Determines Your Baby's Future

Arsenic and pregnancy

The study comes from the Geisel School of Medicine at Dartmouth and claims to be the first to examine the link between low-level arsenic exposure and pregnancy outcomes (previous studies have looked at the effect of high levels). The current study found that a mother's urinary arsenic levels were tied to infant's birth weight and length. Babies who had been exposed to low levels of arsenic exhibited decreased head circumference at birth.

The researchers studied 700 pairs of women and their newborn babies. "We found that low-levels of arsenic exposure related to small differences in fetal growth. Alterations in fetal growth may have important public health implications," Diane Gilbert-Diamond, Sc.D., one of the study's authors, told Fit Pregnancy. "Some research suggests that head circumference at birth relates to later intellectual function. Research also links fetal growth to later risk of [morbid obesity]." She says future research is needed to determine whether the small differences in birth outcomes relate to any neurological or physical growth differences in infancy and childhood.

How to avoid it

While we do need some additional research in order to determine the exact relationship between low levels arsenic exposure and pregnancy, the researchers believe it's important for pregnant women to be aware of what they're consuming.

"There is a way for pregnant women to check how much arsenic their water contains," Dr. Gilbert-Diamond said. "Public water supplies are monitored and regulated so that their arsenic levels meet the threshold that the EPA considers safe. People who drink water from private wells should have them tested for arsenic and other contaminants. Local public health and state environmental health agencies will have specific guidance on how to access certified well water testing resources. We also have an interactive graphic tool that offers specific information on how to reduce exposure to arsenic in food and water. Filtering drinking water can be done to remove arsenic. After getting one's well water tested, a homeowner can talk to their local health department to find out more about filtering options."

Margaret Karagas, professor and chair of Geisel's Department of Epidemiology and a senior author of the study says it's a particular concern in rural regions where many people rely on private, unregulated drinking water. "People who use private wells need to have them tested for arsenic and other contaminants as recommended by their local public health agency," she says.