A Green Guide to Pregnancy


Whether you’re expecting a baby or contemplating pregnancy, now is the time to go green and pave the way for a happier and healthier pregnancy.

Looking for some guidelines to help you reduce toxic risks during your pregnancy? This helpful information can ensure you and your growing family are safe and healthy.

Reduce Toxin Exposure

Maternal exposures can be transferred across the placenta to the developing fetus, says Dr. Frederica Perera, PhD, director of the Center for Children’s Environmental Health at Columbia University. The center’s studies of 500 baby-mother pairs have found that some pesticides, such as carbamates and chlorpyrifos, “very readily cross the placenta and we’ve related those exposures to poor fetal growth and lower birth weight,” Dr. Perera says. Researchers also found high levels of carcinogenic polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) crossing the placenta.

What can we do? “Women should join community efforts to reduce exposures to PAHs, which are combustion byproducts, from sources such as bus stations and power plants,” Dr. Perera says. “There are certain practical steps women can take to reduce exposures in their home. Use safer alternatives to toxic pesticides and ask household visitors not to smoke.”

Eat Well

To prevent bacterial illness, thoroughly cook meat and poultry to 160 and 180 degrees F, respectively, and avoid raw fish. Deli meats, poultry, soft cheeses, and hot dogs can contain Listeria, which can cause miscarriages. Ask your doctor if you have concerns about what is and is not safe for you to eat during pregnancy.

Test Your Water

Ask your water supplier for your town’s drinking-water report (visit the EPA website for more information). Check for trihalomethanes, chlorination byproducts that may increase the risk of miscarriage at levels above 75 micrograms per liter. Test well water annually for nitrate, too; and all parents should test for lead, which can leach from pipes. Most pharmacies and hardware stores offer inexpensive home lead tests.

Test Your Home

Make sure that your home and paint are lead free. To tackle this job, call the EPA (800-424-LEAD). “Women who are pregnant, or planning to be, must be extremely careful to avoid renovations where old lead paint may be disturbed. “Lead stays in the body for three to six months after exposure,” says Dr. Philip J. Landrigan, MD, co-author of Raising Healthy Children in a Toxic World: 101 Smart Solutions for Every Family.


If you are able, strive to breastfeed your baby. Pediatricians recommend nursing infants to reduce ear infections, allergies, and digestive problems, obesity, and learning problems. For the occasional bottle, stock up on glass bottles rather than clear polycarbonate plastic, which can leach bisphenol-A, a hormone disruptor.

Avoid Caffeine

Bad news for avid coffee drinkers—high levels of caffeine have been linked to miscarriage.

Avoid Secondhand Smoke

You wouldn’t let your baby smoke, and you shouldn’t either (nor should you expose yourself to secondhand smoke). Tobacco smoke increases the risk of low birth weight and impaired learning.

Don’t Drink

Don’t be alarmed if you had a glass of wine yesterday and found out you’re pregnant today; just be vigilant from here on out and avoid alcohol, which can cause fetal alcohol syndrome.

Beware of Toxins in Fish

Mercury, a toxic metal released into the environment from coal-burning power plants and incineration of medical waste, can permanently damage developing brains and nervous systems, particularly of fetuses and young children. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) report that 16 percent of American women currently have enough mercury in their bloodstreams to increase the risk of harming a fetus.

Before eating freshwater fish, which can contain nervous-system-damaging polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), check advisories from the state health department. Toxins have also been shown to accumulate in farmed salmon at levels up to seven times higher than what appears in the wild, according to a study published in a January 2004 issue of Science magazine.

PCBs are chemicals used in electrical equipment before 1978. Now banned, they persist in air and water. PCBs in fish eaten by women before or during pregnancy can cause impaired learning and memory and lower IQ scores in their children. Adults exposed to PCBs also show learning deficits and memory loss.

Watch Out for Phthalates

Used widely in fragrances, deodorants, nail polishes, hair products, and lotions, the oily texture of phthalates acts like a moisturizer and helps lotions penetrate skin. Various members of this family of chemical plasticizers have been found to produce cancer of the liver and birth defects in lab animals.

Dibutylphthalate (DBP) is of particular concern because documented exposures are high and its health effects are potentially very serious. In nail polish and mascara, DBP helps thin films stay flexible, reducing brittleness and cracking. Animal studies show that DBP causes birth defects and harm to male reproductive organs. Timing of exposure was critical: Harm was done to animals exposed in the womb or shortly after birth. Other commonly used phthalates include dimethylphthalate (DMP) and diethylphthalate (DEP).

Phthalates often “hide” behind the term “fragrance;” choose products labeled “fragrance-free” or that are scented exclusively with pure botanical or essential oils.

Avoid Toxic Household Cleaners

This is important to avoid volatile organic chemicals(VOCs), which include some carcinogens and nervous-system toxins. Conventional cleaning products, loaded with fragrances and VOCs, are a major source of indoor air pollution. VOCs vaporize into the air you breathe and can evaporate or “offgas” from cleaning products, paints and finishes long after they have dried. The combined emissions from all these offgassing products in households produce a potent indoor smog! Use least-toxic household cleaners and home reno/deco products such as paints, pressed woods, upholstered furniture.

Use Caution with Plastics

Use plastic wraps made of polyethylene, not PVC, which contains phthalates (see above). Don’t microwave in plastic or put hot food in plastic containers. Store food in glass or lead-free ceramic containers. Avoid food cans with white linings, which contain bisphenol-A.

Don’t Change the Kitty Litter!

Cat feces can carry toxoplasmosis, which causes brain damage in infants. Have your mate change the litter instead and enjoy a nine-month break from the job!

This is a story was originally published in The Green Guide and was reproduced with permission.


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