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Talking to pregnant women about toxic chemicals

Reducing pregnant women’s exposure to environmental toxins was recently deemed “critical” by the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists to prevent birth defects and other fetal health problems. But a survey published this week of more than 2,500 physician members of that medical group found that fewer than one in five obstetrician-gynecologists ask their pregnant patients about any exposure they’ve had to unsafe levels of toxic chemicals.

Eighty percent of these doctors agreed that they could have an impact on lowering exposure to dangerous substances, but only about 7 percent said they had any training on the topic, according to the study published in the journal PLOS One.


“It’s not surprising that they’re avoiding these discussions,” said Dr. Alan Woolf, director of the pediatric environmental health center at Boston Children’s Hospital who was not involved with the study. “Very few doctors feel comfortable in their knowledge of this issue to discuss it.”

A 2011 study found that pregnant women are exposed to at least 43 different chemicals known to affect fetal development including pesticides, polychlorinated biphenyl (PCB’s), and phthalates that interfere with hormones.

For this reason, ACOG recommended last year that its physicians “identify specific types of exposure that may be harmful to a developing fetus” during the first prenatal visit. Doctors should be asking about workplace exposures — such as chemicals used in a lab or factory — as well as whether she lives in an older home, which could contain harmful lead paint, or has undertaken any do-it-yourself home renovation projects that involves toxic agents.

Half of the obstetricians-gynecologists surveyed in the new study said they rarely take this kind of environmental health history.

“Doctors told us they have so many more pressing issues to talk about,” said study leader Naomi Stotland, an associate professor of obstetrics-gynecology at the University of California, San Francisco. “Their patients may be cigarette smokers, drink alcohol, or eat fast food every day, which they need to deal with first.”


But those who serve high-income, highly-educated populations often find themselves flummoxed by questions from their pregnant patients about which cosmetics, household cleaners, and sunscreens to use.

Part of the reason doctors avoid addressing environmental exposure concerns, the study found, is that they don’t want to make their patients even more stressed out about protecting their baby’s health than necessary. Many pregnant women have become so diligent about avoiding mercury and other pollutants in fish, for example, that the US Food and Drug Administration recently announced that pregnant women need to eat more fish to improve their baby’s health.

“Women shouldn’t be avoiding fish for dinner,” Woolf said.

(The FDA recommended avoiding only those fish high in mercury like shark, swordfish, and tile fish.)

Woolf also pointed out that providing advice to pregnant women on reducing certain environmental exposures can be difficult for doctors partly because studies have yielded ambiguous results about what risks they pose to fetuses. “The science isn’t precise in terms of casual relationships,” he said. “That’s because there’s so much complexity in terms of the variety of chemicals women are exposed to as well as separating them from other lifestyle factors” like how many fruits and vegetables they eat and how much weight they gain during pregnancy.

Unlike cigarette smoke, illicit drug use, or excessive alcohol consumption, exposures pregnant women typically get to environmental chemicals don’t pose life-threatening risks to babies. Instead, they may cause subtler health effects. “They could lead to lower or higher birth weights,” Stotland said, “or epigenetic changes — in terms of how genes are expressed — that could make babies more susceptible to adult diseases later on.”


While pregnant women can’t avoid exposures to all chemicals that are potentially toxic to their babies, they can take certain measures to reduce their risk like eating organic fruits and vegetables without pesticides. Stotland and her UCSF colleagues developed an online brochure to help guide pregnant women and parents on products that are safe to use in their homes.

Some of the tips include avoiding sprays to kill bugs, microwaving foods in glass containers to avoid exposure to hormone-disrupting chemicals in plastic containers, and using cleaning products with an EcoLogo or Green Seal on their labels.

“Some things are no brainers and easy to do,” Stotland said, “like avoiding spray air fresheners and not using antibacterial soaps, which are unnecessary and have triclosan.” The FDA announced plans last December to remove triclosan -- thought to increase antibiotic resistance and disrupt hormonal systems -- from its safe list of ingredients, which would effectively ban its use from products. Artificial fragrances in air fresheners often contain phthalates.

Deborah Kotz can be reached at dkotz@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @debkotz.