Skip to main content

How Mothers-to-be Can Avoid Toxins That Affect Fetal Development

Published on: December 30, 2013

By Michael McCarthy

0110_pregnantbelly_rotatorMothers-to-be can reduce the risk their children will be harmed by environmental toxins by taking simple steps to avoid exposure to certain chemicals before they conceive and during their pregnancies, according to new guidelines drawn up by a research team led by Seattle pediatrician and environmental health expert Dr. Sheela Sathyanarayana of Seattle Children’s Research Institute.

The guidelines, which were published online this week by the  American Journal of Obstetrics & Gynecology, were written to help healthcare providers counsel mothers-to-be on how to avoid such toxins as lead, mercury, and a class of chemicals called “endocrine disruptors” that resemble hormones and have been linked to a number of health problems, including reproductive tract and neuro-development abnormalities.

Although the guidelines were written for healthcare providers, the guidelines contain helpful information for patients, too, says Dr. Sathyanarayana.

“There are simple ways to reduce exposures to lead, mercury, pesticides and endocrine-disrupting chemicals . . .  by following the guidelines we have outlined,” Dr. Sathyanarayana said.

“Women and their partners should be aware that pregnancy is an important time for development, that environmental chemicals can cause harm to a developing fetus, and that this topic is important to discuss with healthcare providers,” said Dr. Sathyanarayana.

A summary of the guidelines provided by Seattle Children’s Research Institute is below:

Environmental Exposures:

Tips for reproductive healthcare providers, preconception and prenatal women:


Risk factors: Exposure can come from eating fish, contact with quicksilver, and use of skin-lightening creams.  Exposure during pregnancy can lead to adverse neuro-developmental outcomes that include lower IQ, poor language and motor  development.

Reducing exposure to mercury: Pregnant, preconception and breastfeeding women should follow U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and state-specific fish consumption guidelines.  Avoid shark, swordfish, king mackerel, tile fish and large tuna.

Resources: Fish Chart and mercury guide.


Risk factors: Risk factors for exposure include recent immigration to the U.S., occupational exposure, imported cosmetics, and renovating or remodeling a home built before 1970.  Lead is neurotoxic to a developing fetus.

Reducing exposure: Never eat nonfood items (clay, soil, pottery or paint chips); avoid jobs or hobbies that may involve lead exposure; stay away from repair, repainting, renovation and remodeling work conducted in homes built before 1978; eat a balanced diet with adequate intakes of iron and calcium; avoid cosmetics, food additives and medicines imported from overseas; and remove shoes at the door to prevent tracking in lead and other pollutants.

Resources: Lead in Pregnancy/CDC and Poison Center Locator.


Risk factors: Exposure can come from eating some produce and from using pesticides in your home or on your pets.  Exposure to pesticides in pregnancy has been shown to increase risk of intrauterine growth retardation, congenital anomalies, leukemia and poor performance on neuro-developmental testing.

Reducing exposure: Do not use chemical tick and flea collars or dips; avoid application of pesticides indoors and outdoors; consider buying organic produce when possible; wash all fruits and vegetables before eating; and remove shoes at the door.

Resources: (focus on the “Dirty Dozen,” a list of the 12 most contaminated products published by the Environmental Working Group).

Endocrine-disrupting chemicals

Risk factors: Human prenatal phthalate exposure is associated with changes in male reproductive anatomy and behavioral changes primarily in young girls. Animal studies suggest prenatal exposure to BPA is associated with obesity, reproductive abnormalities and neuro-developmental abnormalities in offspring. Endocrine-disrupting chemicals mimic or antagonize the effects of hormones in the endocrine system and can cause adverse health effects that can be passed on to future generations.

Reducing exposure: Decrease consumption of processed foods; increase fresh and/or frozen foods; reduce consumption of canned foods;  avoid use of plastics with recycled codes #3, #6 and #7; be careful when removing old carpet because padding may contain chemicals; and use a vacuum machine fitted with a HEPA filter to get rid of dust that may contain chemicals.

Resources: BPA, CDC, and EPA.

This post originally appeared on LocalHealthGuide, on March 6, 2011.

Get the best of ParentMap delivered right to your inbox.

Share this resource with your friends!