Over 2 billion pounds of chemicals are poured into our environment annually in the United States, and most are unregulated and untested for their effects on the human body! This means that daily we are exposed to hundreds of chemicals, some of which are known estrogen-mimicking or hormonally active substances. Hormonally active chemicals can alter fertility over the short- and long-term for both women and men, whose ability to produce healthy sperm is affected by the chemicals. According to the Environmental Working Group’s film, “10 Americans,” babies are born now with over 200 identifiable chemicals in their cord blood, and many of these chemicals are connected to learning disabilities, ADHD, and possibly autism. Some chemicals are linked to physical deformities and delayed physical or mental development too. Certain toxic chemicals can also be passed through breast milk. Research suggests that each of these chemicals on its own can cause damage, but together they create a “cocktail” that can be highly reactive. These chemicals, with names like BPA, parabens, phthalates, PCBs, pesticides, and a whole alphabet-full of others, are everywhere. Consumers need to demand better regulations from the government to control their creation and use, and we also need to demand corporate responsibility from polluters that promote the use of toxic chemicals in their products. But, until regulations change, there are manageable ways you can reduce your personal exposure.
Americans are exposed to hundreds of chemicals in the course of a regular day. Furniture is coated with flame retardants that filter into house dust that settles all around us. Pesticides are sprayed on farmland, but also on suburban lawns and then blown around with the wind into our homes through open windows and cracks in the structure, or we track them into the house on our shoes. Our plastic water bottles contain BPA or its replacements, which are also known hormone disrupters. Cash register receipts are also coated with BPA, as are fast food containers, pizza boxes, and other coated paper goods. Our body products, such as soaps, shampoos, conditioners, body washes, moisturizers, make-ups, deodorants, and fragrances contain sulphates, phthalates, and parabens. Our cleaning products around the home also contain them. The chemicals are on and in the food we eat and in the water we drink. They enter our bodies by eating or drinking them, breathing them into our lungs, or absorbing them through our skin.
This chemical exposure is a problem for expectant parents in a number of ways. In addition to causing various cancers, obesity, and other health concerns, chemicals, especially endocrine-disrupting ones, can make it difficult to get pregnant. They can affect the woman’s normal hormonal cycles, even making her infertile. The chemicals can disturb a man’s ability to make healthy sperm, and make him infertile too. During pregnancy, exposure to some chemicals can cause deadly consequences, like early and late-term miscarriage or pregnancy loss, preterm delivery, stillbirth, and the death of exposed newborn babies. Also the way these chemicals can disrupt the way DNA expresses, creating the potential for serious problems with a developing fetus, is deeply concerning.
Babies growing in the womb are extremely sensitive to some of these toxins. Since every bone, muscle, and organ, including the brain, are rapidly developing as the fetus forms and grows, fetuses are at high risk for abnormal development at certain times during the pregnancy, especially early on. Continued exposure during pregnancy can alter physical and mental development, and cause birth defects and neurological problems. Researchers point to chemical exposure in utero as a possible reason for the rapid increase in Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and autism spectrum disorders.
Some chemicals can also be passed from mother to baby through breast milk, which is upsetting especially because we are often told that “breast is best.” While breast milk can be a method of exposure for newborns and infants, it is also nutritionally the optimal food for growing babies. Concerned parents should keep in mind that water and formula, made from cow’s milk, soy, corn or other sources may be contaminated by chemicals too, and don’t offer the same living antibodies or customized nutrition as breast milk.
There is no doubt that this news is alarming, and very scary for parents-to-be. Experts in the field suggest that a massive consumer movement will be necessary to change governmental regulations and force manufacturers to become more environmentally responsible. It is possible to do — the United Kingdom has taken a much more proactive stance towards dealing with environmental toxins and they regulate thousands of chemicals, while the United States only regulates a handful of them now.
If you are thinking about starting a family or trying to conceive, until regulations change, it’s up to you to do what you can to reduce your chemical exposures. A great place to start is by visiting the Environmental Working Group’s website at http://www.ewg.org. They have information about all the issues relating to chemicals in our environment, and have large product databases that you can search to see how the personal care and household products you use rate in terms of toxin exposure, as well as dozens of suggestions for products that are highly rated as healthier choices. Their list of the “Dirty Dozen” points out fruits, like apples, that are heavily contaminated with pesticides suggesting that organic is the best choice, while their “Clean Fifteen” lists minimally contaminated produce, such as avocados and cantaloupe, which are probably fine if you purchase ones that are conventionally grown.
Just by changing the hair care and body products you use while showering, you can reduce your chemical load significantly. Use the databases to find products that work just as well as the conventional ones you are using currently. Switch from plastic food storage containers to glass ones, and have cash register receipts emailed to you. Within a matter of weeks, the levels of potentially toxic chemicals in your body will go down.
It can seem overwhelming to make drastic changes to reduce chemical exposure, and scary to think about bringing a child into a world where these problems exist. For those reasons, we must use our clout as consumers to force industry and government to do better for us as citizens. It seems like such a big task – where do you start? Call or write the companies that make the products you use and let them know you want healthier products from them. Even one or two letters or phone calls by you can make a difference. If 100 people each make one phone call to a corporation, that’s 100 phone calls from engaged consumers to make a company stand up and take notice.
By making careful choices you can bring the level of toxic chemicals in your system down, and create a safer environment for your baby before, during, and after pregnancy, both inside your body and outside of it. Of course, this chemical overload is a huge environmental issue, and while reducing your personal chemical load you can take action on a bigger scale and advocate for better legislation and corporate action to protect our whole planet for future generations.
Michal Klau-Stevens is The Birth Lady. She is the creator of the Mastering Maternity™ system, a program that helps childbearing women confidently approach pregnancy, birth, breastfeeding, early parenting, and navigating the maternity healthcare system. She is a maternity consultant, pregnancy coach, consumer expert on maternity care issues, Past President of BirthNetwork National, Lamaze Certified Childbirth Educator, and mother. Her website is TheBirthLady.INFO. Find her on Facebook at The Birth Lady page!