Pregnant women increasingly exposed to chemicals that could harm development: study

Close-up of a pregnant woman sitting on a sofa.

Pregnant women are incurring increasing exposure to an array of toxic chemicals that may be harmful to fetal development, a new study has found. 

Many of these substances are so-called “replacement chemicals” — new forms of compounds that have been banned or phased out, but that may be just as injurious as the ones they replaced, according to the study, published on Tuesday in Environmental Science & Technology

While the researchers studied a highly diverse group of pregnant women over a 12-year period, they found that Latinas had particularly high levels of many potentially dangerous chemicals. 

“This is the first time we’ve been able to measure the amounts of chemicals in such a large and diverse group of pregnant women – not just identify chemicals,” senior author Tracey Woodruff, director of the University of California, San Francisco’s Program on Reproductive Health and the Environment, said in a statement. 

“Our findings make clear that the number and scope of chemicals in pregnant women are increasing during a very vulnerable time of development for both the pregnant person and the fetus,” Woodruff added. 

To draw their conclusions, the scientists measured 103 chemicals — mostly from pesticides, plastics and replacement chemicals for BPA and phthalates — using a new method that can capture dozens of chemicals or chemical traces from a single urine sample, according to the study. 

Not only did they detect the considerable presence of potentially harmful replacement chemicals, but they also observed that many women had been exposed to neonicotinoids, pesticides that are toxic to bees.

More than 80 percent of the chemicals that the scientists identified were found in at least one of the women in the study, and more than a third of the chemicals were found in a majority of the participants.  The researchers also determined that some of these compounds were present in greater quantities than had been seen in previous studies. 

Prenatal exposure to such toxins can come from air, food, water, plastics and a variety of consumer products, the authors noted. While many of the chemicals could be harmful to both pregnancy and child development, few are monitored in people.

The study included 171 women from California, Georgia, Illinois, New Hampshire, New York and Puerto Rico, recruited over the course of 12 years from the National Institutes of Health’s Environmental Influences on Child Health Outcomes program — which conducts observational and interventional pediatric health research.

About 34 percent of participants were white, 40 percent were Latina 20 percent were Black and the remaining 6 percent came from either other or multiple groups, according to the study. 

The authors determined that higher exposures occurred for non-white women, as well as for those who were less educated, single or exposed to tobacco. 

Latinas had especially high levels of parabens — used as preservatives — as well as of phthalates and bisphenols, chemicals used in plastics, the researchers found. 

“While pesticides and replacement chemicals were prevalent in all women, we were surprised to find that Latinas had substantially higher levels of parabens, phthalates and bisphenols,” first author Jessie Buckley, associate professor of environmental health and engineering, and of epidemiology, at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, said in a statement. 

“This could be the result of higher exposures to products with chemicals, such as processed foods or personal care products,” Buckley added.


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