I was just a few weeks pregnant when I got an assignment to write a medical paper on detoxification. I found myself pounding away at the keyboard about the 700 new chemicals introduced into the American market each year. I wrote that 200 chemicals were found in the umbilical cords of newborn babies.1 And in a high profile government study, all of the pregnant women were positive for toxicants known to cause infertility or to harm babies.1
The problem: the harmful chemicals that you are exposed to have a direct line to your baby.
Feeling the beginnings of new life stirring inside me, I was painfully aware of the toxic world she was already exposed to. Now my daughter is three years old and my dear friend just had a baby girl. Figuring out what to avoid during pregnancy and what to eat during pregnancy is tough! In her early pregnancy, I talked to my friend about how to get rid of the toxins in her food, air, and water so that her baby could be as healthy as possible. I realized that mothers really need this information!
When you find out that you are having a baby, focus on putting good stuff into your body and staying away from bad stuff. Especially in early pregnancy, I believe there is too much emphasis on ultrasound appointments when you should be getting excellent nutrition and avoiding harmful chemicals. Your body can do the rest.
I will not give you the usual spiel about things to avoid when pregnant like deli meat, tuna fish, sushi, and alcohol. You already know about that. This blog will tell you how to avoid the things that are hidden, that can harm you and your unborn baby. Most doctors are not talking about these things, even though they should be.
- Part 1 of this blog will focus on cleaning up your food and cookware for a healthy pregnancy.
- Part 2 will focus on cleaning up your air and water for a healthy pregnancy.
- Part 3 will tell you how to avoid chemicals in your cleaning and skin care products, flooring, and furniture.
By taking some of the precautions listed below, you can reduce your baby’s risk of:
- Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
- Birth defects
- Breathing problems and respiratory infections
- Developmental delay
- Genital malformations
- Hormone imbalance
- Immune system dysfunction
- Infertility (in future adulthood)
- Language delay
- Low birth weight
- Low IQ
- Mental retardation
- Poor attention
- Poor memory
- Poor psychomotor coordination
- Preterm delivery
- Thyroid disorders
There is more to prenatal care than just taking pregnancy vitamins and avoiding alcohol. Everything that you eat, drink, and breathe goes directly to your baby.2,3 Give your baby the healthiest start by following these recommendations to clean up your food and cookware. These tips will be useful before pregnancy, during pregnancy, and after, when you have a brand new baby in your home, too.
Pots, Pans, and Eating Utensils
Take a long, hard look at what you eat on and prepare food with. Get rid of aluminum and Teflon (non-stick) pots and pans. Aluminum has been implicated in Alzheimer’s disease and aluminum toxicity harms the brain and bones. A chemical used in the production of Teflon, called perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) increases the risk of cancer. Stainless steel, cast iron, glass, and ceramic coated cast iron are the best materials for cooking. Use stainless steel eating utensils. Do not bake food on aluminum foil. Instead, use parchment paper or bake directly on the pan and clean the pan with dish soap and old-fashioned elbow grease. Avoid drinking out of aluminum cans.
Plates, Bowls, and Mugs
Pottery is beautiful but I chunked all of my pottery made in China. Unless you have proof that your pottery was made without the use of toxic metals, it is highly suspect. Toxins in plates and mugs can leach into your food, especially when heated. Watch out for cracks and chips, which means that the pottery is breaking down and could be leaching toxins into your food or beverages. Glazes used in colorful pottery can contain lead and cadmium. Lead can damage your child’s brain, lower his or her intelligence, cause anxiety, or attention problems. There is no safe amount of lead for your child.4 And cadmium can damage the kidneys and lungs.
When looking for dinnerware that is free of lead and cadmium, consider high fired porcelain or stoneware. They do not use lead in the glaze because they are fired at extremely high temperatures. They get so hot that they become vitrified, or non-porous. Everything is sealed in. If you hold it to the light, it should be smooth and glossy without any chips or pinholes. Avoid greens, yellows, and reds, to be extra safe. I found high fired porcelain and stoneware to be priced higher than my budget allowed.
I settled for white Corelle plates and mugs. Glass plates made in the USA, there is less risk of leaching metals into the food. Without color, it is unlikely that heavy metals that provide rich color, were used. Most importantly, they are affordable and smash-resistant. Fiesta pottery is a great investment dinnerware option, with gorgeous color options. They claim to be lead-free but I don’t know if they are cadmium-free.
Plastic plates, bowls, or cups should be tossed. They contain BPA and break down when exposed to heat or acid. Who wants to eat plastic? If you are heating up food in plastic containers, then plastic is getting into your food. Consider bamboo, silicone, or stainless steel plates and bowls for kid-proof dinnerware. I did my research on non-toxic and affordable dinnerware years ago. Now there are a number of nice blogs on the same topic. I cannot vouch for the information in these blogs, but choosing the right dinnerware is a journey (and an investment). These might help you on the way.
- Non Toxic Dinnerware – Which Dinnerware Is Lead-Free?
- The 13 Best Non Toxic Dinnerware
- Lead Free Dishes? BPA free? Melamine? My Head is Spinning
There is clear evidence that eating organic reduces the amount of pesticides introduced to the unborn baby. Eating organic isn’t cheap. It’s an investment in your health and your baby’s. Since I was already eating a number of organic foods, I went all-out organic for the pregnancy. If you cannot afford it, consider going hard core organic for the first trimester, which is the most critical phase of development in the womb. If you can’t do all organic, avoid the Dirty Dozen. These are the 12 most pesticide-rich foods at the supermarket. If you can get these foods organic, you are doing a lot to reduce yours and baby’s pesticide exposure.
The Dirty Dozen as of 2019. Buy these foods organic because they are the highest in pesticide levels.
Pesticide exposure during pregnancy can increase the risk of birth defects, pervasive developmental disorder, ADHD, autism, inattention, and hyperactivity in children.4 It can also cause problems with the immune system and lung infections.5
Fish, Meat, and Dairy
Fish are so good for your health, but the sad fact is that pollution builds up in fish. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t eat fish- just make wise choices. Mercury is high in tuna. Farm-raised salmon and catfish have high levels of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs). PCBs were used to conduct electricity and as a lubricant until 1979. These toxins have been outlawed but there are still high levels in fish. That’s because they don’t break down (or biodegrade) in the natural environment. Instead, they build up in animals, like us and in the animal-foods we eat. Toxins end up not only in fish, but also in beef, poultry, lamb, and pork.
PCBs interfere with hormone systems and can harm the brains of babies.6,7 Everybody knows mercury isn’t something you want much of. Even low amounts of mercury can cause a baby to have a lower IQ, problems with memory, attention, language, and movement.8 And unfortunately, pesticides build up in the animals we eat, which means that they build up in our bodies, too. The dangers of pesticides for you and your baby are listed in the section above. Conventional meat products can be high in PCBs, toxic metals, and pesticides.
Choose fish that are not high in mercury. This wallet card is super handy when shopping for low-mercury fish. Go ahead and enjoy salmon, just make sure it is wild salmon, not farm-raised. Buy organic meats. These will have lower levels of pesticides and PCBs. Pasture-raised is another hallmark of good quality animal protein. Normal butter and milk from the grocery store are chock-full of PCBs and pesticides. Choose organic dairy products, as these are lower in PCBs and pesticides. I bought all organic meats through the first trimester and throughout my pregnancy. But eventually it was hard to keep it up both due to pricing and availability. Nonetheless, I always chose “green” or natural meats that did not use hormones, antibiotics, or preservatives and raised animals in humane conditions. I don’t eat dairy but it’s worth the extra money to buy organic dairy. Remember, everything you eat, your unborn baby “eats” too.
It can be a real bummer to find out how many chemicals are flooding our food, air, and water. But there are solutions. And there are doctors who know how to deal with this. But all experts would agree that the #1 most important thing to do first is reduce your exposures to harmful chemicals and toxins. That’s where you can immediately take action, by following the suggestions in this blog and doing your own research. If you can decrease your exposures to toxins even just a little bit, you are making a huge difference. And that can build over time.
I avoided canned foods containing bisphenol A, which meant all canned foods, at the time. Since then, companies are now making cans that do not contain BPA and will carry a label on the outside that says so. Choose glass containers, when possible. I also chose boxes over cans, like the paper boxes that contain chicken broth or almond milk, for example. Frozen foods are also a good option when you can’t buy fresh foods.
Say bye-bye to plastic products galore. The most notorious harmful plastic chemical is bisphenol A which gives plastic it’s hard characteristic. Not sure how this one slipped into our baby bottles at one time because it acts like estrogen, affecting the brain, prostate gland, and behavior. It can increase the risk for birth defects and genital malformation,9 not to mention infertility. Thank goodness baby bottles, cups, toys, and dinnerware now sport the label, “BPA free.” But beware of some of the other hidden chemicals in plastics such as phthalates, which mess up the baby’s natural hormone signals and may affect a baby’s genital size.6,10
Instead of BPA-containing plastic water bottles, get stainless steel or glass water bottles to keep you hydrated all day. Avoid drinking from plastic bottles or containers, unless you’re in a pinch. Never heat food or water in the microwave in plastic containers. Instead of saran wrap, try to use parchment paper. If you must use a hard plastic water bottle, look for one that doesn’t contain BPA. And drink/eat only cold liquids from it. Don’t store acidic foods in plastic, like spaghetti sauce.
Stock up on glass storage containers such as Pyrex. These are great for storing and reheating your food without exposing you to toxic plastics. Mason jars are a quick, affordable option for food storage and they can double as a water bottle –if you don’t mind people joking that you have a “moonshine” habit. It’s not easy to eradicate plastic, but you can cut your exposures by a lot. In truth, I did not remove all plastic from my house. I still have Ziplock bags, BPA-free saran wrap, and a few plastic Tupperware containers. The caveat for these is that I only use them with cold materials or non-acidic foods. I also wash them by hand instead of in the dishwasher. Plastic of course has an incredible feature of being shatterproof. There is a time and a place for it, but try to reduce it and never eat food or water that was heated in plastic. Don’t use plastic to store acidic liquids like pineapple juice, orange juice, tomato juice, vinegar, etc.. The acid will break it down and the plastic will end up in your food.
Take One Step at a Time and Stay Positive!
For someone who is just learning about toxic exposures, this is a big overhaul! Take little steps. Do the best you can, but don’t beat yourself up if it’s not perfect. Shopping organic and cooking with healthy pots and pans is still an amazing start! Once the baby is here, you won’t be able to worry about most of these things, so it helps to put them in place now, for the health of you and your family.
This blog is inspired by, and dedicated to, Dr. Walter Crinnion, ND, a great mind and teacher of environmental medicine who passed away March 11, 2019.
- Sutton P, Woodruff TJ, Perron J, et al. Toxic environmental chemicals: the role of reproductive health professionals in preventing harmful exposures. Am J Obstet Gynecol. 2012;207(3):164-173.
- Latini G, De Felice C, Presta G, et al. Exposure to Di(2-ethylhexyl)phthalate in humans during pregnancy. A preliminary report. Biology of the neonate. 2003;83(1):22-24.
- Gardella C. Lead exposure in pregnancy: a review of the literature and argument for routine prenatal screening. Obstetrical & gynecological survey. 2001;56(4):231-238.
- Polanska K, Jurewicz J, Hanke W. Review of current evidence on the impact of pesticides, polychlorinated biphenyls and selected metals on attention deficit / hyperactivity disorder in children. International journal of occupational medicine and environmental health. 2013;26(1):16-38.
- Van Oostdam J, Donaldson SG, Feeley M, et al. Human health implications of environmental contaminants in Arctic Canada: A review. Sci Total Environ. 2005;351-352:165-246.
- Huang PC, Kuo PL, Chou YY, Lin SJ, Lee CC. Association between prenatal exposure to phthalates and the health of newborns. Environment international. 2009;35(1):14-20.
- Winneke G, Walkowiak J, Lilienthal H. PCB-induced neurodevelopmental toxicity in human infants and its potential mediation by endocrine dysfunction. Toxicology. 2002;181-182:161-165.
- Grandjean P, Weihe P, Debes F, Choi AL, Budtz-Jorgensen E. Neurotoxicity from prenatal and postnatal exposure to methylmercury. Neurotoxicology and teratology. 2014;43:39-44.
- Rezg R, El-Fazaa S, Gharbi N, Mornagui B. Bisphenol A and human chronic diseases: current evidences, possible mechanisms, and future perspectives. Environment international. 2014;64:83-90.
- Lottrup G, Andersson AM, Leffers H, et al. Possible impact of phthalates on infant reproductive health. International journal of andrology. 2006;29(1):172-180; discussion 181-175.
Do you have more tips and tricks for avoiding harmful chemicals during pregnancy? Please share your comments below.
Cass Nelson-Dooley, MS, is a researcher, author, educator, and laboratory consultant. She studied medicinal plants in the rain forests of Panama as a Fulbright Scholar and then launched a career in science and natural medicine. Early on, she studied ethnobotany, ethnopharmacology, and drug discovery at the University of Georgia and AptoTec, Inc. She joined innovators at Metametrix Clinical Laboratory as a medical education consultant helping clinicians use integrative and functional laboratory results in clinical practice. She owns Health First Consulting, LLC, a medical communications company with the mission to improve human health using the written word. Ms. Nelson-Dooley is an oral microbiome expert and author of Heal Your Oral Microbiome. She was a contributing author in Laboratory Evaluations for Integrative and Functional Medicine and Case Studies in Integrative and Functional Medicine. She has published case studies, book chapters, and journal articles about the oral microbiome, natural medicine, nutrition, laboratory testing, obesity, and osteoporosis.