In the ongoing debate about the health of our environment, for decades there has been significant concern about whether some products of our industrialized society can lead to birth defects and developmental problems in children. The good news is that birth defects are relatively rare, and there are clear steps you can take to avoid the ones that are most preventable. The Remedy asked the experts about the everyday items around your home that have been linked to birth defects, and whether you should avoid or change how you use them to give children the best start in life possible.
“In my research laboratory, we study a common single-celled parasite called Toxoplasma gondii,” says Bill Sullivan, PhD, professor of microbiology and pharmacology at the Indiana University School of Medicine in Indianapolis. “This parasite can cause miscarriage or birth defects if a pregnant woman becomes infected for the first time during her pregnancy. It can be picked up from common household items, including the cat litter box, sandbox, or garden. It can also be transmitted through raw or undercooked meat and unwashed fruits or vegetables.”
The Remedy Rx: According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, pregnant women should avoid cleaning their cat’s litter box if possible, ensure the litter changed daily (toxoplasma gondii doesn’t become infectious until one to five days after it’s shed in a cat’s feces), keep outdoor sandboxes covered and wear gloves when gardening. Feed pets commercial pet food (not meat), ensure the meat you eat is well cooked, and thoroughly wash all produce before you consume it.
“I recommend that pregnant patients stay away from anything that has complex organic molecules in it,” says Amir G. Nasseri, MD, FACOG, a board-certified OB/GYN in Santa Ana, California. “Anything that has a long name is usually an organic compound, as well as anything that ends with suffix -ene, such as naphthalene, benzene and butylene. Organic compounds tend to interact with the DNA of the developing fetus, causing birth defects. Mostly the strong cleaning products, pesticides, fertilizers, and herbicides are to be avoided, as well as anything that has dyes in it.”
The Remedy Rx: For cleaning, “use only substances with simple, non-organic molecules in them, such as plain vinegar, which contains a weak ammonia, and baking soda, which contains bicarbonate, for cleaning and deodorizing,” says Nasseri.
“Perfumes also contain complex organic compounds and should be avoided,” says Nasseri.
The Remedy Rx: To be on the safe side, avoid wearing perfume during pregnancy. “Many synthetic chemicals in fragrances are derived from petrochemicals (petroleum-based), and can be harmful to human health,” says the Children’s Environmental Health Network. “Some fragrance compounds are neurotoxicants and others are linked with reproductive birth defects.”
“Many plastic containers used in food storage can have a type of chemicals called phthalates,” says Luz Claudio, MD, professor of environmental medicine at Mount Sinai School of Medicine In New York City. “Phthalates can also be found in some personal care products, such as some skin lotions. They can be absorbed through the skin or ingested when foods are stored in these types of plastics or heated in the microwave oven in plastic containers. These chemicals are suspected of causing effects on the reproductive organs of boys during fetal development.”
The Remedy Rx: “Pregnant women and women who are planning to get pregnant should reduce their use of plastics in food, especially those plastics marked with the recycling number 3 or 7,” says Claudio. “They should also check the labels of personal care products and use those that are free of phthalates.”
“Quats (quaternary ammonium compounds) are in many disinfectant sprays and cleaners with the intention of killing germs,” says Renee Wellenstein, MD, a board-certified physician in obstetrics/gynecology and functional medicine based in Cooperstown, New York. “They are thought to affect male sperm.” Another common quat to look out for is didecyl dimethyl ammonium chloride (DDAC). The two are often used together in products.
The Remedy Rx: “There are safer DIY cleaners that can be made with ingredients such as Castile soap, white vinegar, water, borax, and possibly essential oils for fragrance,” says Wellenstein.
Women who are pregnant or planning to get pregnant should avoid eating fish that are high in methylmercury, which is known to accumulate in the fetus and cause birth defects, says the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. Larger fish tend to be high in mercury, including shark, swordfish, king mackerel, and tilefish.
The Remedy Rx: But fish is nutritionally beneficial and totally avoiding it during pregnancy isn’t necessary, the ACOG says. Pregnant women can safely consume fish and shellfish that are low in mercury, up to 12 ounces a week (about two average meals). Shrimp, canned light tuna, salmon, pollock, and catfish are low in mercury. White (albacore) tuna is higher in mercury than canned light tuna and should be limited to 6 ounces per week, the organization says.
Consuming alcohol during pregnancy is one of the most common causes of birth defects. According to the Cleveland Clinic, it can result in fetal alcohol syndrome, which can include learning disabilities, mental retardation, irritability, hyperactivity, poor coordination, and abnormalities of facial features.
The Remedy Rx: There is no safe amount of alcohol to drink during pregnancy or while trying to get pregnant, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says.
“Another household concern are VOCs,” says Wellenstein. These Volatile Organic Compounds are “found in such things as furniture polish, paint, carpets, candles, glass cleaners, and detergents, to name a few.” Some common VOCs include formaldehyde, d-Limonene, toluene, acetone, ethanol (ethyl alcohol), 2-propanol (isopropyl alcohol), and hexanal.
The Remedy Rx: Check the labels of products you use frequently to see if they contain VOCs. Choose products that are labeled “low-VOC” or “zero-VOC” if possible.
Cigarette smoke releases hydrocarbons, a chemical that’s been linked to birth defects such as cleft lip or cleft palate and neural tube defects (spina bifida).
The Remedy Rx: Quit smoking before getting pregnant and avoid secondhand smoke as much as possible. And to live your happiest and healthiest life, don’t miss these 100 Ways Your Home Could Be Making You Sick.