When you are pregnant, you do everything possible to protect your baby’s health. You try to rest, exercise, eat healthfully, and avoid alcohol. Some experts are saying that you should also avoid overexposure to some common household chemicals. What are these chemicals and how can you protect your baby from being exposed to them?
Toxic Substances ^
Some of the chemicals you come in contact with may be toxic, especially to your unborn baby. Chemicals and substances that can cause birth defects are called teratogens. Most pregnant women know about some teratogens, including illicit drugs, alcohol, cigarettes, and some prescription drugs. What they may not know, however, is that common items around the house—including paint, paint removers, bleach, lye, cat boxes, and oven cleaners—can be dangerous to an unborn baby. Organizations such as the March of Dimes recommend that pregnant women avoid excessive exposure to these substances.
It’s important that pregnant women avoid direct and prolonged exposure to potentially toxic substances. If you are pregnant and you live or work around toxic chemicals, talk with your doctor about what you should do to protect yourself and your baby. But if you come into contact with toxic substances when you are working around the house, there are a few precautionary measures you can take to reduce the risk that your baby will be harmed.
House Cleaning ^
Bleach, oven cleaners, and other cleaning agents can harm an unborn baby. You should limit your use of these chemicals and take protective measures when you use them.
Until your baby is born, you might want to consider having someone else takeover any house cleaning that requires toxic substances. This way, the chances of harming your baby will be reduced. If you do use chemical cleaning agents, wear rubber gloves and open the windows to ventilate the room. But if you’ve done a little house cleaning since you’ve become pregnant, don’t worry. It is unlikely that occasional and indirect exposure to these chemicals will harm your baby.
Painting and Other Home Improvement Projects ^
Planning on renovating the new nursery? It’s best to have a family member or professional take care of home improvement projects while you are pregnant. Most paints and sealants give off toxic fumes that may be dangerous to your unborn baby. The sanding or scraping of walls may also release toxic particles into the air you breathe.
If you are renovating a pre-1970 home, it’s possible that lead could be released into the air. Lead poisoning can cause severe developmental problems in unborn babies. An environmental home assessor can determine the amount of lead that is in your home and advise you about when and how to safely perform renovations.
If a room in your house is being painted or renovated, here are some things you can do to protect your unborn baby:
- Select a water-based latex paint that is designed for indoor use that doesn’t contain lead or mercury.
- Schedule painting or renovation for a time when you will not be around—when you are at work, on vacation, or running errands.
- Open windows and use exhaust fans to ventilate the house while the painting or renovation is taking place.
- Cover air conditioning and heating return openings to prevent the fumes from circulating to other areas of your house.
- Store unused paint or chemicals in storage areas that have exhaust ventilation. Do not store them near heating, ventilation, or air-conditioning equipment.
Gardening, Raw Meat, and Cats ^
Millions of Americans carry a parasite in their blood called Toxoplasma gondii, which causes an infection called toxoplasmosis. Most people don’t have symptoms of this infection because their immune systems protect them from getting sick. However, pregnant women have to be more cautious because the parasite can seriously harm an unborn baby, causing symptoms such as blindness and intellectual disability.
People can become infected with the parasite by eating undercooked or raw meat, and coming in contact with cat feces in a litter box or in the soil outside. Cats in particular, pick up the parasite by eating infected rodents, birds, or other animals. The parasite is then passed into the cat’s feces, which is how humans come in contact with it. Take these precautions when you are gardening or changing your cat’s litter box to reduce your risk of getting toxoplasmosis:
- Wear gloves and avoid touching your mouth when you are working in a garden that may be contaminated.
- Cook meat thoroughly before eating.
- Thoroughly wash all fruits and vegetables that might have been grown in contaminated soil.
- Have someone else change your cat’s litter box while you are pregnant, if possible.
- If you do change the litter box, use rubber gloves and go outside or open windows to avoid breathing contaminated vapors.
Use Caution ^
While you should use common sense and avoid overexposure to toxic substances when you are pregnant, it is important to keep this information in perspective. Therefore, you should be cautious—not paranoid—when you are using potentially toxic substances around the house.
The American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists
US Environmental Protection Agency
About Kids Health—The Hospital for Sick Children
Frey KA. Preconception care by the nonobstetrical provider. Mayo Clin Proc. 2002;77:469-473.
Parasites. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) website. Available at: http://www.cdc.gov/parasites/. Updated August 27, 2015. Accessed January 26, 2016.
Pregnant or planning a pregnancy? Lead Action News. Lead Education and Abatement Design website. Available at: http://www.lead.org.au/lanv6n2/update005.html. Accessed January 26, 2016.
Remodeling your home? Have you considered indoor air quality. US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) website. Available at: http://www.epa.gov/indoor-air-quality-iaq/remodeling-your-home-have-you-considered-indoor-air-quality. Accessed January 26, 2016.
Toxoplasmosis. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at: http://www.ebscohost.com/dynamed. Updated January 8, 2016. Accessed January 26, 2016.
Last reviewed January 2016 by Michael Woods, MD Last Updated: 3/25/2014