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How many toxins is your baby getting in the womb?

Kathryn Matthews is a New York City-based lifestyles writer, editor and Certified Holistic Health Coach. She has written extensively about food, dining, nutrition, health and travel for numerous publications, including The New York Times...

Babies aren't born as pure as you think

Every expectant mother dreams of delivering a healthy newborn. But, thanks to some 85,000 chemicals permitted for commercial use in the U.S. — the vast majority of which the Environmental Protection Agency has not tested for safety — American babies don't emerge from the womb in a "pure" state.

A modern chemical soup

Until very recently — just 10 years ago — there was almost no research on how industrial pollution affected pregnant women. It had been assumed that the placenta shielded the cord blood and the developing fetus from most pollutants. The reality, however, is that the umbilical cord carries not only oxygen and nutrients to the fetus, but also industrial chemicals, pollutants and pesticides.

Two separate studies conducted in 2004 and 2008 by the Environmental Working Group (EWG) found that the umbilical cord blood taken from 10 newborn babies contained 200-plus environmental toxins — that’s before they’ve taken more than their first gasp of air or had their first sip of breast milk.

In the first EWG "Body Burden" study, researchers analyzed the umbilical cord blood (collected after it was cut) from 10 babies born in August and September 2004 in U.S. hospitals. They found, in total, 287 industrial chemicals in the blood — with an average of 200 per baby — including polyaromatic hydrocarbons, dioxins, furans, pesticides, chemicals from flame retardants, industrial lubricants, plastics, consumer product ingredients and wastes from burning coal, gasoline and garbage.

In a second follow-up EWG study, five laboratories in the U.S., Canada and Europe identified up to 232 industrial compounds and pollutants in the umbilical cord blood collected from 10 minority infants born in 2007 and 2008. Chemicals detected in all 10 babies included lead, mercury, methylmercury, perfluorochemicals (PFCs), polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs) and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), to name but a few.

How this affects a baby’s long-term health

Many of these chemicals are endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDCs), which interfere with hormonal communication between cells and disrupt our body’s natural hormonal balance. Because hormones affect so many biological processes, including organ development and function, mood, fertility and reproduction, exposure to EDCs can have adverse health affects.

EDCs have been linked to an increased risk of weight gain, obesity and diabetes, as well as, food allergies, infertility, reproductive abnormalities, reproductive system cancer, early puberty and neurological and behavioral disorders, like ADHD.

Unfortunately, our everyday exposure to EDCs includes:

  • Phthalates. Used to make plastic soft. Found in everything from toys and electric cables to shower curtains and cosmetic products.
  • Parabens. Preservatives. Used in cosmetic and personal care products as well as food items, such as turkey breast, yogurt and pancake syrup.
  • Brominated flame retardants. Added to furniture and electronic goods.
  • Diet. A major source of exposure to EDCs from pesticides sprayed on produce to substances used in processed food packaging materials and containers.
  • Other. Cash receipts, paints, gasoline, preserved wood and breast implants, as well as dry cleaning and leather treatment.

"We now know that during pregnancy, exposure of the mother to some chemicals, pollutants and foods may impact a developing baby and have long-lasting effects on a child’s health even into adulthood," says Dr. Vik Sachar, a Los Angeles-based, high-risk pregnancy specialist, who adds: "The best defense is to minimize the mother's exposure to toxins during pregnancy."

After discovering that his 4-year-old daughter’s "toy" makeup and his wife’s makeup contained endocrine disrupting toxins, such as parabens, phenols and formaldehyde, he founded his own cosmetic company, V. Sachar MD — non-toxic safe cosmetics for pregnancy for the face, lips and eyes, as well as pregnancy creams.

Growing up, actress Jessica Alba struggled with asthma and allergies. During her first pregnancy, she read Healthy Child Healthy World by Christopher Gavigan to learn how to create a healthy home for her family. The revelation that everyday consumer and baby products — household cleaners, diapers, diaper creams, baby powder, shampoos, sunscreens — exposed infants to harmful toxins turned Alba into an entrepreneur. She partnered with Gavigan and launched the Honest Company, which offers non-toxic, natural and eco-friendly products for new moms. The Honest Company’s best-selling products include their Diaper & Wipes Bundle and Shampoo + Body Wash.

"We want more people to have access to natural options. We focus on sourcing affordable ingredients and giving parents bundling options to fit their budget when they buy from our website," says Alba.

Alba and Gavigan encourage mothers to read labels on products for babies and children — and to be on the look out for the following toxic ingredients that have been linked to asthma, ADHD, allergies, behavorial disorders and more.

  • Phthalates
  • Parabens
  • Sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS): a surfactant, detergent and emulsifier used in shampoos, toothpastes, cosmetics and industrial cleaners.
  • Fragrance: Often contains dozens, even hundreds of synthetic compounds — used in shampoos, deodorants and other personal care.
  • Polyethylene glycols (PEGS): emollient and emulsifier used in skin care products.

Other steps to reduce your (or your baby’s) toxin exposure

  • Eat fresh, whole, unprocessed foods
  • Choose organic (versus conventional) produce
  • Buy grass-fed meats and dairy products from pasture-raised animals
  • Filter your tap water
  • Swap out commercial brands of personal care products for those that use organic and natural ingredients
  • Avoid wearing fragrance or using products with artificial fragrance (e.g., scented candles)
  • Avoid or reduce your exposure to cigarette smoke
  • Choose or make your own non-toxic household cleaners

More on pregnancy and health

Wi-Fi waves could be dangerous to your baby bump
Is drinking OK for baby?
Is veganism harmful during pregnancy?

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