Study: Toxic chemicals found in pregnant women

Jan 18, 2011 at 12:43 p.m. ET

A new study by UCSF found that toxic chemicals from the environment and other items, such as cookware and beauty products, were found in the blood and urine of pregnant women in the United States. Find out how you can limit your exposure to toxic chemicals.

Hazardous chemicals

A new study published in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives raises concerns about the number of chemicals pregnant women are exposed to -- and how these chemicals affect the growing baby.

The study found that all 268 women tested had at least 43 of the 163 chemicals tested in their blood and/or urine. What is even more surprising is that some of these chemicals had been banned before some of the women were even born! Common chemicals found in their bloodstream were from nonstick cookware, furniture, processed foods and beauty products.

Toxic chemicals found in pregnant women

These chemicals that were tested for and found in pregnant women included:

  • PCB's (polychlorinated biphenyls): This chemical was found in 99-100 percent of the women tested. Chemical that is prohibited and has been linked to cancer. Found in fish, meat and dairy products.
  • Organochlorine pesticides: Found in almost all of the women tested.
  • Polybrominated diphenyl ethers: Found in flame retardants, foam furniture
  • Phthalates: This chemical was found in almost all of the women tested. Found in beauty products, including some soaps, lotions and makeup. Shown to cause hormone disruption.
  • Perfluorinated compounds
  • Phenols: Chemical used in disinfectants.
  • Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons: Chemical found in burning fuel (such as car pollution). Also found in meat cooked at high temperatures, such as grilling or barbecuing -- and in smoked fish.
  • Perchlorate: Found in some drinking water
  • Bisphenol A: Chemical in canned goods, food packaging and plastics was found in 96% of the women tested. This has been linked to issues with brain development, as well as other health problems.
  • DDT: Pesticide that has been banned in the US since 1972 was found in almost all of the women.

Why are banned chemicals in the bloodstream?

Some of the chemicals that had been banned since the 1970's were present in the pregnant moms' bloodstreams, which raises concern as to how long these substances last in our environment and our body.

"Certain classes of chemicals we know go into people's bodies and stay there for very long periods of time," says Arlene Blum, founder of the Green Science Policy Institute in Berkeley.

How does this affect unborn babies?

Even though the levels of the chemicals found in the mothers' bloodstreams were low, some worry about the effect multiple chemicals will have on the growing fetus.

"The study's results show that unborn babies are exposed to a soup of chemicals -- and furthermore, because the women in the study were tested for exposure to only a fraction of chemicals on the market -- the study also suggests that pregnant women are likely carrying and passing onto their fetuses many more chemicals than have been reported here," says Dr. Sarah Janssen, senior scientist at the natural Resources Defense Council.

The American Chemistry Council downplayed the results of the study, saying in a statement that the "mere presence of a chemical in the body does not mean that it will cause negative health effects" and that technological advances can measure "exceedingly minute traces of these substances."

How to protect yourself

  • Eat fish, but stick to the ones on the safe list with low levels of mercury and other chemicals found in their bloodstream. Find out more on pregnancy safe fish.
  • Buy organic fruits and vegetables to decrease exposure to pesticides.
  • Use lotions/soaps/makeup made of all-natural products and read the label to ensure they are free of phthalates.
  • Use natural cleaning products.
  • Avoid eating meat that has been grilled or barbecued, as well as smoked fish.
  • Avoid microwaving food or liquid in plastics
  • Ensure all plastic food containers are BPA-free.
  • Avoid buying canned foods -- opt for foods packaged in glass jars.
  • Use precautions when using non-stick cookware, including never heating an empty pan, and don't cook on high heat. This article from has great info on safety precautions when using non-stick cookware.
  • Cast iron cookware is safe -- and adds iron in your food!

More on reducing chemicals during pregnancy: