Connecting to Mother Earth: Toxic chemicals and their impact on maternal child health

By Guest Blogger* Donna Walls, RN, BSN, ANLC, ICCE, IBCLC


Every Day is Earth Day!

Donna Walls
Donna Walls

The first Earth Day celebration was in April 22, 1970. The founders of the movement were smart enough to recognize how important it is to care for our planet and soon we were making the connection between the health of the planet and human health. Since that time we begun looking closely into the effects of harmful environmental substances on pregnant women, the developing fetus, infants, children and families.

In 2013 the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists and the American Society for Reproductive Medicine released a joint statement that said: “toxic chemicals in our environment harm our ability to reproduce, negatively affect pregnancies and are associated with numerous long-term health problems.” With this statement came a recommendation for all pregnant women to receive information on avoiding toxic chemicals.

What does research tell us about the impact of toxic chemicals, and what implications do findings have for pregnant and breastfeeding mothers?

The environmental chemical exposures that are “of concern” are all around us, including herbicides and pesticides, plasticizing components in all types of plastic, ingredients of personal care products, food additives and cleaning supplies. The specific concerns range from hormone disruption, central nervous system disruptions, cancer and of particular concern to pregnant women are birth defects and pre-term labor. These nasty little chemicals are, unfortunately, hiding in many of the products we use in our everyday life.

One particularly troublesome group of chemicals are known as xenoestrogens or environmental estrogens. These substances are chemically very much like naturally occurring estrogen produced by females and responsible for many of our reproductive physiology. Thanks to estrogen we develop breasts and begin our menstrual cycles in puberty. Throughout our lives the right amount of estrogen helps us prepare for pregnancy and protects us from heart disease and osteoporosis.

Too much estrogen or foreign estrogens can wreak havoc on our reproductive lives. These artificial estrogen-mimicking chemicals will settle into receptor sites on the cells of our breasts, ovaries and uterus, settle into the sites but instead of the normal reaction our bodies react in a “not so normal” way. We are seeing this especially in young girls, with early puberty, sometimes as early as 8 or 9 years old for breast development and menarche or the beginning of the menstrual cycles.

So is this a problem? Doesn’t sound like it, but in fact it is. Remember I said the right amount or right length of exposure of estrogen is good- too much can cause menstrual disorders, infertility and even reproductive cancers. And this is not just a female problem. We first noticed the estrogen feminizing effects in amphibians and reptiles with disappearing genitals after the concentrated use of herbicides and pesticides in the habitat of the Everglade swaps. The same negative effects have been noted in males with newborn males exhibiting smaller penises, scrotums and distance between the scrotum and anus- a shrinking genitalia, with evidence of eventual lower sperm counts.

Some of the most common sources of xenoestrogens are found in foods, plastics and personal care products. Many lotions and soaps contain parabens- labeled as butyl, propyl, ethyl or methyl paraben. Parabens have been associated with breast cancer and lowered milk supply during lactation. Phthalates (pronounced without the ph!) are in plastics and are associated with increased risk of premature birth. Researchers have found that babies and children with high fetal exposures to phthalates had a 70% increased risk of developing asthma, these exposures were through foods- enteric coatings, gels, stabilizers, personal care products, detergents, plastic toys and products, paints, inks, and pharmaceuticals

Another well publicized chemical of concern is bisphenol-A or BPA. Recent studies associate decreased maternal pup rearing behaviors in rats after exposure to BPA during pregnancy. Other negative consequences to BPA exposures include hormone disruption, altered behavior in babies and children, obesity, diabetes, ADHD and cancer. BPA is found in numerous child-related products. Several states: Connecticut, Maryland, Minnesota, Washington, Wisconsin, and Vermont now have laws restricting or banning the sale of child care products containing BPA, such as bottles and sippy cups. Research supports the concern that children are at more vulnerable to the negative effects of BPA. Other sources of BPA include food can linings and an unlikely source is coating of sales receipts.

Tips for a cleaner, safer pregnancy:

  • Avoid using #7 polycarbonate plastic for food or drinks
  • Minimize handling sales receipts
  • Use fewer canned foods- opt for fresh or frozen
  • Use glass, stainless steel or bamboo containers for preparing or storing food
  • Do not heat any plastic food containers in the microwave
  • Breastfeed to avoid bottle exposures- if feeding your milk in a bottle use glass bottles
  • If you are packing food in plastic bags place an unbleached paper towel between your food and the baggie

What about other substances to avoid?

Cleaning products are another source of chemicals of concern. We have all been indoctrinated into the values of being clean, maybe too clean. Some of the cleaning products we are now using are dangerous to our health and maybe destroying the good bacteria our bodies need to maintain a healthy immune system. We love chlorine bleach and believe it may be the best cleaner available- but there is a dark side to chlorine- with too much use it can release chlorine gas that can cause asthma and other respiratory problems. Formaldehyde (also called formalin) is a known carcinogen and is found not only in cleaners but also in bedding and towels- oh my! Ingredients such as Quaternium-15, Quaternium-24, Sodium Hypochlorite (Bleach), Sulfuric Acid, Ammonium Chloride have also been shown to increase respiratory irritation and asthma.

laney cleaning 2 (2)
Laney helps Grandma Donna mix up an eco-and-human friendly household cleaner

Here are safer (and often less expensive) cleaners:

  • Vinegar – sanitizes and removes stains
  • Lemon juice – works safely to disinfect
  • Baking soda – a great all-purpose cleaner
  • Borax – all natural cleanser
  • Cornstarch – easy, natural de-greaser
  • Olive oil – great for dusting and furniture polishing
  • Pure essential oils – natural germ killers and natural fragrances
  • A basic bathroom and kitchen cleaner can be made by mixing equal parts of distilled water and white vinegar. Store in a spritzer bottle for easy use.

For more information and how to make safer product choices visit the Environmental Working Group’s Cleaning Guides.

What about personal care products?

We love to use them, smear them on, scrub with them, spritz and spray and rub them on. But what are the concerns with these products? Americans use a lot of personal care products, a lot! That’s how we unfortunately get such high levels of toxic chemicals in our systems. So the first guideline is to use fewer of these products.

The second guideline is to use products with fewer ingredients. For example, a simple moisturizer for face, hands, and body is olive oil; coconut oil is also a simple, clean way to moisturize. And what about soaps? You only need one, a natural plant-based soap is best like castile or glycerin. These can be used for hands, bathing and shampoo, no need for different products with multiple ingredients. We want to limit the ingredients we know are harmful to the planet and humans such as: 1.4 dioxane, parabens, synthetic dyes and fragrances, PEGs, lead, nail polish and phthalates.

Avoid hand sanitizers and washes with anti-bacterial chemicals such as triclosan which destroys our friendly, helpful bacteria along with the unwanted germs. An easy, non-toxic hand cleaner is 1 oz of distilled water with 30 drops of lavender pure essential oil- all natural, safe and effective.

Here is an easy, inexpensive recipe for a basic hand and body lotion:

  • 3/4 cup base oil (olive, sweet almond, wheat germ)
  • 1 cup aloe gel
  • 1/2 cup shea, mango or cocoa butter.
  • Mix well. Add essential oils as desired

The Environmental Working Group also provides guidance on personal care products and cosmetics.

Lastly let’s look at our foods:

We are reading more and more in the news about the need to get back to basic, real food and the advice holds true for pregnancy as well. Health reports surface daily on the side effects of food additives such as food dyes which are linked to cancer and nervous system disorders, preservatives, hormones and genetically modified organisms. Current recommendations for pregnancy and breastfeeding are simple:

  • Eat low on the food chain- lots of fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds and whole grains
  • Choose organic whenever possible. Check out the “Clean 15” and the “Dirty Dozen” on the Environmental Working Group web site to help you make cleaner food choices.
  • Minimize processed foods with preservatives, colors and ingredients you can’t pronounce and
  • Avoid synthetic sweeteners- use agave, honey or stevia
  • Avoid genetically modified foods- not listed on labels but choosing organic foods do not allow the use of GMOs
  • Choose fish wisely- go to / for current recommendations
  • Avoid pans with non-stick coatings- opt instead for stainless steel or cast iron cookware

Early parenting is a great time to educate yourself about healthy eating habits- it can last a lifetime for your family.

We can’t lock our families up in a pristine bubble but what can we do to protect them?

First, educate ourselves and during pregnancy and breastfeeding we have an extra motivation to learn about the connection between the health of the environment and human health. Then make a plan to make changes: start reading labels, make some simple cleaning products to start using, take a critical look in your kitchen and bathroom cupboards-replace those products that are of concern and talk with family and friends about making simple lifestyle changes. Every positive change you make can make a big difference in the health of your family, and the planet!


*(Ed. Note: Our Milk Way blogger Jess Fedenia is on parental leave for the months of July, August, and September, 2016 to welcome a third child into the family. During Jess’s leave, members of the Healthy Children Project circle are taking up the blogger role.)

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