Baby · News · Pregnancy

Why don’t doctors talk to pregnant women about toxic chemicals?

I recently read something that I think most mamas would find disturbing.

Boston Globe via iStock

Acoording to the Boston Globe, reducing pregnant women’s exposure to environmental toxins was recently deemed ‘critical’ by the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists to prevent birth defects and other fetal health problems. But a recent survey of more than 2,500 physician members of that group found that fewer than one in five ask pregnant patients about any exposure they have had to unsafe levels of toxic chemicals.

“It’s not surprising that they’re avoiding these discussions,” said Dr. Alan Woolf, director of the pediatric environmental health center at Boston Children’s Hospital, who was not involved with the study. “Very few doctors feel comfortable in their knowledge of this issue to discuss it.”

A 2011 study found that pregnant women are exposed to at least 43 chemicals known to affect fetal development including pesticides, polychlorinated biphenyl (PCBs), and phthalates that interfere with hormones.

For this reason, ACOG recommended last year that its physicians “identify specific types of exposure that may be harmful to a developing fetus” during the first prenatal visit. Doctors should be asking about workplace exposures — such as chemicals used in a lab or factory — and whether a patient lives in an older home, which could contain harmful lead paint, or has undertaken do-it-yourself home renovation that involves toxic agents. (And a Huffington Post story about this study pointed out that many women are at increased risk for exposure during pregnancy precisely because it’s a time when many families move or undertake renovation projects to prepare for baby’s arrival.

Yet half of the obstetricians-gynecologists surveyed in the new study said they rarely take this kind of environmental health history.

“Doctors told us they have so many more pressing issues to talk about,” said study leader Naomi Stotland, an associate professor of obstetrics-gynecology at the University of California, San Francisco. “Their patients may be cigarette smokers, drink alcohol, or eat fast food every day, which they need to deal with first.”

But those who serve highly educated populations often find themselves flummoxed by questions from pregnant patients about which cosmetics, cleaners, and sunscreens to use.

You can read the rest of the article here. In it, doctors went on to say that they don’t want to “stress their patients out” by mentioning environmental exposure issues, and that there are other concerns they’d rather focus on — such as getting more women to eat the “good” kinds of fish that are free of mercury. But some of the things that should be no-brainers during pregnancy, like avoiding aerosol room fresheners or antibacterial soaps and products containing triclosan, just aren’t on most women’s radars.

Here’s a helpful guide to avoiding environmental toxins at home. You can also visit the Environmental Working Group website for more resources.

On one hand, I can see the doctor’s point of view on this. Americans do seem to be riddled with so much extra anxiety around pregnancy and childbirth, and to be seen as adding to that — especially when so many patients deal with poor working conditions, food choices and home lives that are beyond their control — must be stressful for OBs. But I think lots of people aren’t worried about the issue of environmental toxins because they assume the government is protecting us from harmful ingredients, when the reality is quite the opposite. As consumers and as parents we have to be so careful about what we bring into our homes and bodies, and our income level shouldn’t preclude us from being empowered to make educated choices. It sounds to me like the doctors in this study who suggested enhanced training to equip OBGYN’s to discuss toxic exposure are right on the money.

How about you — did your doctor ever discuss this with you? What do you do to avoid contaminants in your food, cleaning products, home life or workplace?
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