Protecting Pregnancy and Beyond: Practice Precaution

Melinda Hemmelgarn, M.S., R.D.

Katsi Cook, a Native American midwife, describes a woman's body as “the first environment.” (1) The concept makes sense when you think about it. After all, in a mother’s womb, a couple of cells miraculously develop into a kicking, breathing, viable human being. Next, breast milk often becomes a baby’s sole nourishment for at least the next few weeks of life.

“Whatever a pregnant woman is exposed to,” explains Cook, “her baby may also be exposed to; the placenta does not protect the fetus from environmental contaminants.”

This is why the quality of the food we eat, air we breathe and water we drink are of utmost importance, especially during pregnancy and lactation. The quality of our baby’s uterine environment and nourishment depends upon our personal food choices, as well as the larger environments in which we work and live.

Ecologist, author, and organic advocate, Sandra Steingraber, Ph.D., uses the term “chemical trespass” to describe the 200 or so industrial and agricultural chemicals that show up in the bodies of virtually all Americans, including umbilical cord blood, proving that our newborns enter the world “pre-polluted” through no choice of their own. (2,3,4)

Steingraber further explains how young children’s rapidly growing bodies “are literally assembled from the environments they inhabit. Every minute, the whole ecological world is streaming through them and becoming them.” (4)

Pound for pound, “ says Steingraber, “children breathe more air, drink more water, [and] eat more food,” compared to adults. And chronic childhood diseases, such as asthma, learning disabilities, ADHD and austism are linked to toxic chemical exposures in the womb and early childhood. (4)

The Autism Alarm

No matter our race, religion or income, mothers everywhere agree: Nothing is more important than the health and well-being of our children. That’s why the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s updated national rates of autism stopped me in my tracks: 1 in 88 children are now afflicted, up from 1 in 110 just two years prior. The chart below shows the rise over the past decade. (5)


Gene and Environment Interplay

We are wise to wonder about changes in our environment that might explain the escalating rates of autism and other neurodevelopmental disorders in our children. Could there be a relation to how we produce and package our food? Or are we simply getting better at diagnosing the disorder? What role do our genes play?

Irva Hertz-Picciotto, an epidemiologist at University of California-Davis, says changes in doctors' diagnoses cannot explain the increase in autism since 1990. Rather, “it’s time to start looking for the environmental culprits responsible for the remarkable increase in the rate of autism.” (6)

While there appears to be no single smoking gun, Phil Landrigan, M.D., pediatrician and Director of the Children’s Environmental Health Center at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York, identified the following list of offending environmental  contaminants which have all been linked to higher rates of autism and other neurodevelopmental disabilities in children born to mothers exposed to the contaminants. (8) Next to each contaminant you’ll find the most common sources.

* Lead (Found in dust from chipping and flaking paint in older homes.)
* Methylmercury (Found in fish and shellfish, due to contamination of water from coal-fired power plants and waste incinerators.)
* Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) (Used in coolants and lubricants in electrical equipment; they  contaminate air, water and soil).
* Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (Formed during the incomplete burning of coal, oil and gas, garbage, or other organic substances like tobacco or charbroiled meat.)
* Brominated flame retardants (Routinely added to consumer products to reduce fire-related injury, these contaminate indoor air, plus the environment: soil, wildlife, and people.)
* Perfluorinated compounds (Widely used in manufacturing non-stick cookware, waterproof clothing, and oil, stain, grease and water repellency. These synthetic compounds contaminate water, soil, wildlife and humans. (7)
* Automotive exhaust (Assorted combustion-related compounds found in air and soil near heavily trafficked roads.)

And Pesticides:

* Organophosphate pesticides (Most widely used type of pesticide with more than 40 registered products, including chlorpyrifos and malathion, which are found in highest concentrations on apples and wheat grain, respectively. )
* Organochlorine pesticides (Discontinued use in the U.S., but these compounds, such as DDT and chlordane, persist in the environment; accumulates in fish and animal fats.)
* Endocrine disruptors (Compounds widely present in our food system that mimic and disrupt our hormone systems, including pesticides (such as Atrazine), as well as PCBs, arsenic, steroid hormones, and bisphenol A and phthalates in plastic food packaging.

Toxic chemicals can cause injury directly to the developing brain or through “epigenetic” change – in other words, they can modify our DNA, without causing a genetic mutation. Still, these “epigenetic” changes can be passed on through multiple generations. (8)

We know children and pregnant women are exposed to thousands of synthetic chemicals. However, the majority of these compounds have not undergone even a minimal assessment of potential toxicity, especially during pre-natal development.

The Precautionary Principle and Full-Cost Accounting:

The “Precautionary Principle” suggests that we err on the side of caution when the health of humans and the environment is at stake. Therefore, it would seem prudent to remove potentially toxic compounds from our environment, rather than continuing to spend money “downstream” to fix the problems the chemicals help create. (9)

For example, President Obama’s 2010 Budget included $211 million for research into the causes and treatments for Autism Spectrum Disorder, screening, public awareness, and support services. Yet it’s estimated that the disorder costs the nation $35 billion a year. In addition, the special education services needed to teach children with learning disabilities consumes nearly a quarter of U.S. school spending. (4)

Making personal choices to avoid hazardous chemicals is one step in the healing direction. However, individuals can only go so far; we need better protection for our children at the national policy level. (4,8,9,10)

Learn more, take action

At your next book club, potluck, or child’s play group, discuss the precautionary principle, share alternatives to toxic chemicals, and talk about the far-reaching benefits of organic food and farming.

Explain to skeptical friends and family members that by purchasing organic food, we protect our families, farm workers, and our larger global environment from synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, hormones, and antibiotics, which all add to our body burden of unwanted chemicals. From this perspective, organic food is a bargain!

Motivated parents are a powerful force for policy change. Let’s use our collective energy to protect future generations! Below are some of my favorite resources. All provide policy action steps:

Pesticide Action Network of North America: What’s on my food?
Beyond Pesticides:
Environmental Working Group: Alternatives to toxins:
Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy:

Resources and References

1. Women’s Health and the Environment. A project of Women's Voices for the Earth (WVE), a national organization that works to eliminate toxic chemicals that impact women's health by changing consumer behaviors, corporate practices, and government policies.

2. Beyond Toxics. “Human Rights and the Environment – Dr. Sandra Steingraber,” April 2011. ;

3. Illinois Wesleyan: News & Events. October 18, 2010.

4. Raising Elijah: Protecting Our Children in an Age of Environmental Crisis, Sandra Steingraber, (Da Capo Press, April 2011)

5. “CDC estimates 1 in 88 children in United States has been identified as having an autism spectrum disorder. ” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, March 2012.

6. Environmental Health News, January 9, 2009.

7. For more extensive information on toxins, visit the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease: Or, call your local or state health department.

8. “A Research Strategy to Discover the Environmental Causes of Autism and Neurodevelopmental Disabilities,” Landrigan, Philip, Lambertinis, Luca, and Birnbaum, Linda, April 25, 2012.

9. “The Precautionary Principle.” Science and Environmental Health Network.

10. “How Chemicals Affect Us,” N. Kristof, May 2, 2012


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“If we would die or kill for our children, wouldn't we do anything within our power to keep toxics out of their food supply? Especially if we knew, in fact, there were alternatives to these toxics?”
– Sandra Steingraber, from her essay "Why the Precautionary Principle? A Meditation on Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC) and the Breasts of Mothers"

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