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Chemicals in pregnancy – The need for a more informed and practical approach to assessing risk

Thursday, 6 June 2013 at 12:44:PM

Dr David BardenA report and news item (Mothers-to-be should be aware of unintentional chemical exposures, say experts) issued by the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (RCOG) yesterday has resulted in a good deal of controversy in the UK press, including the BBC, ITN News, The Telegraph and The Guardian. The UK’s National Health Service has also issued a response to this topic.

The report, titled “Chemical exposures during pregnancy: Dealing with potential, but unproven, risks to child health”, tackles the difficult subject of understanding the risks that exposure to chemicals during pregnancy poses for the health of the child.

The paper recommends a ‘safety first’ approach for pregnant women, namely “to assume there is risk present even when it may be minimal or eventually unfounded”. As manufacturers of equipment that detects chemicals in a wide variety of situations, we’re acutely aware of the plethora of potentially hazardous chemicals in everyday life. It seems to us that advocating a purely ‘safety first’ approach to all of these chemicals is simply not practical – and in this case has exposed the authors to universally unfavourable coverage.

One aspect of a more practical approach would be to balance the likely risk of harm with the ease of carrying out preventative measures. As an example, one of the recommendations in the report is to “reduce use of foods/beverages in cans/plastic containers, including their use for food storage”. There can be little doubt that this would reduce exposure to endocrine disrupters such as BPA and phthalates (see my previous blog). However, in practice much of what we eat is protected by some sort of packaging, and these chemicals get into the body by other routes anyway, so to reduce one’s exposure by enough to make a significant difference to the risk of harm would border on the impossible.

Another aspect that the report fails to address is the overall beneficial effect any measures are likely to have. So, to use another example mentioned in the report, you might be doing more harm than good if, in “minimising the use of personal care products” you avoided using sunscreen and thus got sunburnt.

A more useful message to pregnant women, and those who advise them, should be to avoid actions that would result in large exposures to chemicals that are known (or are likely to be) hazardous. Such actions have for many years included smoking, drinking alcohol and taking drugs. We might now also add activities such as regularly walking along roads with heavy traffic, sitting all day in poorly ventilated rooms containing new carpets or recently painted/varnished surfaces, or regularly exposing oneself to high concentrations of aerosols such as air-fresheners. These are all areas that continue to benefit from insights into volatile organic compounds (VOCs) made possible with modern analytical techniques.

In conclusion, this report does the right thing in highlighting some of these other exposure routes, but then fails to explain their relative importance, or how women can make a reasonable decision based either on practical considerations or the likelihood of harm. As a result, the overall impression from the report is of a rather long list of possible hazards, some of which are difficult to avoid. The attention of the media is naturally drawn towards the latter, with the result that the subtle – but important – message that the report contains will likely not reach its intended audience.

David Barden

David Barden received his Ph.D. in Organic Chemistry from Cambridge University in 2004, and during his time as an editor at the RSC wrote news pieces for Chemistry World on various scientific topics. He is now Technical Copywriter at Markes International, where he draws on the expertise of his colleagues to explain how new thermal desorption and mass spectrometry technologies can be applied to analyse volatile organic compounds in a wide variety of situations.

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