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Common Questions About Pregnancy Safety

During your pregnancy, you're bound to have many concerns about how your lifestyle, or certain substances you're exposed to either at home or work, could affect your baby. Here are answers to some common questions.

There's no proof that the chemicals in hair dyes cause birth defects, miscarriages, or any other complications -- nor are there reliable studies that prove these substances are safe. Because we don't yet know enough about these chemicals, some doctors say that pregnant women should avoid hair dyes (or at least minimize their contact with them), especially during the first trimester.

Highlighting or streaking your hair, both processes that involve less scalp contact, may be safer. Vegetable-based products, such as henna, are also considered safer. If you decide to color your hair yourself, wear plastic or latex gloves to minimize absorption of the chemicals through your skin, and don't leave the product on your scalp any longer than necessary.

It's probably safer to let someone else paint the nursery for you. All paints contain chemicals, and few have undergone safety studies focusing on exposure during pregnancy. If you do decide to help paint the nursery, be sure there is good ventilation (keep the windows open), wear gloves and protective clothing, and don't eat or drink in the room you're painting.

Some studies suggest that women who work with solvents called glycol ethers, present in some paints, have an increased risk of miscarriage. Other solvents are also suspected of causing miscarriage and possibly birth defects. Oil-based paints and paint thinners contain more solvents than do their water-based counterparts -- but all paints contain numerous ingredients of unknown safety.

So far there is little evidence that exposure to these chemicals at common levels significantly increases the risk to your fetus. All insecticides are poisons, however, and some studies have suggested that high levels of exposure to them might increase the chance of birth defects. If you must have your home or yard property treated:

  • Don't apply insecticides yourself. Local application of a liquid or powder where it's needed is safer than widespread spraying.
  • Clear away all food, dishes, and utensils from areas to be treated, including cabinets or drawers.
  • Stay out of the house while it's being treated and for at least several hours thereafter.
  • If insecticides are used outdoors, close all windows and turn off the air conditioning so that fumes won't be drawn into the house.
  • Wear rubber gloves when gardening to prevent skin contact with residues of insecticides or herbicides (weed killers) that have been used on your property.

Some studies suggest that the babies of nonsmoking women who are regularly exposed to cigarette smoke are at an increased risk of intrauterine growth retardation, low birth weight, subtle deficits in learning and behavior, and, possibly, certain childhood cancers.

A study suggests that a father's smoking may also cause genetic changes in a baby that have been linked to childhood leukemia. Because the chemicals present in passive smoke are at least potentially harmful to your baby, try to avoid exposure to cigarette smoke.

The March of Dimes recommends that pregnant women and women attempting to conceive avoid hot tubs and saunas. A number of studies have suggested that a body temperature of 102 degrees or higher during the first four weeks after conception increases the risk of neural tube defects, problems with closure of the baby's spinal cord or skull.

Besides steering clear of hot tubs and saunas, avoid exercising strenuously on hot days. And contact your health-care provider if you develop a fever over 100 degrees.

Generally, yes. Local anesthesia isn't thought to have any negative effect on the fetus. If possible, postpone X-rays or surgeries requiring general anesthesia until after your baby is born. If an X-ray is necessary, be sure that the dentist knows you're pregnant so he can shield your abdomen to minimize the radiation that reaches the fetus.

Aspartame -- commercially called NutraSweet and found in many diet sodas, sugar-free foods, and the sugar substitute Equal -- appears to be safe for most pregnant women. However, women with an inherited inborn error of body chemistry called phenylketonuria (PKU) should avoid foods and drinks containing aspartame.

In 1998, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved a new sweetener called sucralose for use in a wide variety of foods and drinks. This sweetener, which is made from sugar, is safe for everyone, including pregnant women, according to the FDA. Still, since the long-term effects of sucralose are not yet known, it's best to opt for natural sweeteners when possible.

During the 1980s, there were anecdotal reports of clusters of birth defects and miscarriages among computer users. But since then, a number of studies have provided reassurance that computer monitors (also called video display terminals or VDTs) are safe to use during pregnancy. A large study by the government's National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health reported that women who work at VDTs all day have no more risk of miscarriage than women with similar jobs who don't use VDTs.

Beginning in 1979, a few studies reported that children who are exposed to high levels of electromagnetic fields (EMFs) -- produced by power lines and electrical appliances -- may be at an increased risk of childhood leukemia. While other studies refute this, further research into health risks possibly associated with exposure to EMFs continues. Researchers from the National Cancer Institute (NCI) reported in 1998 that mothers of children with the most common form of leukemia were slightly more likely than the mothers of unaffected children to have used electric blankets, mattress pads, or heating pads during pregnancy. While studies of EMFs continue, you might want to avoid using electric blankets while pregnant.

The NCI researchers didn't find any increased risk of childhood leukemia associated with the use of other common household appliances during pregnancy, including television sets (they also looked at the number of hours watched and how close the women usually sat to the TV), water beds, hair dryers, electric clocks, microwave ovens, sound systems with headphones, and electric stoves.

All content here, including advice from doctors and other health professionals, should be considered as opinion only. Always seek the direct advice of your own doctor in connection with any questions or issues you may have regarding your won health or the health of others.