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Pregnancy Risks at Work and at Home

When it comes to cleaning products and other household chemicals, you're probably most concerned with how well they work. But now that you're pregnant, you may wonder if they could harm your baby. The safety of your workplace may give you pause, too. Fortunately, most women don't need to worry about these issues, as long as they take the necessary precautions and keep the lines of communication open with their health-care providers.

Research confirms that chemicals used in certain occupations can be harmful to an unborn baby. However, you would have to be exposed to a significant amount of the most hazardous substances in order for them to impact your pregnancy. Most workplaces have preventive measures in place to help make sure that doesn't happen.

Health-care workers, for example, can be exposed to a host of dangerous chemicals. Anesthetic gases, ethylene oxide (used to sterilize medical equipment), and chemotherapy drugs are all suspected of increasing the risk of miscarriage. Chemo drugs have also been associated with birth defects. But most hospitals seem to have rid the operating room of anesthetic gases and routinely measure the amounts in the air. If you work in a hospital or medical office that uses these chemicals, make sure such a system is in place. In addition, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) recommends that all pregnant or nursing women who work with chemotherapy drugs be fully informed about the risks of these types of chemicals and given other duties if requested.

Organic solvents, such as different types of alcohol, nail polish remover, and paint thinner, are also hazardous. A 1999 Canadian study found that women who were exposed to solvents on the job during their first trimester of pregnancy were about 13 times more likely than unexposed women to have a baby with a major birth defect, like spina bifida (open spine), clubfoot, heart problems, and deafness. The women in the study included factory workers, laboratory technicians, artists, graphic designers, and printing industry workers.

Other studies have found that workers in semiconductor plants who were exposed to high levels of solvents called glycol ethers were almost three times more likely to miscarry than unexposed women. Glycol ethers are used in jobs that involve photography, dying, and silk-screen printing.

You can be exposed to solvents by breathing in vapors, through skin contact, or by ingesting them (e.g., by eating or drinking in your work area or by not washing your hands before eating).

Since the risk of pregnancy problems is connected with prolonged exposure, minimizing your contact with chemicals by making sure your workplace is well ventilated, wearing appropriate protective equipment (including gloves and a face mask), and learning more about the chemicals you work with can help. Ask your employer for the Material Safety Data Sheets for the products you use, or contact OSHA at osha.gov.

There are other, less obvious workplace hazards, too. Though spending long hours in front of your computer won't hurt your baby, it may cause you some discomfort. Pregnant women seem more likely to get carpal tunnel syndrome, a condition in which pressure on a nerve that passes through the wrist causes numbness, pain, tingling, and sometimes mild weakness of the hand and fingers. To help prevent it, adjust the height of your keyboard or chair so that your wrists are straight (not bent up or down) as you type.

If your job is physically demanding -- you're required to lift heavy objects or stand for more than three hours a day -- research shows you may be significantly more likely to deliver prematurely than women with more sedentary jobs. Fortunately, regular breaks can help reduce these risks, so talk to your doctor about how much rest you'll need throughout the day. Then discuss these guidelines with your employer. If your job conditions can't be changed, your provider can advise you about whether you should consider taking an earlier maternity leave than you may have planned.

Pregnancy may be the perfect opportunity to get your partner more involved in housework. Though many cleansers are safe, even if they contain chloride or ammonia, you may find their strong odors nauseating. If you're doing most of the cleaning, always wear rubber gloves, and keep your windows open. Perhaps most important, never mix cleaning products together; such combinations can produce fumes that are dangerous whether you're pregnant or not.

Natural cleaners that you can make yourself are good choices, too. They're safe and usually don't give off nauseating fumes. For example, baking soda can be used as a powdered cleanser to scrub pots and pans. A solution of vinegar and water is great for cleaning glass and countertops.

You may wonder if it's safe to cook with your microwave open during pregnancy. Fortunately, microwave energy does not lead to cancer or birth defects, as high doses of x-ray radiation can. But that doesn't mean you shouldn't take precautions. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration advises that you never use your microwave if it's damaged or has a door that doesn't close well, and never lean against it while it's operating.

As eager as you may be to decorate your baby's nursery, let someone else do the painting. While there's no known risk from exposure to unleaded, water-based indoor paints (also called latex paints), all paints contain solvents and other chemicals that have not been proven safe for pregnant women. When the job is done, remind the painter to open the windows to clear vapors from the air, and stay out of the room for a minimum of two days.

Take the same precautions if existing paint needs to be removed. If your home was built before 1980, the paint may contain lead, and exposure to high levels of lead has been linked to miscarriage, preterm delivery, and developmental delays in the infant.

You'll need to take precautions with pesticides, too, as all types contain poison. It's probably safest to avoid them whenever possible. In some cases, you may be able to control an insect problem with less toxic products such as boric acid (use the blue-colored form available at hardware stores). Spreading Vaseline under a doorjamb may help head off invading ants, and small jars (with holes poked in the lids) of strong-smelling herbs, such as mint, placed on countertops may deter bugs.

If you must use pesticides, follow these guidelines:

  • Have someone else apply the chemicals, and leave the area for the amount of time indicated on the package.
  • Before pesticide treatment, remove food, dishes, and utensils from the area, including cabinets and drawers. Afterward, make sure someone opens the windows and washes off all surfaces on which food is prepared. If pesticides 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 contact with pesticides.

Your home and workplace are probably already safe for you and your baby. But if you're exposed to hazards at home or on the job, there are steps you can take to reduce any risks.

The information on this Web site is designed for educational purposes only. It is not intended to be a substitute for informed medical advice or care. You should not use this information to diagnose or treat any health problems or illnesses without consulting your pediatrician or family doctor. Please consult a doctor with any questions or concerns you might have regarding your or your child's condition.