Is it safe to paint the nursery?
It's not a good idea. While there's no known risk from exposure to unleaded, water-based indoor (latex) paints, all paints contain chemicals that emit fumes. Since only a few of these chemicals have been studied for their safety in pregnancy, it's best to let someone else play Picasso. Oil-based paints and paint thinners contain more solvents (which have been linked to an increase in miscarriage and birth defects) than their water-based counterparts, so choose a latex paint and ask your painter to keep the area well ventilated.
In fact, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, pregnant women should avoid newly painted rooms (and their harmful odors) for at least two days after the job is done. If existing paint needs to be removed from the outside of your home, hire someone to do it and avoid the area until the job is completed for the day. Be especially careful if your home was built before 1980. Homes like this may have paint that contains lead, which can raise your risk of miscarriage or developmental delays in your infant.
Is it safe to use cleaning products?
There are some household cleansers that pregnant women should avoid. Check the labels and avoid products that say they're toxic, since they may contain risky solvents. For example, oven cleaners and window cleaners often contain glycol ethers, which have been known to increase a woman's risk of miscarriage, and most mildew removers contain phenols, which may increase risk of birth defects or fetal death. (To find out more about what's in home and cleaning products, go to householdproducts.nlm.nih.gov.) Plus, most cleansers contain strong-smelling chemicals like ammonia or chlorine, which won't hurt your baby but may make you queasy.
A good guideline: Keep your windows open while cleaning and wear gloves, or opt for a natural cleanser, which can do the job without triggering pregnancy-related nausea. Simple baking soda can work wonders on bathtubs and ovens, while a vinegar-and-water solution effectively cleans glass and countertops.
Is it safe to be exposed to pesticides?
A. While there's no concrete proof that normal exposure to these chemicals poses a significant risk to your baby, recent studies have suggested that larger quantities may harm the fetus. For instance, one study found that pregnant women who lived within a mile of locations where agricultural pesticides had been regularly applied were at increased risk for fetal birth defects. The takeaway: If you're a mom-to-be it's probably safest to avoid pesticides whenever possible. In addition to pesticides, don't use insect repellents that contain the chemical deet. Although its effects have not been thoroughly studied in pregnant women, there are some concerns about its toxicity.
However, if you must have your home or property treated with pesticides, follow the guidelines below:
- Steer clear. Have someone else apply the chemicals, and leave the area for the amount of time indicated on the package instructions.
- Be prepared. Before pesticide treatment, remove all food and utensils from the affected area, including those in your cabinets, closets, and drawers, if your kitchen is involved. Vacate your home for several hours and keep it well ventilated by opening windows. However, if pesticides are used outdoors, be sure to close all windows and turn off the air-conditioning so fumes won't be drawn into the house.
- Cover up. Wear rubber gloves when gardening to prevent skin contact.
- Clean up. Reduce your exposure by carefully washing or peeling store-bought produce.
Is it safe to get a manicure?
It's fine to treat yourself to an occasional manicure. Ideally, though, it should be in a space with open windows, since nail polish, polish remover, and the materials used to attach and remove artificial nails contain solvents. However, it's unlikely that brief exposure from polishing your nails will pose a risk to your baby or you.
Is it safe to dye or perm my hair?
You might consider putting your hair-coloring plans on hold for a while. Though there's no proof that the chemicals in hair dyes, permanent wave solutions, or relaxers cause birth defects, miscarriages, or any other pregnancy complications, there are no reliable studies that prove these substances are safe either. Researchers do know that they penetrate the scalp and enter the bloodstream, so theoretically they could reach your growing baby. For this reason, some healthcare providers now recommend that pregnant women avoid such hair treatments, especially during the first trimester when their unborn baby's organs are beginning to develop.
But if you're desperate, choose a process that involves less scalp contact, such as highlights. Vegetable-based dyes, such as henna, are also considered safe. If you're the do-it-yourself type, wear gloves to minimize absorption of hair-product chemicals through your skin, and don't leave the product on any longer than necessary. And whether you're at home or in a salon, make sure the area is well ventilated to avoid breathing in any fumes.
Is it safe to change the cat's litter?
Toxoplasmosis is a parasitic infection with symptoms that resemble the flu (fever, aching joints). In general, there are no lasting effects on the woman who contracts the toxoplasmosis. The bacteria that cause this infection are often found in animal droppings and raw meat.
Unfortunately, if passed to your baby, toxoplasmosis can lead to vision or hearing problems. To keep the infection at bay, ask your partner to clean your cat's litter box or pet cage during your pregnancy, and avoid undercooked meat. If you do develop the symptoms above, call your doctor. Early treatment with antibiotics can protect your baby.
Richard H. Schwarz, MD, obstetrical consultant to the March of Dimes, is past president of the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists; chairman of the department of obstetrics and gynecology at New York Methodist Hospital, in Brooklyn; and a professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Cornell University Medical College, in New York City.
Originally published in American Baby magazine, September 2006.
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