Your baby's first environment isn't as toxin-free as you might think. Here's how to shelter him from harm.

By Dashka Slater
February 15, 2019
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Pregnant Woman Holding Belly Fresh Manicure
Credit: Yulia Sk/Pexels

Tucked inside you like a walnut in its shell and cushioned by amniotic fluid, your baby seems safe and secure. Sure, the outside world is filled with environmental threats, but isn't it the job of the placenta to filter out substances that can harm the fetus?

Well, yes—but...

While the placenta does a crackerjack job of screening most infectious agents—rubella and HIV are notable exceptions—it's permeable to most pollutants, including pesticides, PCBs, perchlorate, bisphenol A (BPA), lead and mercury. Unfortunately, the placental barrier that protected a Pleistocene pregnancy from menace is no match for today's man-made toxins.

When researchers examined the umbilical cord blood of 10 U.S. babies born in August and September 2004, they found a total of 287 industrial chemicals. Of those, 180 were carcinogens; 217 were toxic to the brain.

"Numerous environmental contaminants can cross the placental barrier," a National Institutes of Health report noted. "To a disturbing extent, babies are born pre-polluted."

Of course, just because a newborn has carcinogenic or neurotoxic chemicals in her cord blood doesn't mean she'll develop cancer or learning impairments. Still, most of us would prefer to err on the side of caution. That means pregnant women should avoid environmental toxins as conscientiously as they avoid cigarettes—except that it's a lot easier to turn down a smoke than it is to say no to contaminants.

"Even people who pursue green lifestyles and organic diets have toxic chemicals in their blood," says ecologist Sandra Steingraber, whose book Having Faith chronicles the effects of pollution on fetal development. "When pregnant, our bodies become an interior ecosystem that exists in communion with the exterior ecosystem we inhabit. Whatever is in our food, air, water or house dust gets inside us."

Thinking about industrial chemicals might make you want to spend your pregnancy holed up in a jungle in Borneo, but there's no guarantee you'd find safe haven even there. Instead, make the greenest choices possible by selecting natural materials and recognizable substances over manmade materials and unpronounceable ingredients.

Here are tips for screening out those pollutants the placenta can't:

Ban chemicals in your kitchen.

Because many pesticides are neurotoxins and endocrine disruptors, choose organic foods whenever possible. Here's some more advice on avoiding ingesting toxins:

  • Drink filtered tap water rather than water from plastic bottles. Use glass or ceramic containers to store and microwave leftovers.
  • Limit the amount of canned foods you eat; the cans often contain BPA.
  • Skip the big fish that are high in mercury, such as swordfish and tuna
  • Avoid nonstick pans
  • Wash your hands before cooking and eating to remove the chemicals found in household dust.

Follow your nose.

The sense of smell often kicks into overdrive during pregnancy. Use your supersonic sniffer to avoid harsh-smelling paints, pesticides, solvents and cleaning products. If it smells noxious, it probably is.

Skip products designed to mask odors with their own chemical fragrances, such as air fresheners, perfumes, even shampoos. Chemical scents are often coupled with potent neurotoxins, endocrine disruptors, phthalates, volatile organic compounds and asthma-triggering allergens. Find out about your personal products at

Work to make the world safer.

Since the placental barrier can't do it, be part of the human barrier working to screen out toxins. No one person can steer clear of all pollutants, but the voice of mothers speaking together is one reason we now have BPA-free baby bottles and phthalate-free teethers. If the thought of toxins in your newborn's blood brings your own blood to a boil, write a letter, sign a petition or join a group working for an environment in which you can raise your child safely.

"This is a human rights issue, not a lifestyle issue," says Steingraber. "The message coming from pregnant women should be: Any chemical that is known to be toxic and is found in umbilical cord blood has no place in our economy."