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The next on my list of most important chemicals to avoid during pregnancy is fairly broad, but increasing evidence shows the importance of reducing our fetuses’ exposure to this group of chemicals: pesticides and herbicides.
What Are Pesticides and Herbicides?
Most of us are exposed to a wide range of pesticides and herbicides daily. Pesticide residue lingers on non-organic fruits and vegetables, agricultural runoff leaves at least low levels of pesticides in many municipalities’ water supply, and we can be exposed to pesticides and herbicides in our yards if we use chemical insect- or weed-control.
Pesticides can have multiple dangerous effects on fetuses, especially in the developmental stages, when human babies are little bigger than insects themselves. A recently released study found that common levels of exposure to pesticides may have effects on developing fetuses similar to those associated with smoking — earlier birth and lower birth rates. As the Huffington Post reports: "Lanphear and his team calculated an average 150-gram reduction in baby birthweight (about one-third of a pound) and a half-a-week earlier welcome into the world when they compared the 15 percent of the women in the study with the highest exposure to the 15 percent studied who had the lowest exposure to organophosphate pesticides, as estimated from chemical byproducts in their urine. The high exposure women had 10 times the level of pesticide in their bodies as those in the low exposure group."
In another recent article, published on Truthout, writer Brian Moench points out that nearly all of us have some level of pesticides in our bodies, quoting a disturbing recent study that showed that every human tested had the world's most popular pesticide, Roundup, detectable in their urine at concentrations between five and 20 times the level considered safe for drinking water. He then draws parallels between research finding that pesticide exposure — designed to disrupt insects’ nervous systems — and rising autism rates — a complex disorder of the central nervous system.
The herbicide atrazine is frequently found in municipal water supplies, particularly in the Midwest during the spring when farmers and lawn care workers are using the chemical on crops and yards. Atrazine got nationwide exposure a couple of years ago when 43 water systems in six states sued atrazine’s manufacturer, Syngenta, to pay to remove the chemical from drinking water. As we discussed in this blog in 2010, atrazine is linked to birth defects, and the National Resources Defense Council estimates that 75 percent of stream water and 40 percent of groundwater samples from agricultural areas contain atrazine. The EPA limits atrazine levels in municipal water to a 12-month average of 3 parts per billion, but some say that is still too high, particularly for the health of developing fetuses. You can obtain local water contaminant reports from your municipality to find out about your water’s levels of atrazine. The good news is that atrazine can be filtered out by carbon filters, so attaching one to your sink is a good way to protect yourself (I don’t recommend storing drinking water in plastic — a topic I'll discuss in greater depth in an upcoming post).
To Avoid Pesticides and Herbicides
Eat only organic fruits and vegetables. I know this can cost extra, but it’s wise during pregnancy to choose organic to avoid pesticide residue. If your pregnancy is spanning the spring and summer, it's good news for eating organic. You can grow some of your own food in your yard or in a community garden, and organic veggies are more readily (and cheaply) available via farmer's markets or CSA (community-supported agriculture) programs. If you are on a limited budget, use the Environmental Working Group’s Dirty Dozen/Clean Fifteen list to help you choose conventionally grown produce with the fewest pesticide residues. Use a carbon water filter to help remove pesticide and herbicide residues from drinking water. And finally, do not use any chemical pesticides or herbicides on your yard. If you use a yard service, choose one well-versed in sustainable, chemical-free yard maintenance methods.