Pregnant women are being advised to avoid chemicals in household products such as food packaging, cosmetics and family medicines that could cause harm to their unborn babies.
The Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (RCOG) says women should be made aware of the sources of chemicals to minimise the possibility of harm during pregnancy, and urges them to “play it safe”, despite uncertainty about chemicals’ effects and the surrounding risks.
But the advice has provoked concern, with critics saying the report is alarmist and can add to a mother’s stress.
In its Scientific Impact Paper, the RCOG says there is no official antenatal advice for women who are pregnant or breastfeeding about the potential risks exposure to some chemicals could pose to their babies.
The report’s authors acknowledge that while there is little evidence to suggest whether such chemicals do affect a baby’s development, or even if there is a risk to health, they advise women to assume that a risk is present.
Women can be exposed to hundreds of chemicals at low levels, through food packaging, household products, over-the-counter medicines and cosmetics, the report says.
It advises women to take care when handling products such as moisturisers, sunscreens and shower gels, as current regulations do not require manufacturers to name all potentially harmful chemicals, when used in low dose, on the product label.
It recommends that pregnant women use fresh food whenever possible by reducing foods in cans/plastic containers, minimise the use of personal care products, avoid paint fumes and pesticides, and only take over-the-counter medicines when necessary.
Dr Michelle Bellingham, from the University of Glasgow who co-authored the paper, said: “While there is no official advice on this topic available to pregnant women, there is much conflicting anecdotal evidence about environmental chemicals and their potentially adverse effects on developing babies.
“The information in this report is aimed at addressing this problem and should be conveyed routinely in infertility and antenatal clinics so women are made aware of key facts that will allow them to make informed choices regarding lifestyle changes.”
Professor Scott Nelson, chair of the RCOG Scientific Advisory Committee, added that chemicals have the potential to interfere with hormone systems in the body, which play key roles in normal foetal development.
He said: “Realistically, pregnant women are exposed to a complex mixture of hundreds of chemicals at low levels, but methods for assessing the full risk of exposure are not yet developed.
“While pregnant women should be aware of potential risks, there is still considerable uncertainty about the extent of the exposure effects and any women with concerns about certain chemical exposures should consult their obstetrician or midwife.”
Royal College of Midwives’ professional policy advisor Janet Fyle said : ”It is common sense advice, such as using fresh food rather than processed foods.
“However, pregnant women must take this advice with caution and use their common sense and judgement and not be unnecessarily alarmed about using personal care products, such as moisturisers, cosmetics and shower gels.”
Meanwhile, Professor Richard Sharpe, of the Medical Research Council (MRC) Centre for Reproductive Health at the University of Edinburgh, said: “For most environmental chemicals we do not know whether or not they really affect a baby’s development, and obtaining definitive guidance will take many years.
“This paper outlines a practical approach that pregnant women can take if they are concerned about this issue and wish to ‘play safe’ in order to minimise their baby’s exposure.
“However, we emphasise that most women are exposed to low doses of chemicals over their lifetime which in pregnancy may pose minimal risk to the developing baby.”
But Tracey Brown, from Sense About Science, said the warning could cause more harm than good.
She said: “Pregnancy is a time when people spend a lot of time and money trying to work out which advice to follow, and which products to buy or avoid. The simple question parents want answered during pregnancy is, ‘Should we be worried?’.
“What we need is help in navigating these debates about chemicals and pregnancy. Disappointingly, the RCOG report has ducked this.
“As the report itself shows, there are many unfounded rumours about links between particular substances and pregnancy outcomes.
“By contrast, we have plenty of evidence that stress is a major risk factor in pregnancy. Researchers and professional bodies should not be adding to it.”
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