Almost every pregnant woman will come into contact with chemicals that could possibly harm her or her baby. Usually it’s such a small amount that you don’t need to worry, but it’s still a good idea to avoid some toxic products while you're pregnant.
What are 'toxic' household products?
We are surrounded by chemicals and toxins (poisons). They include pesticides in the garden, flame retardants on furniture, lead, mercury and some cleaning products.
Most chemicals you come across in your daily life won’t harm your baby. But if you are exposed to large quantities of chemicals for a long time, it’s possible your child will be at an increased risk of congenital disorders or future health problems.
If you breathe or swallow some chemicals, they can enter your bloodstream and pass to your baby via the placenta. Your baby can also be exposed to chemicals after they are born through your breastmilk or if they put their fingers in their mouth.
If you are pregnant or breastfeeding, these tips will help you minimise your exposure.
Chemicals to avoid when you’re pregnant or breastfeeding
Pesticides and herbicides
Some pesticides (bug killers) and herbicides (weed killers) are known to affect developing and newborn babies. Usually pesticides used in the home and for professional pest treatments are safe. But it’s a good idea to avoid them as much as possible while you are pregnant. Ask someone else, like a licensed pest control professional, to do the treatment for you.
Although most cleaning products are safe, there have been reports of some household chemicals causing wheezing in early childhood. To be on the safe side, wear gloves and avoid breathing in fumes from products such as oven and tile cleaners.
Most paint fumes are safe while you’re pregnant, but there is a slightly increased risk if you use solvent-based paints or strip old paintwork as these may contain traces of lead. Choose a water-based paint and a paint brush or roller rather than spray (which contains solvents). Make sure the room is well ventilated if you paint — or have someone else do it for you.
All mosquito repellents in Australia have been tested and are safe to use. However, a small amount of the chemicals DEET or picaridin will enter the skin, and it’s best to take care during the first 3 months of pregnancy Choose a repellent with a low to moderate concentration of the chemical — between 5% and 20% — and consider other ways to avoid mosquitos, such as fly screens and long sleeves.
Being exposed to high levels of mercury can damage your health and increase the likelihood of brain damage, and hearing and vision problems in a developing baby. Some fish contain mercury, including shark (flake), broadbill, marlin and swordfish. To be on the safe side, pregnant women should limit eating these species of fish to no more than once a fortnight. If you need a dental filling, talk to your dentist about options that don’t contain mercury.
Outdoor wood is often treated with copper, chromium or arsenic to protect it from dry rot, fungi, mould and termites. This treatment has been linked to some cancers, diabetes, miscarriage and stillbirth. It gives the wood a greenish tinge, which fades over time. You can protect yourself and your baby by not putting food on arsenic-treated timber and washing your (and your child’s) hands after they play on it.
Formaldehyde is a chemical used in nail polish, some cosmetics and hair-straightening products. The amount of formaldehyde in nail polish is very small and quickly broken down by the body, however adverse effects on the baby cannot be ruled out. So it’s best to use nail polishes that don’t have formaldehyde.
Paint and lead-based products
High levels of lead in the body can affect the health of unborn babies and children. Very high levels can lead to premature birth, low birth weight, or even miscarriage or stillbirth. It's important to keep your exposure to lead as low as possible.
Paint containing lead was used in many Australian houses before 1970, so avoid stripping old paint while you’re pregnant. Consuming a small flake of paint the size of a 5-cent piece can raise levels in your blood for several weeks, and some of this will remain in the body for life. It's important to keep young children away from old paint, too.
Chemicals used to make household furniture less flammable have been linked to learning disabilities in children. To avoid exposure, wash your hands frequently, use a vacuum fitted with a HEPA filter and mop the floor regularly. Also, avoid coming into contact any foam inside the furniture.
Dry cleaning chemicals
It’s safe to have your clothes dry cleaned when you’re pregnant. If you come into contact with a lot of the chemicals – if, for example, you work at a dry cleaners — you may be at a slightly increased risk of miscarriage. Talk to your employer about working safely while you are pregnant.
Asbestos was used in many building materials in Australia and is linked to several lung diseases such as lung cancer and mesothelioma. While there is no evidence that asbestos can affect your pregnancy or result in a congenital disorder, you should avoid contact with asbestos — or suspected sources of asbestos — at any time.
The chemical bisphenol A (BPA) is found in most plastics, and can pass from a mother to her baby in the womb. It has been suggested that it can cause brain and behaviour problems in some children. However, Food Standards Australia New Zealand says BPA used in food packaging poses no health risks to people of any age, including unborn children and infants.
Mothballs contain the chemical naphthalene, which has been known to give people headaches, nausea, dizziness and vomiting. It can also lead to serious health problems in small children because they are more likely to put mothballs in their mouths. Don’t use mothballs around children under 3 years and make sure they’re stored safely.
How to avoid exposure to chemicals
To reduce your exposure to chemicals:
- Store all chemicals safely — out of the reach of children and with safety caps screwed on correctly.
- Always read and follow the instructions on any packaging.
- Find alternatives, if you can — for example, use products that contain low levels of chemicals, or baking soda and vinegar for cleaning.
- Wash your hands regularly.
- Consider not renovating while you’re pregnant or breastfeeding.
- If you have a task that involves chemicals (such as some types of cleaning), ask someone else to do it.
- Keep your home well ventilated.
Working with chemicals during pregnancy
If your work involves exposure to chemicals, talk to your employer. They must carry out a risk assessment and find ways to reduce your exposure. By law, employers must make work safe for you and your baby when you are pregnant.
For more information, contact Safe Work Australia.
Where to seek help
If you are exposed to a toxic product while you are pregnant, don’t panic. Remember, it’s only long-term exposure to large quantities of chemicals that could potentially harm your baby. A one-off exposure is very unlikely to cause any harm.
If you are worried, call the Poisons Information Hotline on 13 11 26.
For more information and advice, call Pregnancy, Birth and Baby on 1800 882 436 to speak to a maternal child health nurse.
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Last reviewed: September 2020