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Toxic household products to avoid during pregnancy

8-minute read

Key Facts

  • While pregnant you may come into contact with chemicals that could possibly harm your baby.
  • Remember to store all chemicals safely — out of the reach of children and with their safety caps on.
  • By law, employers must make work safe for you and your baby when you are pregnant.
  • If you are worried that you have been in contact with a chemical — call the Poisons Information Hotline on: 13 11 26.

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. Usually, it’s in such a small amount that you don’t need to worry. If you are exposed to large amounts of chemicals while pregnant, your baby may be at an increased risk of:

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 when they are a bit older and put objects in their mouth.

It’s a good idea to avoid some products while you're pregnant or breastfeeding. These tips will help you reduce your exposure.

Chemicals to be aware of 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
  • ask a licensed pest control professional to do the treatment

Cleaning products

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 with products such as oven and tile cleaners:

  • wear protective equipment such as gloves, a face mask and eye glasses
  • avoid breathing in fumes

Painting and paint fumes

Most paint fumes are safe while you’re pregnant.

The risk of harm to your baby may be greater if you:

  • use solvent-based paints
  • strip old paintwork that may contain traces of lead
You can reduce your risk by:

  • not painting until at least week 13 of your pregnancy
  • using water-based paints
  • making sure the room you’re painting is well ventilated — open all the windows and doors
  • wearing protective clothing — face masks, gloves and googles
  • not eating or drinking in the room you’re painting
  • washing your hands when you’ve finished painting

Painting and lead exposure

Paint containing lead was used in many Australian houses before the mid-1970s. Exposure to lead can affect the health of:

  • unborn babies
  • children
  • adults

Consuming a flake of paint the size of a 5-cent piece can raise blood lead levels for several weeks. Some of this lead will remain in your body for life.

A high level of lead exposure during pregnancy can cause:

  • premature birth
  • low birth weight
  • miscarriage or stillbirth

You can also pass lead on to your infants via breastmilk.

It's important to keep young children away from old paint, too. Young children are at risk because of the time they spend on floors and in soil.

If possible, avoid stripping old paint while you:

  • are pregnant
  • are breastfeeding
  • have young children

It's important to keep your exposure to lead as low as possible.

There is no safe level of lead exposure.

Mosquito repellent

Mosquitoes are known to transmit viruses to people. These include:

The best way to prevent these diseases is by protecting yourself from mosquito bites.

Mosquito repellents are safe for use during pregnancy and breast-feeding if they are:

  • sold in Australia
  • used according to product instructions

Consider other ways to avoid mosquito bites, such as:

  • fly screens
  • wearing long pants and long-sleeved shirts

Mercury

Mercury can harm the brain of unborn babies. This can lead to developmental delays.

It’s important to be careful when choosing fish to eat when you are pregnant or breastfeeding.

To limit your mercury intake, only eat:

  • shark (flake) once every 2 weeks — and no other fish
  • billfish (broadbill, swordfish and marlin) once every 2 weeks — and no other fish
  • orange roughy (deep sea perch) once a week — and no other fish that week
  • catfish once a week — and no other fish that week
  • all other fish — 2 to 3 servings per week

Arsenic-treated timber

Arsenic can be used to:

  • preserve timber
  • protect wood form termites

Large doses of arsenic can cause:

You can protect yourself and your baby by:

  • not putting food on arsenic-treated timber
  • washing your hands after touching the wood

Nail polish

    The chemicals used in nail treatments are:

  • in low doses
  • not easily absorbed by your skin

If you are worried about any potential effects, you may consider waiting until 12 weeks to have any nail treatments.

You should avoid polishes that contain:

  • dibutyl phthalate
  • toluene
  • formaldehyde

Flame retardants

Flame retardants are added to household products like furniture, carpet and clothes to decrease their flammability (how easily they burn). They are a diverse range of chemicals. Flame retardants can affect child brain development.

To avoid exposure, wash your hands frequently, use a vacuum fitted with a HEPA filter and mop the floor regularly. Also, avoid touching any foam inside your furniture.

Dry cleaning chemicals

It’s safe to have your clothes dry cleaned when you’re pregnant.

People who work in dry cleaning shops just before, or during pregnancy may have higher rates of miscarriage. Talk to your employer about working safely while you are pregnant.

Bisphenol A (BPA)

The chemical bisphenol A (BPA) is found in plastics, such as water bottles and toys. It’s also used in the lining of some food and drink products.

It has been suggested that BPA can cause brain and behaviour problems in some children. However, Food Standards Australia New Zealand says that there is no risk from BPA in food packaging.

Studies have shown that exposure to BPA during pregnancy and infancy increased the chance of childhood asthma.

Naphthalene – moth balls and toilet cakes

Mothballs and toilet cakes contain the chemical naphthalene.

Exposure to lots of naphthalene can cause damage to your blood cells. This leads to a condition called haemolytic anaemia.

Young children have been known to eat mothballs. Don’t use mothballs around children under 3 years. Make sure that you store moth balls and toilet cakes safely.

How to avoid exposure to chemicals

Take the following steps to reduce your exposure to chemicals.

  • Store all chemicals safely — out of the reach of children and with their safety caps on.
  • Always read and follow the instructions on any packet.
  • Find alternatives — try products that contain low levels of chemicals, such as 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, 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:

  • manager
  • human resources department
  • union

They must carry out a risk assessment that considers your pregnancy.

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. Generally, it’s only long-term exposure to large quantities of chemicals that can be harmful during pregnancy. A one-off exposure is very unlikely to cause any harm.

If you are worried, call the Poisons Information Hotline on 13 11 26.

Speak to a maternal child health nurse

Call Pregnancy, Birth and Baby to speak to a maternal child health nurse on 1800 882 436 or video call. Available 7am to midnight (AET), 7 days a week.

Learn more here about the development and quality assurance of healthdirect content.

Last reviewed: December 2022


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Call us and speak to a Maternal Child Health Nurse for personal advice and guidance.

Need further advice or guidance from our maternal child health nurses?

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