Around 1978, governments became aware of the health consequences lead exposure produced and passed laws to prevent exposure from posing health problems to citizens. Lead can either be airborne or solid and is found in many areas within our house and environment. Lead exposure has serious consequences for adults, children and especially a pregnant woman and her baby.
Health Consequences for a Pregnant Woman
Lead is stored in bones, where it can build up. During pregnancy, a woman’s bones experience demineralization, which often releases the lead. If the lead reaches a fetus through the placenta, it could result in congenital malformations and neurological impairments. The best thing to do is to identify possible sources of lead in order to avoid them, treat the lead contamination sources and test yourself for lead exposure.
Where Can You Find Lead?
Around major highways and old homes, soil is often contaminated. This is because gasoline used to contain higher levels of lead. Soil contamination will last for years, as lead does not disintegrate. Until the late 1970s, lead was used in the solder and pipes of the public water system. If you live in an older home, run the cold water tap for 30-60 seconds to lessen the lead level before drinking the water or using it for cooking. Do not use hot water for either your own beverages or your baby’s formula. It absorbs more lead than cold water does. Also, if you live in an older home or apartment, your walls may be covered in lead-based paint. Since household dust may be made up of paint chips or soil from outside, it may also contain lead.
Getting Tested and Treated for Lead Exposure
Doctors will test an individual for lead exposure with a simple blood test. If the levels of lead are alarming, speak to your physician about chelation therapy. However, if you are pregnant or trying to conceive, it is important that you do not seek this therapy. Therefore for a pregnant woman, it is best to avoid lead at all costs. Lead is just one of the many proven and suspected teratogens. A teratogen is an agent (such as virus, drugs and radiation) that is known to cause malformation in an embryo or fetus.
A pregnant woman will acquire toxoplasmosis if she ingests parasites found in raw or uncured meats or contaminated vegetables, milk or water. It is also found in the feces of infected cats.
There is a 1-2% chance that an infected fetus will die from toxoplasmosis. Eye problems are developed by 5-30% of cases. The disease can also result in a child who will face mental challenges.
Sources contaminated with toxoplasmosis are somewhat easy to avoid. If you have a cat, get someone else to help empty the litter or protect yourself with gloves and carefully dispose of the cat litter. Minimize contact with uncooked meats and wash your hands more frequently. Contaminated soil is responsible for up to 17% of all toxoplasmosis cases and is the area where women are least informed. If you enjoy gardening, be sure to protect yourself against this infection by wearing gloves and carefully washing your hands. It has been found that traveling to countries outside of Europe, the United States or Canada could increase chances of acquiring toxoplasmosis. Therefore, if pregnant and traveling abroad, take extra precautions to ward yourself against ingesting the parasite.
Studies have shown that women who sit in a hot tub or Jacuzzi are twice as likely to miscarry as women who do not. The risk increases the earlier a woman uses a Jacuzzi in her pregnancy. It is thought that while adults can stand the high temperatures of hot tubs, fetuses can’t.
What types of radiation will pose problems to your fetus?
X-Rays. It often happens that a woman who does not know she is pregnant will go to hospital for radiodiagnostic procedures. X-rays depend on ionized radiation, which is a dose-dependent teratogen. Under certain levels, 5000 mrad for pregnant women, the radiation you receive is equivalent to background radiation we are exposed to everyday. Most X-ray procedures emit low enough doses of radiation. Precautions should be taken to not expose yourself unnecessarily to radiation. Dividing cells, such as a fetus, are very sensitive to radiation and the result can mean malformations or risk of later diseases such as leukemia.
Microwaves. A microwave, like the sun, emits non-ionized radiation and is therefore believed to be safe. One should still be careful of radiation leakage.
Environmental Risk Factors
High altitudes. At high altitudes there is a lower supply of oxygen. This means that people who are used to living at oxygen-rich lower altitudes often experience high-altitude illness. Symptoms include dizziness, weakness, headache and upset stomach. It is recommended that women do not exceed a height of 8,000 feet as effects of high-altitude illness are not well known. Consult a doctor if you’re planning to travel to high-altitudes. Incidentally, airplane travel could pose problematic to pregnant women, but not because of the high altitudes. Airplane cabins are pressurized so there is no lack of oxygen in cabin air, therefore there is no risk of high-altitude illness. The problem lies in women who are close to the end of their third trimester. Airlines get nervous about pregnant women delivering during the flight. Therefore, if you’re close to the end of your pregnancy, bring a note from your doctor that reassures ticket agents you won’t give birth in the next 72 hours.
Foods that you enjoyed before you were pregnant may now cause difficulties for your baby. You may want to read about what foods to avoid while pregnant.
Revision date: July 5, 2011
Last revised: by Sebastian Scheller, MD, ScD