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UCSF study identifies chemicals in pregnant women

A new study from researchers at the University of California –San Francisco found for the first time that virtually all U.S. pregnant women carry multiple chemicals, including some banned since the 1970s and others used in common products, such as non-stick cookware, food and beverage cans, and personal care products.  Lead author Tracey Woodruff, PhD, MPH, director of the UCSF Program on Reproductive Health and the Environment, told Time Magazine, “We looked at data on 163 chemicals and found that many of them are present in virtually all pregnant women.”

In UCSF’s release about the study, Woodruff said, “It was surprising and concerning to find so many chemicals in pregnant women without fully knowing the implications for pregnancy.”

The report’s findings – plus the potential implications for the health of pregnant women and fetuses – garnered wide media coverage.  Here’s a snapshot of the coverage:

Pregnant women’s behavior is not responsible for the presence of toxic chemicals in their bodies; after all, PCBs were banned in 1976 – before some women pregnant today were born – but still appear in human blood.  As Liz Szabo of USAToday wrote,  “Pregnant women take elaborate steps to protect their babies’ health, following doctors’ orders to avoid alcohol, caffeine, tobacco — even soft cheeses and deli meats. In spite of these efforts, a new study shows the typical pregnant woman has dozens of potentially toxic or even cancer-causing chemicals in her body — including ingredients found in flame retardants and rocket fuel.”

Washington Post blogger Jennifer LaRue Huget reported that “Many chemicals (such as PCBs, organochlorine pesticides, PFCs, phenols, PBDE flame retardants, phthalates, polycyclic 14 aromatic hydrocarbons and perchlorate) that are associated with adverse health effects were found in 99 percent to 100 percent of pregnant women, and nearly all women carried multiple contaminants.”

Heather Smith of had a serious, yet humorous take on the conclusions that pregnant women  and all humans carry toxic chemicals in their bodies.

“Not to get all Star Wars on you, but we’re all delicately interconnected in many ways. One of them is this: It’s quite possible that we’re all carrying around a little nonstick pan coating inside us…So: Nonstick pan coating is like the force. But probably less awesome.”

Woodruff’s study is noteworthy for a number of reasons, and should inspire additional research to learn more about the relationship between chemical exposure during pregnancy and health effects.  As noted by Christine Leptisto of TreeHugger “[W]e must acknowledge that all of our development concepts and regulations are based on false assumptions. Chemicals do not simply serve their purpose and then go away. And some chemicals may have effects at diminishingly small levels: knowing which chemicals to worry about will help us to regulate the bad guys while keeping our economy and modern lifestyle, highly dependent upon the magic of chemicals, in good shape too.

But even without more research, this study makes is clear that current law, the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) is failing by allowing pregnant women to be exposed to known carcinogens and other toxic chemicals that are known to harm a developing fetus. Also, TSCA fails to take into account recent developments about the links between low-dose exposures to chemicals and diseases, and cumulative effects of multiple chemical exposures, among other shortcomings.

“These findings should be a call to action for Congress and the Administration.” said Andy Igrejas, director of the Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families coalition. “We’ve known for years that exposures in the womb to toxic chemicals have a profound effect on the health of children. Here we have confirmation that pregnant women are carrying these chemicals around in their bodies.”

To learn more about the study watch the video featuring Dr. Woodruff:

Further Reading: