Exposure to Chemicals During Pregnancy

With the ever-growing industrialization of our society, it is no surprise that the number of chemicals to which we are exposed on a daily basis has increased exponentially. Pregnant women and their developing babies are among the most vulnerable populations when it comes to the dangers of chemical exposure. Exposure to chemicals during pregnancy can have a variety of potential effects on the developing baby, including birth defects, developmental delays, and other health problems.

There are many ways a pregnant woman may be exposed to chemicals. This can happen at the workplace, at home using everyday household products, or even from items used for enjoying weekend hobbies. In addition, some chemicals can also be found in the environment, such as in air pollution or water contamination.

Does the placenta protect the developing baby from dangerous chemicals?

When a mother is pregnant, she and her developing baby are connected by the placenta and umbilical cord. What a mother eats, drinks, breathes, or smokes can affect her baby. The placenta functions as a barrier between the mother and fetus, providing nutrients and oxygen to the fetus and removing waste products. This placental barrier prevents most harmful substances from passing from the mother and protects the fetus from many potential hazards, including bacteria, viruses, and toxins.

However, some chemicals can cross the placenta and enter the baby’s bloodstream, where they can interfere with the development of the brain, nervous system, and other organs. Others can cause the placenta to become less effective at delivering oxygen and nutrients to the baby, or even cause the mother to experience health problems that can affect the baby.

Which chemicals are most dangerous during pregnancy?

Many chemicals are known to be harmful to pregnant women and their developing babies. These include tobacco smoke, alcohol, lead, mercury, pesticides, solvents, certain industrial chemicals, and others. Each of these chemicals is known to cause different health problems.

Exposure to tobacco smoke (1)

Tobacco smoke exposure has been linked to an increased risk of miscarriage, preterm birth, low birth weight, and sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS). Additionally, mothers who smoke tobacco during pregnancy are more likely to have children with respiratory problems, including asthma. There is no safe level of tobacco smoke exposure during pregnancy, and even a brief exposure can be harmful. Quitting smoking before or during pregnancy and avoiding passive smoke are the best ways to protect the health of both the mother and the child.

Consumption of alcohol (1)

There are many risks associated with alcohol exposure during pregnancy. These risks can include miscarriage, stillbirth, low birth weight, and birth defects. Additionally, alcohol exposure during pregnancy can lead to Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (FASD), which is a group of conditions that can include physical, mental, behavioral, and/or learning disabilities. Similar to tobacco smoking, there is no safe level of alcohol consumption during pregnancy. Therefore, it is important for women who are pregnant or who are planning on becoming pregnant to abstain from alcohol.

Exposure to lead (2)

Lead exposure is a serious health concern, particularly for pregnant women and young children. Lead can cause anemia and high blood pressure in pregnant women. Moreover, it can cross the placenta and enter the developing fetus, where it can cause developmental delays, learning disabilities, and behavioral problems. There are several ways that pregnant women can be exposed to lead. Lead-based paint and lead-contaminated dust are the most common sources, but exposure can also occur through drinking water, food, and occupational exposure.

Exposure to mercury (2)

Mercury is another common environmental pollutant that can be harmful to pregnant women and their developing babies. It also crosses the placenta and enters the baby’s bloodstream, where it can cause developmental delays and learning disabilities. Mercury exposure is most likely to come from eating fish that are high in mercury, such as swordfish, sharks, and tilefish.

Exposure to pesticides (3)

Pesticides are chemicals that are used to kill pests, such as insects, rodents, and fungi. Pesticides can be harmful to pregnant women and their infants if they are exposed to them. Pregnant women should avoid exposure to pesticides by avoiding contact with treated areas or, in case this is not possible, by wearing protective clothing, such as gloves and a mask.

Exposure to solvents (4)

Solvents are chemicals that are used to dissolve other substances. They are usually found in some products such as paint thinners and cleaners. The contact with those products is best avoided by pregnant women.

Exposure to industrial chemicals (5)

Certain industrial chemicals, such as benzene and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), can be harmful to pregnant women and their developing babies as well. Exposure to these chemicals can cause birth defects and developmental delays. Just like the solvents, pregnant women should avoid contact with products that contain them, such as certain paints, adhesives, and oils.

How to avoid exposure to chemicals during pregnancy? (6)

Pregnant women are exposed to a variety of chemicals on a daily basis, some of which can be harmful. Here are some simple steps to reduce exposure to harmful chemicals:

  1. Use fresh food rather than processed foods whenever possible. Processed foods often contain harmful chemicals, such as preservatives and flavorings.
  2. Reduce the use of foods and beverages in cans and plastic containers. These containers can leach harmful chemicals into food and drink.
  3. Minimize the use of personal care products, such as moisturizers, cosmetics, shower gels, and fragrances. These products may contain harmful chemicals that can be absorbed through the skin.
  4. Minimize the purchase of newly produced household furniture, fabrics, non-stick frying pans, and cars while pregnant or nursing. These products may off-gas harmful chemicals that can affect the developing fetus.
  5. Avoid the use of garden and household pesticides or fungicides. These products may contain harmful chemicals that can be absorbed through the skin or inhaled.
  6. Avoid paint fumes. Paint fumes can contain chemicals that can be harmful to the developing fetus.
  7. Only take over-the-counter analgesics or painkillers when necessary. Some of these medications may contain chemicals that can be passed to the developing fetus.

What are the symptoms of exposure to chemicals during pregnancy?

Exposure to chemicals during pregnancy can have a variety of adverse effects on the mother and the developing baby. These effects can range from subtle changes in fetal development to more serious birth defects. The specific symptoms depend on a number of factors, including the type of chemical involved, the amount of exposure, and the timing of the exposure. However, some general patterns can be observed.

Generally speaking, the effects of chemical exposure on the health of the mother and her baby can be divided into two main categories: acute and chronic effects. Acute effects are those that occur immediately after exposure to a chemical. These can include (7):

– nausea and vomiting

– abdominal pain

– headache

– dizziness

– blurred vision

– skin irritation

– respiratory distress

– seizures

– coma

Chronic effects, on the other hand, are those that develop after long-term exposure, and can include:

– preterm labor

– low birth weight

– birth defects

– developmental delays

– learning disabilities

– behavior problems

How is exposure to chemicals diagnosed? (8)

There is no definitive test to diagnose chemical exposure during pregnancy. Instead, doctors often rely on a combination of medical history, physical examination, and laboratory tests to assess whether exposure has occurred. 

Medical history:

Doctors will ask about any medications or chemicals the mother has been exposed to during pregnancy. They will also inquire about any previous pregnancies and whether there were any complications or abnormal fetal development. 

Physical examination:

A complete physical examination can help identify any obvious signs or symptoms of chemical exposure. For example, skin rashes or irritation may be indicative of exposure to certain chemicals.

Laboratory tests:

Blood and urine tests can be used to measure levels of certain chemicals in the body. These tests can help diagnose exposure to certain drugs or toxins. However, they are not always accurate, and they cannot always determine the amount of exposure that has occurred.

Imaging studies:

Ultrasounds and other imaging studies may be ordered if doctors suspect that the fetus has been exposed to certain chemicals. These studies can help assess the severity of exposure and any resulting fetal abnormalities. 

What are the treatment options for chemical exposure during pregnancy? (8)

When a pregnant woman is exposed to hazardous chemicals, it can be difficult to know what the best course of treatment is. There are many factors to consider, including the type and amount of exposure, the stage of pregnancy, and the health of both the mother and the fetus. If a pregnant woman is exposed to a hazardous chemical, the first step is to seek medical attention. The treating physician will need to assess the situation and determine the best course of action. In some cases, simply removing the mother from the exposed  environment may be all that is necessary. If more significant exposure has occurred, however, additional treatment may be necessary.

In general, there are three main types of treatment for chemical exposure during pregnancy: medication, detoxification, and supportive care. 

  • Medication may be prescribed to mitigate the effects of the exposure or to treat any resulting conditions. 
  • Detoxification procedures may be used to remove harmful chemicals from the body.
  • Supportive care measures may be taken to help the mother and fetus cope with the effects of exposure and to prevent further harm.

It is important to remember that each situation is unique and that not all treatments are appropriate in every case. The best course of action will depend on a variety of factors and should be determined by a qualified medical professional.


(1) The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists: https://www.acog.org/womens-health/faqs/tobacco-alcohol-drugs-and-pregnancy

(2) Taylor CM, Emond AM, Lingam R, Golding J. Prenatal lead, cadmium and mercury exposure and associations with motor skills at age 7 years in a UK observational birth cohort. Environ Int. 2018 Aug;117:40-47. doi: 10.1016/j.envint.2018.04.032. Epub 2018 May 1. PMID: 29723752; PMCID: PMC6024074.

(3) Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: https://www.cdc.gov/niosh/topics/repro/pesticides.html

(4) Khattak S, K-Moghtader G, McMartin K, Barrera M, Kennedy D, Koren G. Pregnancy Outcome Following Gestational Exposure to Organic Solvents: A Prospective Controlled Study. JAMA. 1999;281(12):1106–1109. doi:10.1001/jama.281.12.1106

(5) “Mitro SD, Johnson T, Zota AR. Cumulative Chemical Exposures During Pregnancy and Early Development. Curr Environ Health Rep. 2015 Dec;2(4):367-78. doi: 10.1007/s40572-015-0064-x. PMID: 26341623; PMCID: PMC4626367.”

(6)  Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists: https://www.rcog.org.uk/media/axjhtyzw/sip_37.pdf

(7) Virginia Department of Health: https://www.vdh.virginia.gov/emergency-preparedness/public-preparedness-guidance/chemical-agents/unknown-chemical-exposure

(8) WHO Guidelines for the identification and management of substance use and substance use disorders in pregnancy: https://apps.who.int/iris/bitstream/handle/10665/107130/9789241548731_eng.pdf

Tarek Roustom, M.D.

Written By Tarek Roustom, M.D.

Tarek Roustom, M.D. is physician with a doctorate in clinical pharmacology from Greifswald Medical University in Germany. He spent many years conducting clinical research and designing evidence-based digital health programs.