Pre-Natal Care Takes Into Consideration Environmental Issues

April 24, 2007

You are what you eat — and what you touch and breathe as well. Environmental toxins are everywhere, and research keeps emerging indicating that toxins can have a profound effect on health.

This stark reality has spurred a nascent revolution in pre-natal care, reports Molly M. Ginty of Women’s eNews.

“Research shows toxins can trigger a whole host of pediatric ailments. Lead can lower the IQ, mercury can damage the brain, pesticides can cause childhood cancers and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs, used as coolants) can speed puberty in girls,” writes Ginty.

Two ground-breaking programs — Berkshire Health Systems in Pittsfield, Mass., and Magee-Womens Hospital in Pittsburgh, Pa. — have begun to integrate environmental education into their regular care, teaching parents-to-be how to practice environmental safety with tips on what types of fish to eat when pregnant (salmon, not tuna, which may carry more mercury) and replacing cleansers like bleach with products that are less irritating to airways.

Even though these bits of wisdom seem crucial to impart to parents, the revolution is moving slowly. Many medical schools do not offer any environmental training, for example, so doctors need to find out about these issues on their own. Patients are often learning for the first time when they receive a pamphlet from a volunteer.

But there is a movement underfoot that meshes with a growing green awareness:

“These prenatal programs illustrate a dramatic shift toward environmental consciousness that the health care industry has undergone since 2000,” says Laura Brannen, executive director of Hospitals for a Healthy Environment, a nonprofit in Lyme, N.H., that promotes environmental sustainability in health care.

“As recently as the mid-1990s, health care was the leading cause of mercury contamination. Back then, there were mercury thermometers and blood pressure cuffs in nearly every hospital. But now, the thermometers have been replaced with digital ones, the cuffs are being phased out and incinerators dedicated to burning mercury have shut down.”

Stacy Malkan, communications director for the Arlington, Va., nonprofit Health Care Without Harm, a coalition that promotes environmental sustainability, agrees.

“Hospitals are getting better about using environmentally friendly products,” says Malkan. In response to studies that show chemicals can harm a developing fetus, more medical centers are also now beginning to teach parents-to-be to practice environmental safety, she adds.

When fetuses are exposed to toxins in utero, it can disrupt the most delicate stage of growth. During the first five months of gestation, 100 billion neurons are formed. “Synthetic chemicals can impair the nervous system,” says Malkan. “They can interfere with gene expression and interrupt hormones during critical windows of development.”

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