5 Jun 2013

Pregnancy advice on chemicals ‘alarmist’ and ‘unrealistic’

A new report is criticised for advising expectant mothers to avoid chemicals found in many household products. But Channel 4 News hears it is just the latest in a long history of dos and don’ts.

From midwives and mother-in-laws, to mere passersby: pregnant women are never at a loss for advice on what they should and shouldn’t be doing.

Now a new report from the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (RCOG) has said that women should be made aware of the sources of chemicals to minimise the possibility of harm during pregnancy, and urges them to “play it safe”, despite uncertainty about chemicals’ effects and the surrounding risks.

But the advice has provoked concern, with critics saying the report is alarmist and can add to a mother’s stress.

In its scientific impact paper, published on Wednesday, the RCOG said there is no official antenatal advice for women who are pregnant or breastfeeding about the potential risks exposure to some chemicals could pose to their babies.

The report’s authors acknowledged that while there is little evidence to suggest whether such chemicals do affect a baby’s development, or even if there is a risk to health, they advise women to assume that a risk is present.

Women can be exposed to hundreds of chemicals at low levels, through food packaging, household products, over-the-counter medicines and cosmetics, the report said.

Bridget Baker, head of education and mentoring at Doula UK, told Channel 4 News: “it seems pregnant women are bombarded with so much information anyway, that until we’ve got good quality evidence, maybe they shouldn’t publish. We need hard evidence.

“They are trying to empower women, but in the end, women get fatigued by all this advice, feel cynical about it, and may well not take on serious advice that they should, like not smoking.”

‘Don’t have hot baths’
Channel 4 News asked our Twitter and Facebook followers for some of the best, and worst, advice that they have received while expecting a baby:

Sarah Walmsley Loads! So many old wives takes from my mums friends I lost count: no stretching, no exercise. Loads of nonsense. I took no notice swam did yoga and had 5 healthy babies

Helen Lusher To put my feet up and take afternoon naps. This is while I was commuting into London working on live radio.

Sally Bramald Best advice I had was from a stranger on a train. She said it will hurt, a lot, but hold on to the thought that you will not die. LOLS

Sam Dexter Don’t have hot baths you’ll start your labour off too early! My then GP asked me if I wanted my baby born dead because I was vegan when pregnant and was planning a home birth!

Emmanuelle Tulle That in later stages of pregnancy we should iron sitting down…

‘Should we be worried?’

Tracey Brown, of Sense About Science, said: “Pregnancy is a time when people spend a lot of time and money trying to work out which advice to follow, and which products to buy or avoid. The simple question parents want answered during pregnancy is: ‘Should we be worried?’

“What we need is help in navigating these debates about chemicals and pregnancy. Disappointingly, the RCOG report has ducked this.”

They are trying to empower women, but in the end, women get fatigued by all this advice – Bridget Baker, Doula UK

Janet Fyle, of the Royal College of Midwives, said pregnant women must take the advice with caution and use their common sense and judgement and not be unnecessarily alarmed about using personal care products, such as moisturisers, cosmetics and shower gels.

“There needs to be more scientific and evidence-based research into the issues and concerns raised by this paper,” she said.

The report advises women to take care when handling products such as moisturisers, sunscreens and shower gels, as current regulations do not require manufacturers to name all potentially harmful chemicals, when used in low dose, on the product label.

It recommends that pregnant women use fresh food whenever possible by reducing foods in cans/plastic containers, minimise the use of personal care products, avoid paint fumes and pesticides, and only take over-the-counter medicines when necessary.

Dr Michelle Bellingham, from the Institute of Biodiversity, Animal Health and Comparative Medicine, University of Glasgow, co-author of the paper, said: “While there is no official advice on this topic available to pregnant women, there is much conflicting anecdotal evidence about environmental chemicals and their potentially adverse effects on developing babies.

“The information in this report is aimed at addressing this problem and should be conveyed routinely in infertility and antenatal clinics so women are made aware of key facts that will allow them to make informed choices regarding lifestyle changes.”

‘Play safe’

Professor Richard Sharpe, of the Medical Research Council (MRC) Centre for Reproductive Health at the University of Edinburgh, said: “For most environmental chemicals we do not know whether or not they really affect a baby’s development, and obtaining definitive guidance will take many years.

“This paper outlines a practical approach that pregnant women can take if they are concerned about this issue and wish to ‘play safe’ in order to minimise their baby’s exposure. However, we emphasise that most women are exposed to low doses of chemicals over their lifetime which in pregnancy may pose minimal risk to the developing baby.”

Professor Scott Nelson, chairman of the RCOG Scientific Advisory Committee, said chemicals have the potential to interfere with hormone systems in the body, which play key roles in normal foetal development.