Pregnancy protection or alarmist advice?

Experts from the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (RCOG) issued advice to healthcare workers, urging them to make pregnant women aware of the sources and routes of chemical exposure in order to minimise harm to their unborn child despite current uncertainty surrounding their effects.

The information comes from a new Scientific Impact Paper. Critics have spoken out against this advice, saying that the information is “unhelpful, unrealistic and alarmist”.
The RCOG report acknowledges that there is plentiful advice on a healthy lifestyle for pregnant women, but that there is not enough about exposure to chemicals which could pose a risk to their babies.

“Exposure to considerable amounts of environmental chemicals has been linked to adverse health effects in women and children, including pre-term birth, low birthweight, congenital defects, pregnancy loss, impaired immune development, as well as impairment of fertility and reproduction in both the mother and child in later life,” the RCOG statement said.

The paper, ‘Chemical exposures during pregnancy: Dealing with potential, but unproven, risks to child health’, raises awareness of the current issues surrounding chemical exposure during pregnancy, and says that it wants to allow women to make informed decisions about the health of their baby. The paper refers to potential risks of food, herbal remedies, medicines such as paracetamol, household cleaning products, personal-care products and cosmetics. The authors also warn against some containers of food.

Authors Dr Michelle Bellingham, Institute of Biodiversity, Animal Health and Comparative Medicine, University of Glasgow, and Prof Richard Sharpe, Medical Research Council (MRC) Centre for Reproductive Health, the University of Edinburgh, provide women with practical advice on how to avoid chemicals, and advise them to “play it safe” and be cautious. Prof Sharpe acknowledged that “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.”

Dr Bellingham said: “We are trying to empower women, not scare them. There is a void at the moment in terms of information about chemicals.”

Most critics of the RCOG’s statement detailing the information in the paper, bodies such as Sense About Science and the National Childbirth Trust, say that without clear evidence, pregnant women will have trouble making informed choices, and should not be unnecessarily alarmed by using products like shower gels and moisturisers.

Dr Chris Flower from the Cosmetic, Toiletry and Perfumery Association said that there is no need to worry about chemicals in cosmetics, as strict laws are already in place regarding safety of cosmetics and that by law all ingredients are listed on the packaging.

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