pesticides during pregnancy

What is a pesticide?

Pesticides are chemicals that are used to kill unwanted organisms in crops, public areas, homes and gardens, and parasites in medicine.

How are we exposed to pesticides?

You can be exposed to pesticides through your occupation. You can also be exposed to pesticides through food and environmental exposure (water, soil, air). For several years now research has shown possible adverse effects of pesticides and especially those called "Endocrine-disrupting chemicals (EDC)" which are chemicals that alter the normal functioning of the endocrine system of both wildlife and humans. A huge number of chemicals have been identified as endocrine disruptors, among them several pesticides. 

How do pesticides impact human fertility in women?

Both men and women can show negative effects when exposed to pesticides. The negative impact of endocrine-disrupting pesticides on human fertility is now a key issue in reproductive health: Many pesticides with an endocrine-disrupting action are associated with poor oocyte maturation and competency, embryonic defects, and poor IVF outcomes. Some pesticide compounds are linked to specific causes of female infertility, such as premature ovarian insufficiency, polycystic ovarian syndrome, and endometriosis. IVF participants living in agricultural regions should be informed about the fertility decline, low ongoing pregnancy rates, and elevated risk of miscarriage associated with exposure to high doses of pesticides.

How do pesticides impact human fertility in men?

Diet plays an important factor in male fertility.  Studies have confirmed that endocrine-disrupting chemicals and pesticides are associated with an increased risk of subfertility together with alterations in hormone levels.  

Pregnancy and fertility risks of pesticides

Exposure to pest-control products at levels commonly used at home may pose some risk to both male and female fertility and the fetus. If at all possible, you should avoid being exposed to pesticides.

All pesticides and insecticides are to some extent poisonous and some studies have suggested that high levels of exposure to pesticides may contribute to miscarriage, preterm delivery, and birth defects. Certain pesticides and other chemicals, including PCBs, have weak, estrogen-like qualities called endocrine disrupters that some scientists suspect may affect the development of the fetus’ reproductive system.

Pesticides are dangerous to people of any age and background. If you’ve ever handled a pesticide before, you know that most bottles or packages are covered with warnings because they can easily do harm to the human body if not handled properly. Therefore, it’s easy to see why they might pose a particularly big threat to pregnant women. Pregnant women should avoid pesticides and insecticides as much as possible during their pregnancy.

The chemicals in pesticides are engineered specifically to attack the nervous systems of the pests they’re controlling. In the first trimester of your pregnancy, your baby’s nervous system is developing. Obviously, coming into contact with pesticides early in your pregnancy could seriously hinder your baby’s development and well-being.

Avoiding pesticides can be difficult

Even if you’re not an avid gardener, avoiding pesticides can be difficult sometimes. If you’ve come into contact with pesticides during pregnancy and didn’t realize it until afterwards, there is usually not a problem. Studies show that occupation exposure—or long term exposure—is more dangerous than a single instance of contact. However, if you know in advance that you’ll be around the chemicals, it’s best to prepare. Ask someone else to handle the chemicals if you’re gardening or if you need to treat your pet for fleas. You should also remove any type of eating utensils from the area. If your backyard is being sprayed, consider keeping the patio table and grill in the garage until the chemicals have settled. If the treatment is indoors, keep the windows open for ventilation afterwards. Finally, if possible, hold off on all pesticide applications until after you’ve delivered your baby. If the yard is looking particularly dead and dull because of pests, remind your partner that a healthy and happy baby is more important than a well-groomed backyard, no matter how many barbeques you might have.

Keeping your developing baby safe from environmental toxins and chemicals during pregnancy can be difficult. You’ll be exposed to exhaust fumes, compounds in tap water, and radiation on a daily basis. However, experts have agreed that these chemicals in moderation are safe. Pesticides on the other hand should be avoided at all costs because they are designed to halt the very development your baby needs most. If you can avoid pesticides during your pregnancy, that would be ideal. If you can’t, minimize your exposure as much as possible to ensure your baby’s successful and proper nervous system development in utero.

Treating your home with pesticides

You can reduce your exposure to pesticides by controlling pest problems with less toxic products such as boric acid (use the blue form available at hardware stores). If you must have your home or property treated with pesticides:

  • Have someone else apply the chemicals and leave the area for the amount of time indicated on the package instructions.
  • Remove food, dishes, and utensils from the area before the pesticide is applied. Afterward, have someone open the windows and wash off all surfaces on which food is prepared.
  • Close all windows and turn off air conditioning, when pesticides are used outdoors, so fumes aren’t drawn into the house.
  • Wear rubber gloves when gardening to prevent skin contact with pesticides.

Health care providers also have some concerns about the use of insect repellants during pregnancy. The insect repellant DEET (diethyltoluamide) is among the most effective at keeping bugs from biting; however, its safety during pregnancy has not been fully assessed. If you do use DEET, never apply it to your skin. Instead, place small amounts on your socks and shoes and outer clothes, using gloves or an applicator to avoid contact with your fingers.

Source: Alexis Handal et al: Occupational Exposure to Pesticides During Pregnancy and Neurobehavioral development of Infants and Toddlers. Epidemiology Volume 19 Issue 6 pp. 851-859 November 2008

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