06/21/2013 05:39 EDT | Updated 08/21/2013 05:12 EDT

The Chemicals Obstetricians Are Speaking Out Against

The Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists of the United Kingdom says pregnant women should make an effort to avoid exposures to chemicals in consumer products.

Their new report, intended to guide health care professionals, takes a careful, patient-focused approach, advising a reduction in the use of paints, pesticides, cosmetics and other products that might be harmful during pregnancy. The dogs have started barking right away, with critics immediately slamming the obstetricians for scaremongering.

According to some, the obstetricians should have dug deeper and evaluated the true risks ­of every chemical of concern, creating a guide the size of, oh, the Old Testament. That, they argue, would have been more useful than the brief, practical approach the obstetricians took.

Others think they should have said nothing at all given the lack of "hard evidence" for most chemicals, that a little knowledge is worse than none at all. The problem is we have so little "hard evidence," and "hard evidence" is so hard to come by because we can't run experiments on people. In the meantime, we are still being exposed and we still need to make some decisions.

We got way ahead of ourselves when we started creating the human-made chemicals that have driven our industrial and consumer revolutions. Only recently (relatively speaking) did we realize we should have made sure those chemicals weren't harmful first, and now we struggle with our lack of information on the tens of thousands of chemicals in commerce.

So the obstetricians took a safety-first approach. The goal, they have been clear, is not to freak parents out, but to offer them a general approach to reducing risk. The risks are probably not high, the obstetricians assure us, but since the unborn is particularly sensitive they believe pregnant women should be advised to try and reduce their chemical exposure.

Here is their advice:

  • Use fresh food rather than processed food whenever possible.
  • Reduce the use of foods and beverages in cans and plastic containers, including their use for food storage.
  • Minimize the use of personal care products such as moisturizers, cosmetics, shower gels and fragrances.
  • Minimize the purchase of newly-produced household furniture, fabrics, non-stick frying pans and cars while pregnant or nursing.
  • Avoid the use of pet, garden, and household pesticides and fungicides.
  • Avoid paint fumes.
  • Only take over-the-counter painkillers and other medications when necessary.

It is a lot to ask for sure, and there is danger in piling more worry on the shoulders of pregnant women already concerned about tobacco, alcohol, caffeine, listeria and so on.

That is where the report does fail us, putting the responsibility solely on parents rather than on those selling or regulating products. It's like telling people to wear bullet-proof vests and not addressing why bullets are flying in the first place. It's a doctor's eye view, unfortunately, that focuses only on the individual.

Still, the advice seems sound. There are expectant moms painting their nurseries, buying new off-gassing baby furniture, putting untested chemical fragrances on their skin, unaware that there are concerns about how safe those things are for them or their babies.

It only makes sense that we take extra care in protecting our most vulnerable, that we not thoughtlessly use chemicals that might be harmful. At the same time we need to keep in mind that we're talking about the possibility of harm from untested chemicals, not some inevitability.

It is a difficult balance, and one that I fear will lead to anxiety for some. The British obstetricians have tried to help us negotiate that crooked path, and have at the very least, gotten the conversation started.

Kapil Khatter is a family physician who writes about health and corporate accountability, here and at

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