Exposure to Pesticides During Pregnancy: What’s Safe?
There are various things we should limit our exposure to when we become pregnant. Radiation and paint fumes are a couple, such as when flying in an airplane or painting your new nursery. Another is pesticides, which have long been an issue for people who work in agriculture and animal fields, along with their children. Now, everyday household pesticides — particularly insecticide — may be linked to childhood brain tumors if a baby’s mother is exposed to them during pregnancy.
Pregnant or not — and whether or not you live on a farm or work in a veterinary office — we’re exposed to some form of pesticides on a daily basis. Pesticides kill plants, pests, insects, and fungi. They can be at home, school, or work, and they can get inside our body by eating or drinking, breathing them in, or through our skin.
Let’s discuss the ways pesticides affect pregnancy, the difference between pesticides used in agriculture and ones used in the home, and safe alternatives to pesticides during pregnancy.
How Pesticides May Affect Your Pregnancy
Before we dive into the topic of brain tumors, pesticides have a bad rap with pregnant women that goes beyond the limits of this post. Pesticides may increase the risk of miscarriage, birth defects, and learning or developmental disabilities, though doctors and researchers haven’t been able to tell if these problems were caused by pesticides or something else. They may also pass into our breast milk to affect baby after she’s born.
Aside from farmers and greenhouse workers having a greater exposure to pesticides, veterinarians and animal handlers, landscapers, lawn/pest service providers, and air crews all face these dangerous chemicals at work.
Pesticides, Pregnancy and Brain Tumors
Various studies have been published over the years about the effects of pesticides on pregnancy and the link between pesticides and childhood brain tumors. For farmers, regular exposure to pesticides may triple their children’s risk for developing brain tumors, with risks also increased for various types of cancer and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. However, new research shows us just how dangerous everyday household chemicals can be for a developing fetus.
In an analysis recently published in the International Journal of Cancer, 437 malignant childhood brain tumor cases and over 3,100 controls were reviewed from two French studies. Using pesticides while pregnant was linked to a 1.4-times greater chance of offspring developing brain tumors, with 95% confidence intervals.
These pesticides are generally classified as “probable carcinogens,” with some evidence that insecticides in particular can “pass through the feto-placental barrier.” Nicolas Vidart d’Egurbide Bagazgoïtia, lead author of the analysis, notes:
“Although such retrospective studies cannot identify specific chemicals used or quantify the exposure, our findings add another reason to advise mothers to limit their exposure to pesticides around the time of pregnancy.”
Researchers could not draw any conclusions about herbicides or fungicides because they were used infrequently and/or mothers also used insecticides. Use of insecticides, specifically, resulted in a 1.4-times increased risk of childhood brain tumors.
For other studies related to pesticide exposure by job type or residential use and childhood risk of developing brain tumors or cancer, check out “Pesticides and Childhood Cancers” and “Household Pesticides and Risk of Pediatric Brain Tumors.”
See also: The Causes of Childhood Obesity: Protecting Your Little One
Pesticide Safety By Type
So, we don’t know the exposure amount or what actual chemicals were used in this latest analysis, outside of insecticides being a key focus. But what are they?
We know from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) that pesticides affect people differently. Some may cause cancer, while others affect our nervous system. The amount of the pesticide we’re exposed to also matters, but children are generally at a greater risk for injury from pesticides, including effects on their brain development.
Here is a bigger look at some of the forms of pesticides and how different types may affect us while pregnant.
Forms of Pesticides
Pesticides come in three forms, some of which may be more dangerous than others:
- solids (powder or granular)
Additionally, to help someone know the level of toxicity of a certain pesticide, poison schedules were created. “Unscheduled” on a pesticide label means very low in toxicity and unlikely to harm humans if used correctly. This is where most aerosol cans are categorized. S5, S6, and S7 poison schedules range from low, medium, to high toxicity, respectively.
Tests also determine a pesticide’s LD5O, or lethal dose. The lower the LD50, the more toxic a pesticide is. So check those labels carefully!
Uses of Pesticides
The Federal Insecticide, Fungicide and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA) is what regulates the sale and use of pesticides. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is responsible for compliance from pesticide companies and banning unregistered pesticides, along with settling rules for certifying pesticides won’t cause unreasonable harm to humans if they’re labeled and used correctly.
We’ll focus on insecticide uses, but studies have shown that fungicides, herbicides, and rodenticides all have the ability to negatively affect pregnant women and their offspring.
Popular types of insecticides include treatments for termites, both professional and not professional, and ones for nuisance pests, which include spray cans, bottles or pumps, dust or granules, bombs or fumigants, pest strips, ant traps or stakes, and roach bait/traps. In one of our additional studies mentioned earlier, the odds of giving birth to a child who developed a brain tumor after prenatal exposure to termite pesticides was 2.7 times greater.
What is especially risky as an insecticide? Flea/tick spray and other related products used on pets. Prenatal exposure to flea/tick products, particularly sprays and foggers, were shown in one study to result in a 10.8-times increased odds for tumor development. It’s important to note that nitrite exposure — such as through diet — may interact with the carbaryl found in these products and other pesticides and affect cancer risk.
Preventing Exposure to Pesticides During Pregnancy
There is no known level of exposure to pesticides that is safe during pregnancy or while breastfeeding. If you must be around pesticides while pregnant, ask someone else to apply them for you. If that’s not possible, ensure that you read the label and use protective clothing while mixing or spraying a pesticide. Do not put any pesticides in a food or drink container, as children may accidentally ingest the contents. Do not leave pesticide in places where children or pets can reach them.
Make sure to keep food and drink away from pesticide sprays while they are being applied, and do not spray under windy conditions or in areas that do not need to be treated. Keep all animals and children away from the area where pesticides are sprayed.
The National Pesticide Information Center also has a good pesticide resource page you should follow.
Pesticide Alternatives for Moms
The best way to reduce your exposure to pesticides is to not use them at all. The CDC suggests a technique called integrated pest management, which eliminates the sources of food, water, and shelter for pests. Make sure trash can lids are closed tightly, leaky pipes are fixed, and places where litter gathers are cleaned.
There are also biological pesticides, or biopesticides, that are naturally derived from animals, plants, fungi, minerals, or bacteria that are safer, virtually non-toxic alternatives to traditional pesticides. Farmers are moving more toward these types, which include citronella, garlic oil, and acetic acid.
If you or a loved one think they have been overexposed to pesticides, call the national poison control number at 1-800-222-1222. You can also report pesticide problems in your state to the EPA at this link: epa.gov/safepestcontrol.
I am 26 weeks pregnant, and I work in client’s homes. I was working with a client when out of no where, a pest control person comes into the room we are working in and starts spraying the window panes.
I am normally very cautious about limiting my exposure to chemicals and pesticides, but this was completely outside of my control.
I had to finish my session with my client, so I was around the pesticides for about an hour.
Is it possible that this one-time exposure posed any risk to my unborn baby?
That’s a tough situation! Some pesticides are more dangerous than others, so it may depend on what pesticide was used but if the pest control person was inside the home and spraying without asking anyone to leave first, that may be a safer chemical? Completely guessing, so please don’t take this as advice. Can’t be too cautious, so it’s best to bring this up to your OB/GYN if you have any concerns.
Thank you, Amber! I appreciate your input. I have been very paranoid during this pregnancy.