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Toxic Chemicals and Miscarriage

Occupational Exposure to Chemicals During Pregnancy Increases Miscarriage Risk

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Updated April 12, 2008

Very little is truly well understood about why certain people miscarry and others have successful pregnancies even in the face of multiple risk factors. You can have one miscarriage or even repeated miscarriages even if you have no risk factors at all. A lot of individual outcomes seem to be determined by chance and genetic luck.

That said, one factor that does increase likelihood of miscarriage is regular exposure to factors classified as teratogens, or agents that have been found to cause disruption in fetal development. Teratogens can be toxic chemicals and radiation, certain viral and bacterial infections, or even cigarette smoke and alcohol.

Exposure to teratogens during pregnancy can have drastically different results from person to person; some people may have no negative effects, others may have babies with congenital birth defects, and others may miscarry or suffer a stillbirth or neonatal death. In addition to maternal exposure, a father's exposure to some teratogens may increase the risk of miscarriage also by increasing levels of chromosomal abnormalities in the sperm.

In most cases, doctors believe that regular or prolonged exposure to teratogens is more dangerous than one-time or otherwise limited exposure. For this reason, parents who work in jobs that involve toxic chemicals may face increased risk of pregnancy loss in some cases.

Chemical Agents Associated with Miscarriage

A 2006 analysis of past research found evidence that occupational exposures to these chemical agents could increase risk of miscarriage:

  • Heavy metals (industrial workers, dental assistants)
  • Organic solvents (laboratory, industrial, and dry cleaning workers)
  • Tetrachloroethylene (dry cleaning workers)
  • Glycol ethers (semiconductor employees)
  • 2-Bromopropane (electronics industry)
  • Petrochemicals
  • Ethylene oxide (dental assistants)
  • Anesthetic gases (surgical staff)
  • Antineoplastic drugs (oncology staff)

What to Do to Reduce Risk

If you have been exposed to some kind of chemical agent, join the club. There's no reason to panic at this point that your chemical exposure was responsible for your miscarriage or will cause you to have a miscarriage if you are currently pregnant. Recent research has been finding that the average human body carries dozens of theoretically harmful chemicals, yet babies are still being born.

That said, it makes sense to take steps to reduce your risk of exposure to hazardous chemicals whenever possible. If you work with chemicals, some workplaces will allow women to request temporary transfer to an alternative position without exposure to chemicals, but in other cases, women can take extra precautions to avoid exposure to chemicals by using personal protective equipment.

The most critical period in fetal development as far as vulnerability to teratogens is the first trimester, so it's wise for men and women to try to avoid unnecessary chemical exposures when purposely trying to conceive -- but without going overboard and panicking about things beyond your control. Remember that you would practically have to move to a deserted island to avoid chemicals in modern culture, and even then you're not necessarily safe from pollution -- but common sense and reasonable precautions are never a bad idea.

Sources:

Aspholm, Rafael, Marja-Liisa Lindbohm, Harri Paakulainen, Helena Taskinen, Tuula Nurminen, and Aila Tiitinen, "Spontaneous Abortions among Finnish Flight Attendants." Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine Jul 1999. Accessed 6 Apr 2008.

Department of Health Services, "If I'm Pregnant, Can the Chemicals I Work With Harm My Baby?" Hazard Evaluation System and Information Service Accessed 6 Apr 2008.

Figa-Talamanca, Irene, "Occupational risk factors and reproductive health of women." Occupational Medicine 2006. Accessed 6 Apr 2008.

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