Environmental risks and pregnancy

Having a healthy pregnancy is more than just eating healthy and getting good prenatal care. It’s also important to keep your environment (where you live and work) safe from things that can harm you and your baby like radiation, chemicals and some metals.

Harmful substances can get into your body through your skin or when you breathe, eat or drink. Some can be immediately dangerous to you and your baby. With other substances, you have to come in contact with large amounts for a long time for them to cause harm.

Some jobs, like farming and working in dry cleaning stores or factories, may force you to be around or in contact with harmful substances. If you work in these kinds of jobs, talk to your health care provider and your employer about how you can protect yourself before and during pregnancy. You may need extra protection at work or a change in your job duties to stay safe.

You also can take steps to protect yourself and your baby from harmful substances at home.

Can radiation harm your pregnancy?

Radiation is a kind of energy. It travels as rays or particles in the air. Radiation can attach itself to materials like dust, powder or liquid. These materials can become radioactive, which means that they give off radiation.

You come in contact with small amounts of radiation nearly every day. This radiation comes from natural sources (such as sun rays) and man-made sources (such as microwaves and medical X-rays) that don’t cause harm. However, a nuclear power plant accident or similar emergency could put you in contact with larger, more dangerous amounts of radiation.

2011 nuclear power plant crisis in Japan
Since the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant accident in Japan in 2011, very small amounts of radiation have been found in the United States. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says that it’s not enough radiation to cause health problems. So you don’t need to take any drugs to treat radiation sickness. These drugs are only given to people who come in close contact with large amounts of radiation. In fact, these drugs can cause health problems in people who don’t need them.

Radiation during pregnancy
During pregnancy, your body works hard to protect your baby from radiation that you come in contact with every day. Most babies born to moms who come in contact with low amounts of radiation during pregnancy aren’t at increased risk for birth defects.

However, some radiation may cause health problems in you and your baby. It depends on the amount of radiation that your body takes in, the kind of radiation and the length of time that you’re in contact with it.

If you’re in contact with large amounts of radioactive material, and this material gets inside your body (you swallow it or breathe it), it may cause harm to your baby during pregnancy.

When radioactive material gets into your bloodstream, it can pass through the umbilical cord to your baby. It also can be dangerous if radioactive material builds up in areas of your body that are close to your uterus (womb), such as your bladder.

If you come in contact with large amounts of radiation early in your pregnancy, your baby may be at risk for birth defects. Exposure to large amounts of radiation, equal to having more than 500 chest X-rays at one time, is not common. But some pregnant women in Japan came in contact with this much radiation after the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. If you do come in contact with large amounts of radiation, you may not feel sick, but the radiation may be enough to cause serious problems in your baby. Radiation can slow his growth, cause birth defects, affect brain development or lead to cancer.

Extremely large amounts of radiation later in pregnancy can cause severe health risks for your baby. Exposure to extremely large amounts of radiation, equal to having more than 5,000 chest X-rays at one time, is not common. But some women came in contact with this much radiation from the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear power plant accident in the Ukraine. If you come in contact with extremely large amounts of radiation, you may show signs of radiation sickness. Early symptoms include vomiting, diarrhea and fever. Later signs of radiation sickness range from fatigue to hair loss or bloody stools.

If you’re pregnant, contact your health care provider immediately if you think you’ve been exposed to large amounts of radiation. CDC offers tips to prepare for radiation emergencies and steps you can take to stay safe after being exposed to radiation.

Can lead harm your pregnancy?

Lead is a metal. It was once used in gasoline and house paint but is no longer used in any products. With most lead used in products, you can’t see, smell or taste it. Today the most common sources of lead are house paint (used before 1978) and water that comes from wells or through lead pipes.

Lead can be harmful to everyone, but it’s especially harmful to young children and pregnant women. Contact with lead during pregnancy can put you at risk for miscarriage, and your baby may be at risk for preterm birth, low birthweight and developmental delays. Most women in this country don’t come in contact with high levels of lead. But if you think you have, your health care provider can check your lead levels with a blood test.

Lead paint
If you live in a home built before 1978, you could be in contact with lead. Older homes were once painted with house paint that had lead.

If you live in an older home and the paint isn’t crumbling or peeling, there’s little risk to your health. However, crumbling paint can lead to dust with lead substances, which can be harmful to your health.

If you need to remove lead paint from your home, hire experts to do it. Stay out of your home until the job is done. You can learn more about lead paint and removing lead at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) website.

Lead in water
If you have lead plumbing in your house or if you have well water, lead could get into your drinking water. Boiling your water does not get rid of lead.

If you think you have lead plumbing:

  • Use only cold water for drinking and cooking. Water from the cold water pipe has less lead than water from the hot pipe.
  • Run water for 15 to 30 seconds before drinking it, using it for cooking or making baby formula, especially if you haven’t used water for a few hours. If you use a water filter, get one that is certified by NSF International to remove lead.
  • Contact your local health department or water supplier to find out how to get pipes tested for lead.

If you use well water, contact the EPA Safe Drinking Water Hotline at (800) 426-4791 for information on testing your well water for lead and other substances that can harm your health.

Other sources of lead in the home
Lead can be found in other parts of the home, including:

  • Lead crystal glassware and some ceramic dishes. Don’t use these items. Ceramics you buy in a store are generally safer than those made by craftspeople because stores have to follow certain safety guidelines.
  • Some arts and crafts supplies, including oil paints, ceramic glazes and stained glass materials. Use lead-free art supplies during pregnancy and breastfeeding.
  • Vinyl miniblinds that come from other countries.
  • Old painted toys and some new toys and jewelry. The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission website has information on recalls.
  • Make-up, such as lipstick, that has surma or kohl. Check the label on your make-up for a list of ingredients.
  • Canned food from other countries.
  • Candy from Mexico called Chaca Chaca. Lead in this candy may come from ingredients like chili powder and tamarind, or from ink on plastic or paper wrappers.

Lead on the job
If you work in a job that puts you in contact with large amounts of lead, your health could be at risk. These jobs include painting, plumbing, auto repair, battery manufacturing and certain kinds of construction.

To help you stay safe:

  • Change your clothes (including shoes) before coming home.
  • Shower at work to avoid bringing lead into your home.
  • Wash your work clothes at work or wash them at home separately from the rest of the laundry.

Can mercury harm your pregnancy?

Mercury is a metal. There are two kinds of mercury that can be harmful during pregnancy: elemental (pure) mercury and methylmercury.

Elemental mercury
Elemental mercury is used in some dental fillings (used to fill in cavities in teeth), older thermometers and fluorescent light bulbs.

A dental filling that is silver-colored is called an amalgam. Amalgam contains elemental mercury, silver and other metals. Small amounts of mercury from amalgam fillings can get into the air you breathe.

While amalgams are safe in adults and children over age 6, there’s not enough information to know if they’re safe during pregnancy. If you’re concerned about having an amalgam filling, talk with your dentist.

Mercury in older thermometers and fluorescent bulbs is surrounded by glass and doesn’t pose any health risk unless the glass breaks. If the glass breaks, small amounts of mercury can get into the air you breathe.

If you break a thermometer, don’t vacuum the spilled mercury. Instead, use a piece of paper to roll the beads of mercury onto another piece of paper. Seal the paper in a plastic bag. Contact your local health department to ask how to throw the mercury away.

Fluorescent bulbs have much less mercury in them than old thermometers. But you still have to be careful to clean up the mercury if you break an old bulb. The EPA has guidelines for cleaning up fluorescent bulbs.

Methylmercury is made when mercury in the air gets into the water supply. The mercury comes from natural sources (such as volcanoes) and man-made sources (such as burning coal and other pollution).

You can get methylmercury in your body by eating fish that swim in waters with methylmercury. Methylmercury is mostly found in certain large fish, like swordfish, shark, king mackerel and tilefish. During pregnancy, don’t eat these kinds of fish because the mercury in them can cause harm to your baby.

It’s OK for pregnant women to eat a limited amount of fish that have small amounts of mercury. You can eat up to 12 ounces of these fish a week. The 12 ounces can include shrimp, salmon, pollock, catfish and canned light tuna. If you eat albacore (white) tuna, don’t eat more than 6 ounces a week.

Mercury on the job
If you’re pregnant and work in a dental office or at a job (like electrical, chemical and mining jobs) that uses mercury to make products, talk with your health care provider about how to stay safe.

Can arsenic harm your pregnancy?

Arsenic is a metal. It gets into the environment through natural sources (crumbling rocks and forest fires) and man-made sources (mining and making electronic products).

Small amounts of arsenic normally found in the environment are unlikely to harm your baby during pregnancy. But if you come in contact with higher levels of arsenic, it may be harmful to your pregnancy and cause problems like miscarriage and birth defects.

Arsenic also can be harmful to children. If children are in contact with arsenic for a long period of time, it may lead to lowered IQ.

You may be in contact with harmful levels of arsenic if you:

  • Work or live near metal smelters (where metal is made)
  • Live near harmful waste sites or incinerators (used to burn garbage)
  • Drink well water that has high levels of arsenic. This may be well water found near metal smelters, waste sites or incinerators. Or it may be well water in areas of the country, like parts of New England and the Midwest that have naturally high levels of arsenic in rock.

If you live in areas that may have high arsenic levels, follow these steps to protect yourself:

  • Limit your contact with soil.
  • Get your well water tested for arsenic to make sure it’s safe to drink.
  • Seal decks and outdoor play sets made before 2003. Arsenic was once used in these products. You can use a special stain or sealant to reduce your chances of coming in contact with arsenic.
  • Change out of work clothes and shoes that were in contact with arsenic before you go home.

Can pesticides harm your pregnancy?

Pesticides are chemicals used to kill or keep away insects and rodents. You can use some pesticides in your home. Others are for use only outside or on crops.

Being in contact with large amounts of pesticides may be harmful during pregnancy. It may lead to miscarriage, preterm birth, low birthweight, birth defects and learning problems. If you live or work in an area with crops, you may be exposed to large amounts of pesticides. During pregnancy, stay away from pesticides whenever you can.

If you need pest or rodent control in your home:

  • Try to use traps, like mousetraps or sticky traps, instead of pesticides. Be careful not to set traps in places where children can get to them.
  • Have someone else put the pesticide in your home. Ask them to follow the directions on the product label.
  • Put food, dishes and utensils away before using the pesticide.
  • Have someone open the windows to air out your home and wash off all surfaces where food is made after using the pesticide

If you use pesticides outside your home:

  • Close all the windows and turn off the air conditioning. This helps keep pesticides in the air from coming into the home.
  • Wear rubber gloves when gardening to avoid touching pesticides.

Insect repellants
Insect repellants are products you put on your skin or clothes to help keep insects, like mosquitoes and ticks, away. This helps prevent insect bites. You don’t want any insect bites during pregnancy because some insects carry infections that may be harmful to you and your baby.

Insect repellants are safe to use during pregnancy. Follow directions on the product label. You also can prevent bites by staying indoors in the early morning or late afternoon when mosquitoes are most likely to bite. Wearing long pants and long sleeves when going outdoors helps, too.

Can solvents harm your pregnancy?

Solvents are chemicals that get rid of other substances. Solvents include alcohols, degreasers, paint thinners and stain and varnish removers. Lacquers, silk-screening inks and paints also contain solvents.

If you inhale (breathe in) solvents at any time, you risk liver, kidney and brain damage and even death. During pregnancy, being in contact with solvents, especially if you work with them, can be harmful. It may lead to miscarriage, slow your baby’s growth, or cause premature birth and birth defects.

If you work with solvents or if you do arts and crafts using solvents, here’s how you can stay safe:

  • Air out your work area. Open a window or use a fan.
  • Wear safety clothes, like gloves and a face mask.
  • Don’t eat or drink in your work area.

Can air pollution harm your pregnancy?

Air pollution is a mixture of small substances and gases that are in the air. Most women who live in areas with high levels of air pollution (such as large cities) have healthy babies.

However, research shows that if you come into contact with high levels of certain air pollutants (like car exhaust), you may be slightly more likely than other women to have a premature or small baby. Some research shows that these air pollutants may lower a child’s IQ.

If you live in a large city with high levels of air pollution, limit your outdoor activities, especially exercise, on days when the air in your area is unhealthy.

Can household cleaning products harm your pregnancy?

Household cleaning products are products (like soaps and cleansers) you use to clean your home. When using household cleaning products, read labels carefully. Don’t use products that may be toxic (harmful). Products that are toxic (like some oven cleaners and carpet cleaners) say so on the label. If the label doesn’t have any safety information, don’t use the product. Or contact the product maker to make sure the product is safe to use during pregnancy.

Products that have ammonia or chlorine (bleach) in them probably don’t harm your baby during pregnancy. But their smell may cause nausea. When using these products:

  • Open windows and doors.
  • Wear rubber gloves.
  • Don’t mix products. Mixing ammonia and chlorine can cause dangerous fumes.

Instead of cleaning products, use safer, more natural products. For example, use baking soda to scrub greasy areas, pots and pans, sinks, tubs and ovens. And mix vinegar and water to clean floors and countertops.

Can chemicals in plastics harm your pregnancy?

Plastics are made from certain chemicals. Two of these chemicals are phthalates and bisphenol A (BPA). Phthalates make plastic soft and flexible. They are found in toys, medical equipment (such as tubing), shampoos, cosmetics and food packaging. BPA makes plastics clear and strong. It’s sometimes used in baby bottles, metal cans and water bottles.

Some research shows that being in contact with phthalates and BPA may be harmful during pregnancy. Since 2009, phthalates are no longer used in toys or other children’s products. While there isn’t a ban on BPA, many products are BPA-free.

More research needs to be done to know for certain if chemicals in plastics can harm your pregnancy or baby.

Here’s how to limit your contact with harmful plastics:

  • Don’t use plastic containers with the numbers 3 or 7 or the letters PC (stands for polycarbonate, a kind of chemical) in the triangle found on the bottom.
  • Limit use of canned food.
  • Don’t microwave food in plastic containers or put plastics in the dishwasher.

Here’s how to limit your baby’s contact with harmful plastics:

  • Breastfeed your baby so you don’t have to use baby bottles.
  • Use baby bottles made of glass, polypropylene or polyethylene.
  • Give your baby only plastic toys that are made after February 2009 or that are labeled phthalate-free or BPA-free.
  • Don’t use baby lotions or powders that contain phthalates. Check the product label to make sure.

For more information

Organization of Teratology Information Services 
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) – Radiation and Pregnancy

Last reviewed October 2011

Most common questions

Is air travel safe during pregnancy?

If your pregnancy is healthy, it’s usually safe to travel by plane. Follow these tips when traveling by air:
  • Ask your airline if they have a cut-off time for traveling during pregnancy. You can fly on most airlines up to 36 weeks of pregnancy. But if you’re flying out of the country, the cut-off time may be earlier.
  • If you’ve had morning sickness during pregnancy, ask your provider if you can take medicine to help with nausea.
  • Book an aisle seat so you don't have to climb over other passengers when you need to get up to use the restroom or walk around. Try sitting towards the front of the plane where the ride feels smoother.
  • Drink plenty of water. Don’t drink carbonated drinks, such as soda. And don’t eat foods, such as beans, that may cause gas.Gas in your belly can expand at high altitudes and make you feel uncomfortable.
  • Fasten your seat belt when you’re in your seat. This can help keep you from getting hurt in case of turbulence. Turbulence happens when the air around a flying plane causes a bumpy ride.
  • Wear loose, comfortable clothing. Flex your ankles during the flight, and take a walk when it's safe to leave your seat. Doing these things can help your blood flow and lower your risk of deep vein thrombosis (DVT), a blood clot inside a vein. Sitting for long stretches of time during any kind of travel raises your chances of having DVT. Ask your health care provider if you should wear support stockings during your flight. They may help prevent DVT. But if you have diabetes or problems with blood circulation, you probably shouldn’t wear them.
  • Tell the flight attendant if you feel sick or very uncomfortable during your flight. Contact your health care provider as soon as you can.

Is it safe to get or have a tattoo during pregnancy?

It's best to wait until after having your baby to get one. Here's why: Hepatitis B, a dangerous liver infection, and HIV/AIDS are two of many diseases that can be passed along through bodily fluids. This means you can catch these diseases if you get a tattoo from someone who uses a dirty needle. And you can pass these diseases along to your baby during pregnancy.

We don't know how tattoo dyes and inks affect a developing baby. Small amounts of chemicals that might be harmless to an adult can have a much bigger impact on a growing baby.

Most healthcare providers will give an epidural to a woman with a tattoo on her lower back. But they may decide not to if the tattoo is recent and fresh. If you have a tattoo on your back and are considering getting an epidural for pain relief during childbirth, find out what the hospital's policy is before you're admitted.

Is it safe to get spa treatments during pregnancy?

Some spa treatments are safe. Others may be more painful than usual. And some - like mud baths - are a bad idea while you're pregnant.

Any spa treatments that raise your body temperature (like mud baths, hot wax and seaweed wraps) are almost always unsafe during pregnancy. Steam rooms, hot tubs, and saunas also raise your body temperature. They can make you dehydrated and overheated. This can be dangerous for you and your baby. Avoid these treatments while you're pregnant.

Be careful with skin treatments like facials and body scrubs. During pregnancy, your skin changes a lot and may be extra sensitive. Before you cover your whole body with a product, test it on a small area of skin to be sure it doesn't irritate.

Getting your eyebrows done and having your bikini line waxed are usually safe during pregnancy, but they may feel more painful to your sensitive skin.

©2013 March of Dimes Foundation. The March of Dimes is a non-profit organization recognized as tax-exempt under Internal Revenue Code section 501(c)(3).