06/10/2013 09:01 am ET Updated Aug 10, 2013

A Father's Day Plea for Mothers' Health

Father's Day is near, and I recently sat down with three Bay Area dads for a chat about fatherhood (you can hear our conversation on Before You Leap, the new podcast of the Center for Environmental Health). One of the recurring themes of our talk was our concerns about the impact of harmful chemicals on our kids from even before they were born. It seems as soon as our spouses became pregnant, we all rejoiced -- and then immediately began to worry about everything that might pose a threat to our impending child's health.

Now a new report has prompted concerns that pregnant women need better information about chemical risks. The paper, by Britain's Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, suggests that pregnant women should avoid pesticides, cosmetics, processed foods and many other everyday items that may expose them and the fetus to potentially harmful chemicals, and that their doctors should be sharing this information. As one of the report's co-authors told the London Daily Mail, concerns about chemical risks "should be conveyed routinely in infertility and antenatal clinics so women are made aware of key facts that will allow them to make informed choices regarding lifestyle changes."

Perhaps they should be, but a report on a recent U.S. survey of 2,600 obstetricians/gynecologists shows that few doctors discuss with their patients how food, consumer products, or other common sources can expose them to harmful chemicals. The authors of the survey noted that doctors do not have the expertise, training, or resources to know and convey to patients the latest science about these risks. In four years of medical school, for example, student doctors receive fewer than six hours of training on environmental health factors. This leads to injurious information gaps: The health impacts of mercury, including lowered IQ and other impacts on brain development, have been known for decades, yet more than half of doctors said they don't warn pregnant woman about sources of mercury contamination. [1]

Today 1 in 14 newborns in the U.S. are exposed to more mercury than the dose scientists say can cause developmental delays.

There is one bright sign for American women's health: The new president of the American Congress of Obstetrics and Gynecology (ACOG), Dr. Jeanne Conry, has stated that environmental health will be one of her key priorities. In a news release excerpting remarks from her inaugural address, Dr. Conry stated, "I will spend my presidential year promoting the message that we need to pay more attention to the impact of our environment on reproductive health." In her speech, Dr. Conry also specifically noted the potential impacts from "endocrine disrupting" chemicals that can alter the bodies' natural hormones, even at extremely small doses. She warned,

These chemicals interfere with our own body's homeostasis and can impact this generation and generations to come. It is my hope that ACOG will take a strong leadership role in advising ob-gyns on patient care in this area.

A paper Dr. Conry co-authored on the subject of early interventions to prevent chemical exposures urged physicians to always ask women of child bearing age about their exposures to potentially harmful chemicals as part of their medical history, and provide women with guidance about avoiding exposures at home, in the community and at work.

So this Father's Day, I'll be thinking of all the mothers out there who make our day possible, and how we can all work towards a world where no parents need to worry about chemical health threats, before or after their children are born.


[1] Hightower, "Mercury and Human Health: A Case Study in Science and Politics"