Survey: Doctors fail to warn pregnant women about toxins

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Danger of Environmental Toxins(NaturalHealth365) Every day, Americans are exposed to over 80,000 different chemicals, found in drinking water, food, consumer products – even in the air we breathe. So it should come as no surprise that researchers tell us that virtually all pregnant women in the United States have measurable levels in their bodies of at least 43 different chemicals -some at levels associated with adverse outcomes. Yet, nearly 4 out of 5 conventionally-trained physicians acknowledge that they don’t counsel pregnant women on ways to avoid or limit exposure to environmental health hazards.

In a national survey of 2,500 physicians across the country, researchers found that while 80 percent of the doctors agreed it is part of a physician’s job to help pregnant patients avoid exposure to environmental toxins, only 20 percent actually did so. The survey, conducted by University of California, San Francisco and published in the science journal PLoS ONE, was the first of its kind. The survey also revealed that half of the doctors admitted they “rarely” took environmental histories.

Why are doctors neglecting their professional duty to counsel pregnant women about their risks?

The short answer: doctors lack the training, time and tools. Only one in 15 of the survey’s doctors reported receiving training on the harmful reproductive effects of environmental pollutants – a truly shocking statistic.

Many doctors said they did not know enough about the hazards of environmental toxins to give clear guidance. And some believed the evidence for harm was inconclusive. While many doctors look to randomized controlled trials as the best source of evidence, research on environmental health and humans is normally conducted through observational studies – which many doctors consider less “reliable.”

However, one of the study’s senior authors, Tracey Woodruff, director of the Program on Reproductive Health and the Environment at UCSF, points out that there is strong scientific evidence showing the link between exposure to toxins in pregnancy and adverse health outcomes to children.

Unborn children exposed to mercury and lead, two of the most common pollutants, can suffer from lowered IQ and neuro-developmental problems; exposure to pesticides has been linked to leukemia.

Have these environmental toxins ever been tested on pregnant women?

The short (honest) answer is no. Scientifically speaking, we know very little about how these toxins affect unborn children. In fact, a 2007 study conducted by the California EPA revealed that out of 19 workplace chemicals known to cause developmental harm, 14 were not listed as reproductive hazards.

The issue of environmental toxins and pregnancy takes a back seat to other concerns – a mistake we can ill afford.

Another reason for the lack of counseling on chemicals and pollutants was that the physicians said they consider other health threats to be more important. They listed cigarette smoking, alcohol, obesity, poor nutrition and chronic disease as major concerns in pregnancy; virtually all of the doctors said they routinely counseled pregnant patients on these issues.

Finally, the physicians expressed a sense of futility, saying they were reluctant to cause anxiety, stress and guilt in pregnant women by warning them about the ubiquitous presence of thousands of chemicals found in the home and workplace, when it is impossible to avoid them.

The good news: There are many ways to avoid toxicity

Naomi Stotland, an associate professor in UCSF’s Department of Obstetrics, Gynecology and Reproductive Sciences and a study co-author, acknowledged that many exposures are in fact unavoidable, but noted that women should still be counseled on practical ways to avoid the most hazardous substances. Past studies have shown that women not only want to know about hazards, they tend to respond proactively when they are armed with information.

Obviously, conventional mainstream medicine must step up and incorporate better training for doctors. A step in the right direction was taken last year, when the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists and the American Society for Reproductive Medicine jointly delivered a Committee Opinion on Exposure to Toxic Environmental Agents, acknowledging and highlighting dangers to women’s health posed by environmental toxins.

As for the doctors themselves – the survey respondents said that evidence-based guidelines would be a good start, along with tools that would help them communicate the risks, such as printed materials with clear, easy-to-understand recommendations.

What you can do to avoid harming your children

Experts say that the best way to limit exposure is to buy organic food. Sharply reduce or eliminate low-fat and non-fat dairy products and meats, and avoid fish high in mercury, such as shark and tilefish.

Avoid chemical-laden fast food, processed foods and canned foods wherever possible. Choose “green” or “environmentally friendly” (non-toxic) household cleaning agents and personal care products. Every woman ought to avoid those imported cosmetics – which contain lead – no matter how ‘pretty’ the product may look or smell.

We, as consumers, must demand more. While it is essential to improve the awareness of physicians on the importance of counseling about environmental toxins, there is also a pressing need to demand more accountability from product manufacturers. On this, the researchers were emphatic, stating that physicians as a group must leverage their voices to put pressure on companies to reveal the truth about their products’ safety – or toxicity.

The time is long overdue.  Remember, your voice and purchasing decisions can make this world a better place.


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