Pesticides

INFORMATION FOR WOMEN WHO MIGHT BE EXPOSED, ARE BEING EXPOSED, OR HAVE BEEN EXPOSED TO PESTICIDES DURING PREGNANCY OR BREASTFEEDING

The information provided below is for readers based in the United States of America. Readers outside of the United States of America should seek the information from local sources.

What are pesticides?

The word pesticide encompasses different categories of agents that are used in agriculture. One category is insecticides, which are used to kill insects. Another other category is herbicides, which are used to kill unwanted plants. There also are fungicides, which are used to kill fungus. People, including pregnant women, can be exposed to pesticides in dangerous amounts in workplace settings, such as working on a farm. Despite a great deal of pubic concern, prompted partly by food company marketing of foods that are supposedly lower in pesticides compared with the alternatives, it is very rare to be exposed to dangerous levels of pesticides simply from eating food, because the quantities of such agents in food are very low. Concern among consumers has focused especially on an herbicide called glyphosate, but an older agent, an insecticide called DDT is more of a concern. While the health effects of DDT are very real, a push to stop using DDT led to a rise in deaths from malaria in many parts of the world toward the end of the 20th century, as DDT was very effective against mosquitos. Scientific studies of glyphosate have generally found that it is safe at the levels that end up in food.

Is there a safe amount of pesticide to which I can be exposed during pregnancy?

Yes and the amount differs amount different pesticides. When it comes to exposure in workplace settings, there are occupational safety rules for workers, with particularly strict safety requirements for protecting pregnant women. When it comes to agricultural crops and food, the United States and most other developed countries set particular limits for synthetic pesticides, meaning herbicides and insecticides that are created or incorporated into foods through a laboratory process. However when it comes to so-called “natural” pesticides, employed by the organic farming industry, rules regarding the amounts that can be used are not as strict. Consequently, certain highly toxic naturally occurring pesticides such as copper sulfate could get into the food in unknown quantities, whereas the amounts of synthetic pesticides, such as glyphosate are well documented.

Can exposure to pesticides make it harder for me to get pregnant?

In the case of certain pesticides, the answer is yes. DDT and certain other pesticides can affect hormones in ways that have been shown to affect sperm in males, and that are thought to interfere with female hormones through similar mechanisms. However, the danger comes only in work settings in which you could become exposed to high levels of these agents.

Can pesticides cause a miscarriage?

In some cases, of pregnant women working in agriculture for instance, exposure to certain pesticides has been linked to spontaneous abortion (miscarriage).

Can exposure to pesticides cause a birth defect?

A national birth defects study has revealed possible connections between specific types of pesticides with specific congenital heart defects (CHDs), although maternal exposure to pesticides is not associated with CHDs overall. Exposure to high levels of insecticides increases the risk that the baby will have a secundum atrial septal defect of the heart. High level maternal exposure to insecticides and herbicides may increase risk for what’s called hypoplastic left heart syndrome and another condition called pulmonary valve stenosis. Insecticides, herbicides, and fungicides all may have a connection with a congenital heart condition called tetralogy of Fallot.

Are there long-term consequences to my baby from my exposure to pesticides?

As noted above, certain types of pesticides have been implicated for certain types of CHDs, many of which can affect the child throughout life, even if surgical procedures improve the child’s heart function and help survival.

I just found out I am 6 weeks pregnant and last weekend was exposed to pesticides. Will my baby have a problem?

It depends on the level of exposure. A one time exposure to a small dose of a pesticide, such as pesticide residues in produce, or in other food, is not dangerous. Exposure to high levels of a pesticide, such as may occur on a farm or in a factory setting, can indeed hurt you or your baby.

Is a high level of exposure to pesticides on only some days of the week as risky as continuing exposure to pesticides everyday but at lower amounts?

No, there is no evidence that less frequent exposure to high levels of any pesticide is safer than exposure to low levels of the same pesticide more frequently. Generally, very high doses of a pesticide can be dangerous or deadly in many cases.

Is it ok to be exposed to some pesticide after the first trimester?

With many pesticides, such as those that are present at residue levels in food, it is ok to be exposed to very low levels throughout pregnancy.

How will I know if exposure to pesticides has hurt my baby?

You will not know, unless the exposure is to a very high level of a particular pesticide, such as can occur in a workplace setting. In such a case, if you have experienced a substantial exposure and the baby develops a problem, such as a specific kind of CHD known to be associated with that type of pesticide, then it will be plausible that the pesticide exposure caused the harm.

Is there any hope for a baby whose mother has been exposed to pesticides throughout pregnancy?

Yes. While maternal exposure to certain pesticides in substantial amounts may increase the risk of undesirable pregnancy outcomes, in most cases doses are low and the baby will be healthy.

Can I be exposed to pesticides while breastfeeding?

Certain pesticides, including very dangerous ones such as DDT, have been shown to enter breast milk, but there is no significant danger that pesticide residues in food that the mother eats will harm a nursing infant.

What if the father of the baby is exposed to pesticides prior to conception?

In cases of exposure of the father to massive quantities of agricultural pesticides prior to conception, there is a possibility of undesirable pregnancy outcomes, such as death of the baby.

Resources for pesticides in pregnancy:

For more information about pesticides during pregnancy, contact http://www.womenshealth.gov/ (800-994-9662 [TDD: 888-220-5446]) or read the following articles:

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Last Updated: 08-08-2018
General information

It is very common for women to worry about having a miscarriage or giving birth to a child with a birth defect while they are pregnant. Many decisions that women make about their health during pregnancy are made with these concerns in mind.

For many women these concerns are very real. As many as 1 in 5 pregnancies end in a miscarriage, and 1 in 33 babies are born with a birth defect. These rates are considered the background population risk, which means they do not take into consideration anything about the health of the mom, the medications she is taking, or the family history of the mom or the baby’s dad. A number of different things can increase these risks, including taking certain medications during pregnancy.

It is known that most medications, including over-the-counter medications, taken during pregnancy do get passed on to the baby. Fortunately, most medicines are not harmful to the baby and can be safely taken during pregnancy. But there are some that are known to be harmful to a baby’s normal development and growth, especially when they are taken during certain times of the pregnancy. Because of this, it is important to talk with your doctor or midwife about any medications you are taking, ideally before you even try to get pregnant.

If a doctor other than the one caring for your pregnancy recommends that you start a new medicine while you are pregnant, it is important that you let them know you are pregnant.

If you do need to take a new medication while pregnant, it is important to discuss the possible risks the medicine may pose on your pregnancy with your doctor or midwife. They can help you understand the benefits and the risks of taking the medicine.

Ultimately, the decision to start, stop, or change medications during pregnancy is up to you to make, along with input from your doctor or midwife. If you do take medications during pregnancy, be sure to keep track of all the medications you are taking.