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Western University physician calls for more public information on the potential risk of household chemicals on pregnant women

A Western University research team is calling on the need for the availability of more information about the risk of common household chemicals for pregnant women.

Dr. Jeff Nisker, senior author and professor, Western’s Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry, and Justin Ashley, lead author investigated how pregnant women find information about what chemicals, such as phthalates, may pose a risk to the health of their pregnancy.

Phthalates are a group of chemicals used to make plastics more flexible. They are commonly found in make-up and the liners of canned food. In Canada, six phthalates have been banned for use in some toys and child care products, but the same restrictions do not apply to products used by pregnant women, such as make-up and fragrances. Phthalates have been associated with premature birth and increased chance of developing allergies and asthma. In males, phthalates can affect the reproductive system.

Dr. Nisker and his team conducted in-depth interviews with pregnant women in London, Chatham, Sarnia and Walkerton.

Women commented that they accessed various information sources, and often ranked them according to how authoritative or “strong” they perceived that source to be. Strong sources included physicians and other health professionals, professional medical organizations and governments. If a strong source indicated that a particular product was a potential risk, the participant believed that the risk was significant and should be avoided. Intermediate sources included prenatal classes, telehealth and the Internet, while weak sources included magazines, television and self-help pregnancy books.

The research points out that participants wanted access to strong sources of information, but would access weaker sources if there were barriers to or lack of information from strong sources. Pregnant women are unable to access stronger sources, because governments and professional organizations have not developed clear guidelines or warnings, specific to pregnant women, for many household chemicals.

“Physicians, nurses, midwives and any health care provider involved in the care of pregnant women should understand that pregnant women are in a difficult situation regarding information on everyday household chemicals,” said Dr. Nisker. “Health care providers should lobby their professional organizations to come out with a statement to help them provide the best information they can to pregnant women so they are able to make decisions about using particular household products. Governments need to be better at labelling products that may pose a risk to pregnant women.”

The study was supported by a grant from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research from the Institute for Human Development, Child and Youth Health.