Sneaky Toxins to Avoid During Pregnancy: Q+A with Lendri Purcell
By Cris Pearlstein
Tell us a little bit about your expertise and experience.
When I had my first son, 12 years ago, I wanted to do everything right as a pregnant woman to give my son the best start. I ate mostly organic, I even moved out of the big city (Oakland) to a smaller one (Petaluma) for cleaner air. When my son was diagnosed as having a high lead level at his 1-year checkup, I was shocked and horrified. I searched everything in our home to find the lead. It turns out he was exposed via a tea cup I was using to feed him from. Next I went down the toxins rabbit hole to see what else I could be missing, what other sneaky toxins were lurking.
I started Families Advocating for Chemical and Toxics Safety (FACTS) to share the information I had learned on common toxic exposures from some of the leading science experts in the field. I wanted to save some parents time and heartache that I went through. Soon I got engaged in local activism to make safer, toxic-free spaces for children, including preschools and parks. The goal was to share the toolkits I was making for other busy parents so they didn’t have to reinvent the wheel. I left teaching special education when I had my first child and I had been working with a few charitable foundations (including one that my grandfather founded). It made sense for me to try to direct philanthropic resources to children’s environmental health.
So far, I have directed over $2.5 M to science, advocacy and education as an advocate and funder. The connections and information I procure in that work inform my work with FACTS. In all of this work, I try to remember that moms with limited financial resources have the highest exposures and the least ability to make changes to their environments. Education is really important to make change, so beyond the personal things we can do in our homes and communities which often to help move the market, FACTS works at the county, statewide and federal level to support legislation and corporate practices that can help reduce toxic exposures for all moms and babies.
Women are often given many rules on what not to eat + drink in order to have a healthy pregnancy. Besides the obvious ones (like alcohol) can you share some possibly surprising things a pregnant woman should avoid that are less talked about?
- FISH: Due to ocean pollution, many of our fish are testing positive for mercury. Some fish have higher levels of mercury than others. During pregnancy, do not eat bigeye tuna, king mackerel, marlin, orange roughy, shark, swordfish, or tilefish. Limit white (albacore) tuna to only 6 ounces a week. You can buy tuna that has been tested for mercury from a company called Safe Catch. Eating smaller fish is a great idea. The bigger and the fattier the fish, usually the more toxics are present. Wild Alaskan caught fish is always better than farmed.
- PRODUCE: Try to eat food labeled as USDA organic if you can. Wash fruits and vegetables with water, even if you plan to peel them. Environmental Working Group has a great database called the “Shoppers Guide to Clean Produce” that tells you which produce is most important to eat organic and which doesn’t matter as much. Know your labels on produce. When you purchase produce in a grocery store, use the number codes to identify those that are not genetically modified or grown with synthetic chemicals.
- A 4-digit sticker indicates that the item is conventionally grown, not organic.
- A 5-digit sticker beginning with a 9 indicates that the produce is organic.
- A 5-digit sticker beginning with an 8 indicates the produce is a genetically modified fruit or vegetable.
- SUPPLEMENTS: Not all vitamins are the same quality or go through the same rigorous testing. Look for an organic food-based prenatal that is 3rd-party tested for toxics. You might want to read the ingredients from the glucose screening test. For instance, here are the listed ingredients for Glucola, the standard formula: dextrose (D-glucose from corn), citric acid, natural flavoring, food starch modified, glycerol ester of wood rosin, brominated soybean oil (banned in Europe, Japan, and India; patented in the US as a flame retardant), Yellow #6, Sodium. With an ingredient list like this you might want to consider other options. For instance, usually you can consume 6 ounces of organic grape juice and a banana as a healthier alternative (just ask your medical provider).
Another thing that’s often not focused on is environmental factors that can impact a healthy pregnancy. Can you tell me what are some things a pregnant woman should look out for when it comes to that?
- WATER: Hydration is SO important during pregnancy. So is the quality of water you drink. Stay hydrated mommas and make sure you are drinking the cleanest water possible. This can be achieved through using a reverse osmosis water filter or certain over-the-counter filters like a Berkey Filter. Often the plastic filters will not meet your filtration needs. Environmental Working Group has a great water filter database that you can use to find out about the quality of water in your zip code and what kind of water filter is best for you. If you wind up using filtered water you might want to ask your doctor if you should supplement with minerals since reverse osmosis filtration removes minerals as well as toxic chemicals.
- CLEAN AIR: We now know there are certain “sensitive periods” of pregnancy (literally certain days of gestation when certain chemical exposures can have the worst impacts on your baby), but air pollution is increasingly hard to avoid. Environmental Working Group has a useful air filter database. If you can afford it, go for a high quality hospital grade HEPA air filter, especially if you live in an industrial area or a place that experiences periodic fire-smoke. Some insurance companies will cover the costs of at at-home air filter if someone in your home has asthma. Make sure to keep your car air filters clean, too. The same people who check your oil should check your cabin air filters when you get oil changes, but you can also learn to replace these more cheaply yourself. And use the recirculate function in your vehicle when you are driving in areas with particularly noxious air.
Are there any sneaky toxins in the home that our readers would be surprised to learn about that could adversely affect a pregnancy?
- PERSONAL CARE PRODUCTS: It turns out that our skin is much more porous than you would think and what we put on our bodies gets into our bodies. Read the list of ingredients on beauty and personal care products. When possible, avoid products that contain: phthalates, parabens, oxybenzone, triclosan, hair relaxer Also look for products marked “fragrance free” which is different from “unscented.” Unscented products may contain multiple scents that are mixed to hide an odor. These scents may contain harmful chemicals. Luckily, there are so many great databases to check your beauty and personal care products to make sure they have the highest safety ratings. EWGs Skin Deep is a great one, as is the Clearya app.
- INDOOR AIR QUALITY: Always use your oven fan on the highest setting when cooking with gas, or limit your gas cooking altogether by using a large toaster, air fryer, electric hot plate, Instapot or an induction stove. When you cook with electricity you make a big difference in your in-home air quality and you are helping the climate, too. And avoid things with synthetic fragrances (Glade plug-ins, air fresheners, etc.) as most of these have chemicals that are unhealthy for you and your baby.
- HOME CLEANING PRODUCTS: According to the EPA, indoor air quality can be up to 100 times more polluted than outdoor air—since a typical family spends about 90% of its time indoors, your choice of cleaning products is very important. Dust is made up of small chemical particles so use a wet cloth to pick up dirt and dust instead of spreading it into the air with a dry duster. Many of the consumer products we use to clean our homes contain chemicals that can be harmful to our health, including solvents, disinfecting agents, surfactants, caustics, chlorine and artificial fragrances. EWG has many recipes for safer cleaning products on their website that you can make yourself. Also, look for bio-based cleaning products made from botanicals, minerals, forestry and marine extractions, as they are generally friendlier to us and the environment.
- FOOD STORAGE CONTAINERS: Store food in glass, ceramic, or stainless-steel containers. Avoid heating or microwaving food in plastic containers because most contain chemicals that will migrate or leach into food and drinks. Also avoid pottery or ceramic made outside the United States as they often contain lead. The same goes for containers made of pewter, brass, or lead crystal—they are directly linked to damage of the nervous system of the fetus. There are many steps you can take to protect yourself and your family from BPA & BPS. Avoid plastics labeled with the #7 recycling code, and do not use baby bottles or sippy cups made from polycarbonate plastic. Glass or stainless steel is always a safer alternative.
- PEST CARE: Be extremely careful around any pesticides and insect repellants (so many are toxic for multiple reasons). You can find many effective organic pesticide recipes on-line. For instance, when I have ants, I put out tiny cups with a couple tablespoons of borax and powdered sugar to kill the ants. Flea treatments can be especially toxic. If you are pregnant, try to have someone else use these on your pet if you are in need.
- EMF RADIATION: Natural and manmade wireless radiation are considered TOXIC, just as extreme heat can be toxic. There is growing research that shows that EMF radiation (the stuff in your cell phones, blue tooth and routers) can impact your baby. You can find information at the babysafeproject.org. In this modern world, we can’t avoid EMF exposure, but you can limit yours by keeping your phone away from your pregnant belly. Do not sleep with your phone in your bedroom, or at least turn it off at night. And protect your newborn baby by keeping your cell phone away from them, do not use a wireless baby monitor, or baby toys with wireless music. Use a wired headset when you are on the phone and keep it away from your head and genitals.
Do you have any advice for women who are not yet pregnant but who are hoping to become pregnant soon?
Think about your inputs and environment—all the sneaky toxins in and out of your home. Try to get in the habit of eating as clean as you can and get in the habit of using safe personal care and beauty products. Sweating is a great way to detox chemicals, so developing a healthy and rigorous exercise routine is smart. Think about any possible work-based exposures you may have. People in these lines of work are particularly vulnerable: farming, factory work, dry cleaning, beauty salons cleaning and custodial services, health care for humans and animals. You can check with your state OSHA office if you work in those fields to learn more about workplace safety. Finally, learn to put your cell phone on airplane mode when not in use and to keep it away from your head and private parts. Finally, develop some mindfulness practices to combat stress now because things only get more complicated with kiddos!
Lendri Purcell is the Vice President of Jonas Philanthropies and founder of Families Advocating for Chemical and Toxics Safety (FACTS). In her role at Jonas Philanthropies, Lendri drives the work of the Children’s Environmental Health program, tapping into her skills as a children’s rights advocate, community organizer, and seasoned funder. In addition to spearheading the Children’s Environmental Health Program, Lendri has created dozens of enrichment and education programs to address obstacles to student learning outside of the classroom, increase investments in East Bay youth, and strengthen the youth development community. Lendri has a Masters Degree in Learning and Instruction, and has advanced certifications in educational therapy and childhood trauma.