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Chemicals to Avoid When Pregnant

By Carole Wegner ; Updated June 13, 2017

Some of the chemicals that you come into contact with through your food and water, in your home and at your workplace may be dangerous to your growing baby. Knowing which chemicals are dangerous during pregnancy and where they are in your environment can help you avoid them or minimize your exposure.

Heavy Metals

Heavy metals are a class of compounds that include lead, mercury and arsenic, and you should definitely avoid them during pregnancy.

Exposure to high levels of lead during pregnancy can cause miscarriage, pre-term delivery and low birth weight. Houses built before 1978 were painted with lead-based paints, which can be ingested or breathed if the paint is peeling or crumbling. Your water can be contaminated with lead if the plumbing in your house contains lead pipes or lead solder on copper pipes or brass faucets. Arts and crafts paints and some ceramic glazes may also contain lead. If you work as a painter, plumber, smelter or in an auto repair shop, you may be exposed to lead.

Mercury exposure can cause damage to a growing baby's nervous system, resulting in learning disabilities. You can ingest mercury by eating wild fish caught from mercury-contaminated water. Dental hygienists who mix mercury-containing amalgams for dental fillings may be exposed to mercury at higher levels. Working in some manufacturing plants or mines may also expose you to mercury.

Arsenic exposure during pregnancy can cause miscarriage, birth defects or stillbirths. High levels of arsenic are found naturally in rock in some geographic areas and may contaminate the local drinking water. Before 2003, arsenic was used routinely as a preservative in pressure treated lumber used for building decks and play structures. Exposure to arsenic is more likely if you work in manufacturing plants that make semiconductors or work with metal smelters.


Pesticides are poisons that should be avoided during pregnancy. Although exposures from typical home and garden use are usually low, exposure to large quantities of pesticides can cause miscarriage, pre-term delivery and birth defects. For example, Diethyltoluamide (DEET) is a pesticide commonly used in mosquito repellents. Pregnant women should minimize their use of DEET. If you must use DEET spray, spray your clothing and not your bare skin.

Organic Solvents

Organic solvents are commonly found in degreasers, paint thinners and varnish removers. Organic solvents include alcohols, toluene, benzene, xylene and ethers. Exposure to these solvents can cause major birth defects such as spina bifida, club foot and heart defects.

Glycol ethers are commonly used in semiconductor plants and are also used for photography and silk screening processes. Exposure to glycol ether increases your risk of miscarriage.

Xylene is an organic solvent often used in pathology laboratories to prepare tissue slides. Exposure to this solvent increases your risk of miscarriage. Using protection if you work in a lab that uses this type of solvent.

Toluene is found in spray paint, lacquers and glues. Huffing or breathing in these vapors to achieve a high is a common way to achieve toxic levels of this chemical. Fetal solvent syndrome is a medical condition caused by huffing that results in similar fetal problems as observed with fetal alcohol syndrome. Babies exposed to high levels of toluene are more likely to be born early with low birth weights and smaller heads due to incomplete brain development (microcephaly) and are more likely to die as newborns. If they survive, developmental delays are likely.

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