Study links chemical overexposure to birth defects
March 23, 1999
From Medical Correspondent Elizabeth Cohen
(CNN) -- Chemicals used by millions of women in the workplace have been linked in a recent Canadian study to birth defects, according to an article in the March 24 Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA).
"Our study showed that women who worked with organic solvents throughout pregnancy or in a large part of their pregnancy, have more chance of having kids with malformations and with complications around the time of birth when compared with women not working with chemicals," said pediatrician and toxicologist Gideon Koren, one of the study authors.
Organic solvents are common chemicals found in many products such as paint and turpentine.
The study, conducted at the Hospital for Sick Children and the University of Toronto in Canada, looked at pregnant women in professions with high exposure to organic solvents. These included: factory workers; laboratory technicians; professional artists or graphic designers; printing industry workers; chemists; painters; office workers who work around chemicals; car cleaners; veterinary technicians; orthotic manufacturers; funeral home employees; carpenters; and social workers who were exposed to such materials.
According to the researches, this study is the first to look at women during their pregnancies in an effort to evaluate the pregnancy and the fetal outcome following exposure by the expectant mother to organic solvents.
The study looked at 125 women who were exposed to solvents during the first trimester of their pregnancies as well as 125 women in a control group.
There were 13 major malformation in the babies of women who were exposed to organic solvents at work. By comparison, there was only one child born with a major malformation to a woman who did not work with solvents.
The birth defects included low birth weight, deafness, spina bifida and club foot.
The study authors do not think pregnant women who work with solvents need to quit their jobs. They said this is because all 13 of women who had babies with birth defects were not just exposed to solvents, but had presented symptoms of overexposure. These symptoms were: eye or respiratory irritation, breathing problems, or headaches.
Out of the 125 who were exposed to organic solvents, 75 complained of symptoms of overexposure.
According to the JAMA study, women who use solvents occasionally do not seem to be at risk.
"The only problem really is with occupational exposure where day in, day out, women are exposed to these potentially very harmful chemicals," said Koren. "It does not apply to women who are painting a room or doing very brief exposures to organic solvents in the household."
But still more research remains to be done says Emory University epidemiologist and environmental physician Howard Frumkin.
"What are the vulnerable periods during pregnancy? How low do you have to get before exposures are safe? Is there a safe level? What are the most dangerous solvents?" Frumkin asked.
For now, the authors recommend workers take precautions to minimize their exposure when using organic solvents.
For example, women should always work with solvents under a ventilation hood, wear a mask and glove, and the workplace should be kept well ventilated.
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