Pesticides exposure during pregnancy

Bug sprays, insect repellents, and other chemicals may rid your home or yard of bothersome insects, but at what cost? New research from the American Pregnancy Association (APA) finds unborn babies to be among the most vulnerable to the harmful effects of pesticides, especially when exposure takes place during the first trimester when the neural tube and nervous system are forming.

What are pesticides? 

Pesticides are chemical products used to control or destroy harmful or annoying pests. More than 1 billion tons of pesticide products are used each year in the United States alone, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). 

How does exposure occur? 

People are exposed to chemical pesticides in three main ways: inhaling them, absorbing them through the skin, or ingesting them by mouth. Typical sources include food grown with the use of pesticides, tap water containing trace amounts of pesticides used in agriculture, and use of pesticides in the home (e.g., bug sprays, insect repellents, and other pest control products).

What are the effects of pesticide exposure during pregnancy? 

Mounting evidence supports the link between pesticide exposure during pregnancy and adverse neurologic and cognitive outcomes in children. For example, a University of California, Berkeley, study found that exposure to one type of pesticide (organophosphates) during pregnancy was linked to earlier delivery, an increase in abnormal reflexes in the infants, poorer mental development at 24 months of age, and increased risk of developmental disorder. 

Another study by the Harvard School of Public Health found that children born to mothers who were exposed to different a group of pesticides, organochlorines, during pregnancy had an increased level of behaviors associated with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). 

A third study published in 2011 in Pediatrics revealed that pyrethroids, another type of insecticide, also pose significant risks to developing fetuses. In fact, researchers argue that the effects of these chemicals on a child’s IQ are similar to those of lead exposure. 

How can pregnant women minimize their exposure to pesticides? 

One significant way to reduce exposure to chemical pesticides is to choose organic fruits and vegetables whenever possible. Since organic foods can be more costly, pregnant women can make the most of their food dollars by buying organic versions of only the produce most likely to contain significant amounts of pesticides. See this list of “dirty dozen” fruits and vegetables, and check out the “clean 15,” produce considered safe to consume in nonorganic form.

What can pregnant women do to prevent or eliminate pests in the home? 

The APA recommends that pregnant women avoid using pesticides in or around their homes. The following steps can help prevent pest problems from developing:

  • Eat only in designated areas, such as kitchens or dining rooms, to keep crumbs and spills from attracting pests. 
  • Seal cracks and crevices around the home to keep bugs and other pests out. 
  • Use trashcans that have lids and liners to help contain food particles and crumbs. 
  • Store food properly to minimize the attraction of bugs.

If, despite these efforts, pest problems arise, consider these tips for more natural pest control from the Columbia Center for Children’s Environmental Health, which received the Environmental Protection Agency’s 2005 Children’s Environmental Health Excellence Award: 

  • Avoid using sprays, bombs, or fogs. Instead, try lower-toxicity pest controls such as bait or sticky traps. 
  • Use borax and sugar or Epsom salts to combat a roach problem. 
  • Opt for natural or organic pesticide products if possible.

If chemical pesticides must be used, the following guidelines can help reduce pregnant women’s exposure: 

  • Assign someone else to spray or apply the pesticides to minimize inhalation or contact with the skin. 
  • Vacate the area as directed on the pesticide package. 
  • Remove food, dishes, and utensils from the area before using a pesticide. 
  • Wash the area where food is prepared following any application of pesticides. 
  • Open windows and allow the house to ventilate after applying a chemical pesticide. 
  • Wear gloves or other protective clothing when gardening to prevent contact with plants that have pesticides on them.

Last updated March 2, 2021

Suggested Reads