Researchers Find Previously Undetected Chemicals in Pregnant Women, Newborns

Klaus Vedfelt / Getty Images

Researchers found human-made chemicals in blood samples taken from umbilical cords and pregnant women. We’re exposed to these substances by eating and drinking foods that have been in contact with container…

Klaus Vedfelt / Getty Images
  • Researchers found human-made chemicals in blood samples taken from umbilical cords and pregnant women.
  • We’re exposed to these substances by eating and drinking foods that have been in contact with containers and personal care products containing the chemicals.
  • Researchers emphasize that stronger chemical policies are needed in the United States to solve this problem.

Researchers at the University of California San Francisco (UCSF) analyzed the blood of newborns and pregnant women and found 55 chemicals previously undetected in people, according to a recently published study in the journal Environmental Science & Technology.

There were 30 San Francisco-area women and their babies involved in the research.

Researcher disturbed by findings

The UCSF researchers used high-resolution mass spectrometry (HRMS) to identify the human-made chemicals in blood samples taken from umbilical cords and pregnant women.  

Tracey Woodruff, PhD, study author and professor, OB-GYN, reproductive sciences, University of California San Francisco, told Healthline that the goal was to find better ways to detect chemicals in the environment and people.

She added that though not surprised with the findings, she still considered it “disturbing.”

“Unfortunately, [we were] not surprised by the total number of chemicals as we've suspected they've been there. We've just struggled to identify them,” she said. “The number of mystery chemicals that we can't identify sources or uses for is very disturbing.”

Formerly an Environmental Protection Agency scientist, Woodruff also directs UCSF’s Program on Reproductive Health and the Environment (PRHE) and its Environmental Research and Translation for Health (EaRTH) Center.

Tracking these chemicals is problematic

Dr. Kenneth Spaeth, division chief, occupational and environmental medicine, at Northwell Health in New York, said the list of chemicals included in this category is very long — and much of the time, these chemicals are all variations on a “molecular theme.”

“Meaning that, for example, phthalates or BPA, there’s a lot of chemicals for which there’s a lot of different versions of similar chemicals and they behave similarly.” He said. “Trying to keep track of all of them is really hard.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), phthalates are a group of chemicals used to make plastics more flexible and harder to break.

BPA is used in items that include drink containers, plastic dinnerware, and toys.

We’re exposed to these substances by eating and drinking foods that have been in contact with containers and products containing the chemical.

Endocrine disruptors are a health risk

“Phthalates are certainly among the ones of concern. I mentioned BPA, but there’s a number of other categories,” said Spaeth. “There are pesticides used regularly in food agriculture that can function as endocrine disruptors.”

Many chemicals used in the packaging can migrate into food or the product itself, he said. Also, some chemicals are used in the personal product itself.

“These all become fair game for raising the risk,” he said. “Tracking them and figuring out where they’re coming from is problematic.”

He said this study may help physicians understand where exposure is coming from.

“One of the many things the study helps highlight is that there’s these unidentified sources [that] become sort of symptomatic of the bigger issue of these high-production chemicals that are used in so many things, so many places and in so many ways that it’s a very difficult to manage,” he continued.

Spaeth added that he considers the ones mentioned in the study among the most concerning. But he noted that people are also exposed to many pesticides, like atrazine and perchlorate. Also, flame-retardants and heavy metals can affect health.

“The list goes on and on,” he said.

Manufacturers may hinder identification process

According to a UCSF press release, although these chemicals can be tentatively identified using chemical libraries, they can be confirmed only by comparing them with the pure chemicals manufacturers produce that are known as “analytical standards.” It's information they don’t always make available.

“We had to do some real detective work as the industry, in many cases, doesn't provide standards to identify the chemicals,” said Woodruff. “So we have to say we found evidence of these chemicals.”

Why it’s hard to avoid exposure

Spaeth detailed the difficulty of avoiding chemical compound exposure.

“I think the key thing is that, even if one chooses to try to avoid exposure, it’s an extraordinarily difficult thing to do,” he said.

Spaeth explained that avoiding exposure is difficult because of widespread chemical use and the sheer number of different chemicals in our environment. Also, consumers have little information about which products contain which chemicals.

”There’s almost no way for consumers to really try and maneuver their way through this if they’re seeking to try to avoid these chemicals,” he said.

Stronger chemical policies are needed

“We need much stronger chemical policies in the United States,” said Woodruff.

She said we’ve allowed companies to put these chemicals into commerce, in products, and our homes without ensuring they’re safe.

“So we're playing catch up years later. Keep in mind, we are finding all of these chemicals in the newborns as well,” she said. This means these chemicals are being passed on for generations, Woodruff added.

“I think we are, unfortunately, seeing the effects of that in terms of drop in sperm count and fertility, increase in ADHD, and so on,” she said.

The bottom line

New research finds chemicals never before detected in people after analyzing blood samples from pregnant women and newborns.

Experts say these chemicals include phthalates and BPA, two identified as endocrine disruptors that can significantly affect health. They also say that avoiding these chemicals is “problematic” because there are so many of them, and they’re used in many commonly used products.

Researchers emphasized that these chemicals may be passed on for generations and that stronger chemical policies are needed in the United States to solve this problem.