THE WORLD IS NOT ALWAYS A SAFE PLACE FOR MOTHERS AND BABIES. THERE ARE CHEMICALS AND POLLUTANTS IN THE ENVIRONMENT THAT CAN ADVERSELY AFFECT THEM. PREGNANT CRAFTSPEOPLE ALSO MUST BE CONCERNED ABOUT HAZARDOUS CHEMICALS IN THEIR MATERIALS.
Awareness is the first part of the solution
During pregnancy, a woman's blood volume will increase and the iron in her blood will decrease. This makes her more vulnerable to toxic chemicals such as lead and carbon monoxide that cause anemia. Since she will breathe more air to supply oxygen to the fetus, she will also breathe more dust and fumes.
Despite the mother's susceptibility, however, it is the fetus that is most vulnerable to toxic substances. It can sustain two major types of damage:
1. Birth defects can be caused by chemicals or drugs which alter the development of organs. This means birth defects only occur in the first three months of pregnancy as the organs are forming.
2. Toxic effects are various kinds of "poisoning" which can occur at any stage of pregnancy and even after birth. For example, lead can damage brain function at any time from early in conception even through adulthood. But it is the fetus that is most susceptible.
Chemicals in craft materials
A vast array of chemicals are used in art and craft materials -- there are more than 2,000 dyes and about 300 pigments. More than 45 different metals and their many compounds are used in metal working, ceramics, glass and related crafts.
Hundreds of chemical solvents can be used to thin hundreds of different natural and synthetic resins, oils and waxes in various paints, inks, varnishes, glues, adhesives and fixatives. Photochemicals number in the thousands. If we count the chemical additives used to modify all these products, then the chemicals artists use number in the tens of thousands.
Only a tiny fraction of these substances have been studied for reproductive effects. For example, a recent study showed that one third of pregnant IBM computer chip workers miscarried after exposure to very small amounts of chemicals called primary glycol ethers. These same chemicals were used in the 1980s in many water-based printmaking inks, latex paints, liquid dyes, felt tip pens and spray paints.
Today, those same art products may contain glycol ethers that are closely related to those used at IBM, but whose effects are not as well-studied. Until more is known, it is wise to avoid unnecessary exposure to these and other art materials.
Manufacturers are only required to label their product's known hazards. Since most of the chemicals in art materials have never been studied for their effects on reproduction, lack of label warnings should not be taken as proof that they are safe. Even the "non-toxic" label should not prompt casual use of any product during pregnancy.
The term "solvent" is applied to liquids that usually dry faster than water
and that are used to thin products such as paints, inks, cleaners, paint
strippers and aerosol sprays. The solvent for which we have the most data is
ethyl alcohol, since we also drink it in alcoholic beverages. Alcohol
consumption causes almost all the adverse reproductive effects including:
Alcohol also can be absorbed into the body by inhalation when it evaporates from alcohol-containing products such as shellacs, lacquer thinners and inks.
However, alcohol is the least toxic of the solvents. It takes much less of other more toxic solvents to cause adverse effects. Alcohol and all other solvents have many characteristics in common. Most notably, they all are narcotics at some level of exposure. "Glue sniffers" have proven that they can get high -- and even die -- from inhaling vapors from any solvent product: glue, gasoline or spray paints.
Both by inhalation and ingestion, the narcotic effects of solvents and alcohol can damage the fetus' nervous system. Drinking alcohol during pregnancy can cause problems in the fetus, ranging from minor learning difficulties to severe facial deformities and mental retardation, depending on the amount to which the fetus was exposed. Now it seems likely that most solvents are capable of causing similar effects.
Solvents that come from trees or plants are not innately safer and can cause effects similar to those of alcohol. Alcohol, after all, can be made from fermented grain. Turpentine and citrus solvent (d-limonene) are examples of highly toxic natural solvents. Some natural solvents such as linalool (also from citrus) are essentially unstudied. Some natural plant extracts such as caster oil and acacia were used in the past to abort pregnancies. The word "natural" on a product label should not dissuade craftspeople from asking manufacturers to identify these chemicals and provide material safety data sheets.
Metals and their compounds abound in art materials. In terms of reproductive outcome, metals can be considered either as "minerals" needed for good health (e.g., zinc, calcium or iron) or as "heavy" or "toxic" metals which should be avoided (e.g., lead, cadmium or arsenic). Only a handful of metals have been evaluated for their effects on reproduction (see Table 1).
Metals in the form of minerals are needed by the body in dramatically varying amounts (see Table 2). Some are needed in only very small amounts since they are also toxic. For example, chromium and cobalt are needed by the body in minute amounts, but are toxic and possibly cancer-causing in larger amounts.
Metals (minerals) and nutrition
A healthy pregnancy depends on a proper balance of food, vitamins and minerals. However, there is still much to learn about the effects of vitamins and minerals. For example, it was discovered only recently that a slight deficiency in folic acid increases the risk of neural tube defects in the fetus. Despite the lack of complete knowledge about nutrition, pregnancy is not the proper time to greatly alter the diet or to experiment with herbs, health foods and metal-containing mineral supplements.
Good reproductive health requires ingesting a proper balance of only those metals needed by the body. This is impossible if metals and minerals are being added to the body by exposure to dusts and fumes from working in the studio.
Craftspeople also use some metals in their work about which we know very little. Included are germanium, erbium, niobium and palladium. Some of these are used in metal patinas, neon art and historic photo processes. One especially toxic chemical used in some patinas is tellurium. This highly toxic metal is very likely to be harmful to the fetus as well.
Lead: a special problem
Lead can interfere with almost every phase of male and female reproduction. Lead can affect the fetus at all stages and can affect the development of the child even after it is born.
Adverse effects on mental acuity as measured by IQ tests have been shown to occur in children when blood lead levels reach 10 micrograms per deciliter (10 µg/dL). More subtle effects on mental acuity are suspected to occur at even lower levels. The younger the child, the more destructive lead is to mental function. And most vulnerable of all is the fetus.
Blood lead levels of 10 µg/dL are considered safe in adults. But if this adult is pregnant, the fetus' blood lead level is roughly the same. This does not mean that the child born to such a woman will be retarded. Instead, it means that children born to these women may have slightly less mental capacity than they would have if they had not been affected by lead.
Other effects of lead levels below 10 µg/dL on young children include decreased growth rate, decreased hearing acuity, decreased ability to maintain a steady posture, and neurobehavioral developmental problems. Now new studies indicate that antisocial behavior may be associated with lead exposure.
Animal studies also indicate that the lead to which the fetus is exposed may actually have been deposited in the mother's bones many years before. Now there is a human study of this phenomenon.
Researchers at Macquarie University in Sidney, Australia, studied 13 women who had recently immigrated to Australia from the former Yugoslavia and then became pregnant. The lead to which they were exposed in the Balkans, and which was stored in their bones, has a different molecular weight from the lead in Australia. As their pregnancies progressed, their blood contained greater amounts of the Balkan lead, peaking during the second and third trimesters. By the end of the pregnancy, as much as 60 percent of the total amount of lead in the blood came from the women's own bones.
Children and young women must be protected from lead exposure to protect them from lead's toxic effects and to prevent them from passing this lead on to their children.
According to some experts, male children are now conceived and born into a virtual "sea of estrogens" -- chemicals that mimic the female hormone estrogen.
Research indicates that estrogenic chemicals cause adverse reproductive
effects and birth defects in male birds, fish and mammals. Experts theorize that
humans may be showing similar effects including:
The estrogenic chemicals can also affect females and are associated with
increased rates of breast and other cancers, with premature births and
inter-uterine growth retardation. Substances that either mimic estrogen or alter
hormone function which craftspeople may encounter include:
There are many other chemicals used in art materials which may have reproductive effects such as formaldehyde or chemicals which are emitted by art processes such as carbon monoxide from kilns. It is also likely that there are serious threats to the fetus among the thousands of chemicals in art materials which have never been studied for reproductive and developmental effects.
There is ample evidence that certain lifestyle practices will harm the fetus. Included are smoking, drinking and recreational drug-taking. For artists, avoidance of these practices is especially important. Smoking exacerbates the damage caused by inhaling dusts and fumes in the studio. Drinking alcohol adds to the effects caused by exposure to other solvents. Drugs that alter brain chemistry often interact adversely with solvents and other art material ingredients.
Monona Rossol, M.S., M.F.A., is a chemist, artist, and industrial hygienist. She is the founder and president of ACTS (Arts, Crafts and Theater Safety), a not-for-profit corporation based in New York City and dedicated to providing health and safety services to the arts. Contact ACTS at: 181 Thompson St., #23, New York, NY 10012-2586; (212) 777-0062; e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
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