A pregnant woman's exposure to lead puts her unborn baby at risk. When she breathes or swallows lead, it goes into her blood. The lead then passes through the placenta into the baby and into the baby's developing bones and other organs like the brain.
A pregnant woman's past exposure to lead can also hurt the unborn baby. During pregnancy, calcium in her bones can be leached into the bloodstream, and when calcium leaves the pregnant mother's bones, so does lead. Calcium also comes from a new mother's bones to make breast milk. So breast milk may also contain lead.
A pregnant woman's blood lead level (BLL) tends to be higher during pregnancy because lead in her bones and teeth gets released into the blood. High levels of lead in the blood can increase the chances of miscarriages, stillbirths, and illnesses during pregnancy. Women found to have an elevated blood level should receive additional risk reduction counseling. There is currently no medical treatment universally recommended for women with elevated lead levels during pregnancy.
A slightly elevated blood lead level can cause developmental problems in unborn children. Children exposed to lead before birth may be born with damage to organs like the brain. They may be born early or underweight. They may not be fully developed when they are born, or they may die before or during birth.
Women who are planning to have a child can take some simple steps to keep themselves and their babies healthy. Some simple steps include:
- Testing for and controlling lead hazards in the home. Expecting parents should consider having their home inspected and made lead-safe, especially if the house was built before 1978
- Keeping a clean home. During pregnancy, it is important to keep the home clean and free of lead hazards. All household members should wash their hands before cooking and eating.
- Avoiding folk medicines and cosmetics. Pregnant women should not use certain cosmetics or medicines. Greta and Azarcon are two folk medicines used to treat an upset stomach that contain lead. Kohl and Surma are cosmetics that contain lead.
- Reducing lead exposures from hobbies and work. Pregnant women should avoid hobbies that expose them to lead, and if someone in the home works with lead on the job or as a hobby, he or she should shower and change clothes before going home to prevent bringing lead into the home.
- Eating healthy foods. The same foods that are recommended to ensure a healthy pregnancy also may help prevent lead from getting into the blood and harming the unborn baby. These include foods high in calcium, vitamin C, and iron.
- Using cold tap water. Cold water should be used only after it has been running from the tap until it is as cold as it gets. Lead from pipes or other plumbing parts is more likely to get into warm water. Only cold water should be used to make baby formula.
- Breast-feeding. Women who decide to breast-feed should talk to their healthcare providers. Breast-feeding provides many benefits to a baby, but women with high levels of lead in their bodies can put their babies at risk through lead in the breast milk. However, in most cases it is safe for a woman to breast-feed.
- Getting regular prenatal medical care. Pregnant women should make regular visits to their doctors. Healthcare providers can answer questions about lead exposure, and also give or order blood lead tests.