Modernizing Prenatal Care for Healthy, Toxic-Free Babies

by Alexandra Destler, Director, SafetyNEST Science

My journey to SafetyNEST Science started many years ago. The first “seed” planted on my path was when I was in graduate school, working on a final paper focused on understanding the incentives and deterrents to “greening the chemical industry” for a class at Harvard Center for Health and the Global Environment at Harvard Medical School. I stumbled upon the alarming statistic that more than 85,000 chemicals surround us daily, in everything from our mattresses to frying pans and shampoo bottles. Hundreds of new chemicals are introduced into consumer products every year. And here’s the catch: The EPA has only tested +/- 200 for health and safety. Seriously?!

Fast forward to a few years later, working on environmental health issues after leaving Harvard. I hadn’t fully awakened to the 85,000 gorilla in the room until I became a mom. I recall staring at the vinyl bathmat I’d put down to give my then tiny daughter a bath. I wondered whether the chemicals in vinyl leech over time in warm water, and whether this could be a bad thing for my child, or even for me. I searched the web and got lost down many rabbit holes, frustrated at how hard it was to find clear, credible and concise information about vinyl and other common toxic chemicals found in the home. The simple guidance and safer options I was looking for didn’t exist. As time progressed, I had the same experience wondering about sippy cups, nap mats, lunch boxes, and a myriad of personal care products. 

I did more research and learned that toxic chemicals have a major impact on pregnancy, childhood diseases, adult diseases and morbidity. Lead mercury, phthalates, Bisphenol A, flame retardants, Teflon, and pesticides are among the chemicals of concern with increasing evidence of widespread exposures and potential health risks, particularly during vulnerable periods of development. These serious health problems include cancer, obesity, diabetes, asthma, ADHD and other behavioral and cognitive problems. Immediate health impacts include miscarriage, preterm birth and birth defects. Unlike pharmaceuticals, and because of deficiencies in the current regulatory structure, most chemicals have entered the marketplace without comprehensive information regarding their impact on human reproductive health.

In voicing these concerns to other moms-to-be and new moms in my home town of Berkeley, CA, I was surprised to be met with many blank stares. Our supposedly-progressive community showed little to no awareness of the potential threats to our health and wellbeing. I kept asking, and experienced a shared frustration or a lack of knowledge fromwomen across the country, regardless of ethnicity or economic status. 

The third trigger that propelled me to start SafetyNEST was reading the first nationwide report conducted in 2015 by UCSF that found that few reproductive health care professionals counsel pregnant women about the risks of chemical exposures. This is due primarily to a lack of training, tools, and expertise. In fact, only 1 in 15 doctors has been trained in toxic chemicals, and only 1 in 5 talk to their patients about it. It’s just not top of their list, yet.

It struck me that we are missing two critical opportunities:

  • To educate pregnant women with simple health-based messaging –– while they are uniquely motivated to make important lifestyle and behavior changes to promote the health of their pregnancy; and 
  • To equip health care professionals (obstetricians, nurses, midwives, doulas, and other prenatal clinicians) with evidence-based tools to counsel patients about reducing exposures to environmental chemicals both in the preconception period and prenatally. 

With that, SafetyNEST was born, founded on a commitment to modernize prenatal care for healthy, toxic-free babies. The SafetyNEST Science mission is to educate the medical community and moms-to-be about the health risks associated with exposure to toxic chemicals, especially during vulnerable periods of development, in order to reduce the incidence of preventable diseases linked to toxic chemical exposure, particularly for women most at risk.

Many toxic chemicals disproportionately impact at-risk populations, leaving underserved women more susceptible to adverse impacts and less likely to have access to evidence-based messaging to reduce exposures. The impacts of chemical exposure can be exacerbated by other factors, including stress, nutritional status, housing quality, and poverty. Immigrant populations may disproportionately work in occupations associated with hazardous workplace environments. 

Partners in our mission include UCSF Program on Reproductive Health and the Environment, Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai Children’s Environmental Health Center and American Medical Women’s Association. 

SafetyNEST Science activities include raising awareness about the health risks associated with toxic chemical exposure through outreach, marketing and social media, and educational materials. We’ve just completed the first in a series of SafetyNEST Science Healthy Home Tips Sheets: tips for the nursery and tips for the bathroom, and we plan to continue developing these Healthy Home resources targeted at women of color, and making these tips available and easily accessible in different languages. We’re thrilled to have received the endorsement of Alliance of Nurses for Healthy Environments and our partners at Mount Sinai Children’s Environmental Health Center.

We also provide the most current environmental health research to our sister benefit corporation, mySafetyNEST, Inc., a one-stop app and website in development designed to deliver personalized guidance to families on what to avoid and better choices to reduce toxic exposures in the home. 

My daughters are now in their preteen and teen years. The vinyl bathmat was replaced long ago with a safe, natural rubber mat. But the journey continues. My daughters now ask me if a face cream or mascara is safe. They’re aware of the 85,000 pound gorilla. I’ve met too many women on this path with infertility challenges, children with cognitive issues and childhood disease, and too many women with cancer. My own recent, and thankfully very treatable, bout with breast cancer has only strengthened my resolve to expand SafetyNEST’s reach and impact to support healthier, toxic free babies for all women and families. It’s time to safeguard the next generation. We hope you will join us!