Labor Pains: Common Workplace Chemicals Increase Risk of Birth Defects


New research published in the recent issue of the journal Epidemiology finds evidence of a connection between pregnant women exposed to certain solvents and an increased risk of birth defects.

Conducted by the National Institute of Health and Medical Research in Rennes, France, the researchers looked at urine samples and relied on self-reported exposure by the women whose occupations required interactions with chemical-based solvents.

Fewer than 3 percent of the 3,000 pregnant women in the study reported giving birth to children with defects, according to the data collected by the French research team. Forty-five percent of the women whose babies were born with major defects also reported routine exposure to chemical solvents in their workplace. The most common jobs reporting the increased risk of birth defect included nurses, chemists, cleaners, and hairdressers while only 28 percent of women who had babies without defects reported regular exposure to chemicals at work.

The culprits are common chemical ingredients found in a number of household products and include bleach and bleach-derived products along with glycol ethers, which are common in cleaning products, cosmetics, hair treatments and paints.

The study’s results piggyback on other research that has connected exposure to toxic chemicals with an increased risk of birth defects. And according to this latest study’s lead researcher, Sylvaine Cordier, “These results identify work situations that require further investigation.” Other sources of concern for increased risk of birth defects range from ingredients in common household items to pesticides common on non-organic food and chemicals used in food packaging.

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Jill Ettinger

Jill Ettinger is a Los Angeles-based journalist and editor focused on the global food system and how it intersects with our cultural traditions, diet preferences, health, and politics. She is the senior editor for sister websites and, and works as a research associate and editor with the Cornucopia Institute, the organic industry watchdog group. Jill has been featured in The Huffington Post, MTV, Reality Sandwich, and Eat Drink Better.