Heightened susceptibility: A review of how pregnancy and chemical exposures influence maternal health

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Scientists review pregnant peoples’ exposure to chemicals and the effects on their health, finding that pregnancy can heighten a person’s susceptibility to environmental chemicals and health risks.

Abstract: Pregnancy is a unique period when biological changes can increase sensitivity to chemical exposures. Pregnant women are exposed to multiple environmental chemicals via air, food, water, and consumer products, including flame retardants, plasticizers, and pesticides. Lead exposure increases risk of pregnancy-induced hypertensive disorders, although women’s health risks are poorly characterized for most chemicals. Research on prenatal exposures has focused on fetal outcomes and less on maternal outcomes. We reviewed epidemiologic literature on chemical exposures during pregnancy and three maternal outcomes: preeclampsia, gestational diabetes, and breast cancer. We found that pregnancy can heighten susceptibility to environmental chemicals and women’s health risks, although variations in study design and exposure assessment limited study comparability. Future research should include pregnancy as a critical period for women’s health. Incorporating biomarkers of exposure and effect, deliberate timing and method of measurement, and consistent adjustment of potential confounders would strengthen research on the exposome and women’s health.

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