Exposure to toxic metals like nickel, lead can disrupt pregnancy

NEW BRUNSWICK, N.J. — Pregnant women already have a long list of substances to avoid, such as alcohol and caffeine. Now, researchers from Rutgers University recommend that all expecting mothers-to-be do their best to avoid exposure to toxic metals including nickel, lead, arsenic, and cobalt.

Researchers say exposure to such metals while pregnant may disrupt the mother’s hormones. This could potentially result in greater health and disease risks for the child.

It’s been known for some time that metal exposure among pregnant women is linked to complications like preterm birth or a particularly low birthweight for the baby. It can even lead to preeclampsia for the mother. Up until now, though, scientists couldn’t say why metal exposure has this effect.

How toxic metal harms the human body

The findings that some metals can disrupt pregnant woman’s endocrine system, which is responsible for hormone regulation, brings some much needed clarity to the topic.

“A delicate hormonal balance orchestrates pregnancy from conception to delivery and perturbations of this balance may negatively impact both mother and fetus,” says lead study author Zorimar Rivera-Núnez, an assistant professor in the Department of Biostatistics and Epidemiology at the Rutgers School of Public Health, in a university release.

Researchers analyzed blood and urine samples from 815 women during this project; all provided by the Puerto Rico Test site for Exploring Contamination Threats (PROTECT) study. The PROTECT study is an ongoing initiative focusing on the effect of environmental factors on pregnant women and their babies.

The results reveal that for pregnant women, metals appear to act as “endocrine disruptors” which change prenatal hormone concentrations during pregnancy. The severity of those changes depends on when during a pregnancy a woman comes into contact with toxic metals.

What impact does this have for the baby?

Troublingly, metal exposure for mom can have lifelong implications for the child. Scientists have connected sex hormone changes during pregnancy to diminished foot growth among offspring. This is also why lower-than-average birth weights are a common complication. Researchers consider babies born underweight to be at higher risk of developing chronic diseases later on like cancer and obesity.

“Puerto Rico has one of the highest rates of Superfund sites of any of the U.S. jurisdictions with 18 active sites, which can contribute to the higher rates of exposure to toxic metals,” Rivera-Núnez notes.

For what it’s worth, researchers believe the risk of metal exposure among women living in Puerto Rico is higher than it is for women living in the continental United States.

“This is important because, compared to the U.S. overall, women in Puerto Rico have significantly higher rates of preterm birth [nearly 12 percent] and other adverse birth outcomes. Additionally, exposure to environmental pollution is exacerbated by extreme weather events, such as hurricanes, droughts and flooding, which may result in elevated exposures to Superfund sites,” Rivera-Núnez concludes.

The study is published in Environment International.

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