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Could a woman's job hurt her unborn child?

December 21, 2009 12:00:00 AM PST
Don't go switching yet, but this report might make you think about taking a few extra precautions. The findings from the National Birth Defects Prevention study finds women who are scientists or janitors were more likely to have children born with health concerns.Pregnant women do all they can to ensure they have a healthy baby. But what if your line of work put your fetus at risk? In a new study, mothers who were janitors, cleaners, scientists, and operators of electrical equipment were significantly more likely to have a child with a birth defect.

"Mothers that worked as janitors, cleaners or scientists, the study implies that they are at great risk for having children with neural tube defects," said family and prenatal medicine expert Dr. Juan Silva.

A neural tube defect is an opening in the brain or spinal cord that occurs early on in a pregnancy. Dr. Silva says the new study does not explain why these jobs are more hazardous, but previous research has shown a chemical exposure connection.

"Certain chemical exposure would put you at a greater risk for having children with neural tube defects," said Dr. Silva. "That's a logical implication, but of course the study didn't prove or ask that question."

The study was based on phone interviews with about 12,500 mothers between 1997 and 2003. Many had children with various defects including: ear, eye, gastrointestinal problems and cleft abnormalities.

Mothers were interviewed by phone about the kind of job that they had at the time they became pregnant to the end of their first trimester. Experts say this is a critical time for healthy fetal development.

"That's the most important phase of the pregnancy where any exposure to anything that be detrimental to the future of the infant," said Dr. Silva.

In the study, teachers were the least likely to have children with defects. Dr. Silva says if you do work at a job that exposes you to chemicals talk to your supervisor about what the chemicals are and how you can protect yourself. But he says all women of child bearing age should take folic acid daily.

"It's all about prevention and preparation and taking folic acid early on in the preconception state would be very, very important," said Dr. Silva.

This study was based on phone surveys and scientists need to do much more research before they can indeed say a woman's job can cause her child's birth defect. So, Dr. Silva says this is the beginning of the process of gathering information and the findings are too preliminary, but it underscores the need for women to concentrate on pre-conception health.