image by cyborgsuzy
I’ve gone back and forth, and forth and back about whether or not to write this post. I finally decided to put it out there and let you all do what you want with the information. This is our story. Jenna’s story. My anger. My guilt.
Buckle in – it’s a long story.
Around week 5 of my pregnancy, we were living in an awesome condominium in a restored historic building in the downtown of a large-ish city. The building was brick, and, although condos were on the top three floors, the basement was still being finished. One day I noticed a fairly strong chemical/fume smell throughout the building, and asked about it. I was told that they were spraying sealant on the bricks in the basement, but that they were venting the fumes out, so no worries. As the days stretched on, the smell became stronger and then lingered. And lingered. From the moment it started, I expressed my concern to PsychDaddy. Breathing in these fumes couldn’t be healthy for ANYONE, but especially not a pregnant woman. I was seriously worried about our baby. PsychDaddy listened politely, but largely worked to reassure me that I was most likely overreacting and they surely couldn’t be spraying a chemical in an occupied building if it wasn’t safe. It’s hard to describe how strong this smell was with words. It was definitely stronger near the building’s main hallway, and our bedroom was positioned right beside that hallway. I was concerned enough that I slept in our living room (the room farthest from the hallway) with a window cracked open and the ceiling fan on. Several times, I suggested moving into a hotel until the work was completed. The cost and inconvenience kept us from this option. The smell lasted for around 3 weeks.
A week or so after the smell ended, I happened to be riding in the elevator with the man in charge of the basement work. I commented on how awful the smell and fumes had been and that I was concerned because I was pregnant. The man’s face, visibly shifted/paled, and he looked very uncomfortable. He said (and I clearly remember), “NO ONE should have been breathing those fumes – especially not a pregnant woman.” This really irritated me at the time, but grad school concerns and the excitement of pregnancy quickly outweighed the irritation. The weeks of my pregnancy went by uneventfully, with no more thoughts of the fumes. Another woman in our building, we’ll call her Beth, announced her pregnancy. She was just a couple weeks behind me, and we enjoyed sharing our excitement and nervousness.
I was nearing month six of my pregnancy when Beth lost her baby. They were devastated. They had gone in for her ultrasound and learned that the baby had died. They had to induce labor and deliver at the hospital. They knew that they wanted to have more children, so they requested an autopsy to determine whether genetic problems led to the loss of the baby. They were relieved to learn there was no genetic reason for their loss. Doctors told them it was simply a birth defect in the heart with no known cause. I was shocked and saddened for them, and also more nervous about my own first pregnancy.
A week or two later, with Beth’s tragedy still fresh in my mind, I started having back pain and an occasional feeling of cramping in my abdomen. I called my OB and learned that I had started having contractions.
Let’s just summarize a bit, in the interest of time, and tell you that the contractions continued until Jenna was born. I endured multiple injections to attempt to stop them, took meds every day, visited labor & delivery multiple times for assessment, had one ER visit, got labeled “high risk,” went on bed rest, started seeing a Perinatologist, had frequent ultrasounds (abdominal & vaginal), endured multiple amnio-reductions, and learned that Jenna had an intestinal defect known as an atresia. She would require surgery within days of her birth.
I couldn’t help wondering about that exposure to the chemical fumes. I still can’t help but wonder. It seems like too large a coincidence that both pregnant women in that building had babies that developed defects. One fatal. One that could have been. Beth’s baby’s exposure would have been around the critical developmental stage for the heart. Jenna’s exposure would have been at the critical developmental stage of her gastrointestinal system.
We asked the surgeons in the hospital what causes intestinal atresia (Jenna ended up having a triple atresia, by the way), and they said the most common correlation/suspected cause is teratogenic. Specifically: cocaine use during pregnancy. We assured them that this was not an issue in our case, and asked about the possibility of the brick sealant causing the problem. They said it’s certainly possible. It’s also a chemical teratogen, and would have been introduced via maternal inhalation. There would be no real way to determine or prove cause, however. It’s all conjecture.
I still struggle sometimes with the guilt. If only I would have just stayed somewhere else… If only I would have been more assertive with demanding information from the work crew or condo management… If only. If only. Most of the time, if I think about it, I’m just angry. This shouldn’t be happening, and it happens far too often. We’re far to reckless with the use of toxic chemicals in our world, and the cost is far too high.
I finally decided to publish this post after stumbling across this article detailing a study linking serious (intestinal) birth defects to exposure to chemical herbicide used commonly in agriculture. My hope is that maybe sharing my voice and Jenna’s story will help raise awareness. That it will maybe help someone else think twice. Think twice about the toxic chemicals they’re using. Think twice about the babies they’re carrying. Think twice about caring for the world.
Edited to add: For more information on the chemicals in everyday products, check out these websites:
Skin Deep: Cosmetic Safety Database (all cosmetics including soaps, shampoos, suntan lotion, etc. for adults and kids)