Birth Defects from Toxic Chemicals

24 Feb
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:

Household Products Database

Skin Deep: Cosmetic Safety Database (all cosmetics including soaps, shampoos, suntan lotion, etc. for adults and kids)


19 responses to “Birth Defects from Toxic Chemicals

  1. But Why Mommy

    February 24, 2010 at 7:54 am

    Oh hon I am so sorry.

  2. Issa

    February 24, 2010 at 8:00 am

    Oh honey. I have no words that help and absolutely no judgements. As parents we do the best we can and our best isn’t always good enough. I wish I could give you a huge hug.

    You can’t change the past friend. There is no way to know for sure and even if you’d left when you thought about it, you’d already breathed in tons of that chemical.

    You can however try and change the future. By talking about it, you are trying to do just that.

  3. Suzanne

    February 24, 2010 at 8:03 am

    Oh my goodness! I can certainly identify having lost my daughter Emma to Trisomy-18… I searched for many answers after being told it was just some fluke… I blamed my lifestyle, the unawareness of the terotogens around me… thanks for telling your story.

  4. Jaded Perspective

    February 24, 2010 at 8:41 am

    There is NO way to know for sure, and you CAN NOT beat yourself up. Seriously, it’s just like you told me today about Mason, practice what you preach. LOL Kidding.
    Seriously though, whatever the cause, one of the reasons I love you so much is your super hero commitment to J and her needs. And not only that spreading awareness, learning as much as you can, and helping so many others.
    You are a wonderful dream of a mother, and never forget it. J should remind you daily, just watch how awesome she is, you did all of that FOR SURE.

  5. avasmommy

    February 24, 2010 at 8:48 am

    I heard this saying once, and it really stuck with me: You do the best you can with what you know. When you know better, you do better.

    Honestly? You may never know for certain if those fumes caused Jenna’s defect. And frankly, you shouldn’t beat yourself up over it either. Which, trust me I KNOW is way easier said than done. However, you can’t change the past, all you can do is live in the present and work for a better future.

    Luckily, Jenna has a dedicated, smart and loving mother who will fight for her and be an advocate. If one person, just ONE reads this and makes a change that saves a life, telling this story is worth it.

  6. jessica

    February 24, 2010 at 9:16 am

    I have to tell you. I am not surprised. money is what it is all about and screw anyone who tries to get in the way. You did what you could afford to do, I would have likely done the same. Sadly, many of us are not in a position to just pick up and move out for these reasons. I just get so angry when people like about this stuff.

  7. Kirsten

    February 24, 2010 at 9:53 am

    Wow. It is so easy to second guess yourself. You would think that they would warn residents about the chemicals. But how were you to know?? You are an incredible mom and Jenna is lucky to have you.

  8. Heather

    February 24, 2010 at 7:16 pm

    First, you know this isn’t your fault. You have to know that in your heart. Mommy guilt sucks. It really does.

    That said, there is definitely a correlation between chemicals and diseases…like, cocaine and stuff like that! (do you hear my giggle!) Jenna is blessed to have you and PsychDaddy for parents. You have done more for that child than others will ever do for their children.

    And her problems…have become “normal” in your world. You have become a stronger person, woman, and mother because of it. Don’t forget that.

    I know it took a lot for you to write this. And I am super proud of you…xoxoxo with all the love in the world!

  9. Becky @TheRealBecks

    February 24, 2010 at 7:31 pm

    i agree with what everyone else said…there was no way you could have known and mommy guilt always hits hard…even if we know that. hugs.

  10. mel

    February 24, 2010 at 8:14 pm

    I have to echo everyone else and say you cannot beat yourself up because there is no way to be sure. I’m happy to know you. You are a wealth of information, although I’m sorry for what sparked your interest and concern. I try to do my best with researching and checking product labels, eating organic etc. Sometimes I fail. There is always a what if in any situation I think. That sucks and I have a hard time accepting that. You are doing your best. Thank you so much for posting this, it took guts.

  11. Tricia

    February 25, 2010 at 6:52 am

    Wow. That was really scary to read. To think that they could have exposed you and others to that toxins and put your precious baby’s life at risk. But, regarding guilt, don’t. You did everything you should have and had no way of knowing. The guilt lies with the people who allowed you to live there and exposed you. I am so, so, sorry that this is possibly the cause of J’s issues, but there is no liability on your part. You are a great mother and there is nothing that you could have done. It’s good to have information like this, and I thank you for always making us aware. I truely believe there has to be a link to all the toxins we expose ourselves to daily to many of the illnesses and childhood issues of today. It can’t be co-incedental and the more we know about it, the more we can do to prevent any further tragedies from occuring.

    I understand your anger, I would be angry too. Is there anything you can do to make those people pay for exposing you? I know it won’t change the fact that J has these challenges, but it may bring you some peace bringing exposure of the problem.

    Anyway, so glad I took the time to read this today – knowledge is power. I am often critisised by my friends for the way I read labels and chose to do things with my children – but I don’t care what they think – I will continue to educate myself and be as careful as I can be by educating myself. Thank you for your post, it really, really touched my heart.

    Tricia xx

  12. Tricia

    February 25, 2010 at 6:53 am

    oops, and please excuse all the misspellings and typos above -really tired, hugs xx

  13. PrincessJenn

    February 25, 2010 at 11:24 pm

    I’m so glad you had the courage to publish this. I think it’s important information. When we’re pregnant we worry so much about what we’re eating and drinking and we never consider what we’re breathing.
    I often wonder the same thing. Was there something that I was exposed to that caused V’s brain defect. Is there something I could have done differently to avoid it. I suppose hindsight is always 20/20

  14. psychmamma

    February 26, 2010 at 5:30 am

    Thank you all for your wonderful support. It means more than you can know. Most of the time, the voice of reason overpowers that little, nagging “mommy-guilt” voice, and I DO realize that “what ifs” and “if onlys” are pointless. It’s only every now and then that the guilt creeps in on little cat feet.

    More than asking for support, sympathy or comfort, my goal with hitting “publish” on this was to raise awareness. To hopefully help someone (pregnant or not) think a little more about the toxic chemicals they encounter every day.

    Thanks again! I love you all! xoxox

  15. mdwegner

    March 28, 2010 at 5:20 pm

    I agree with some of the other comments. No way you’ll ever know for sure.

    I got pregnant w/Belle when I was in Calcutta, India. I often wonder if something in the polluted air caused her issues, or the anti-malaria drugs I was on, or a combo of both. I also struggle with guilt. It’s a tough issue.

    Sometimes I wish life were a little less complicated! We love our babies more than life itself, and would shield them from anything that would harm them.

    Sometimes life just happens and it’s what we do with the rest of it that matters.

  16. Andrea's Sweet Life

    April 9, 2010 at 11:34 pm

    I don’t know how I missed this post when you first wrote it! But I want to say thank you SO much for writing it. It’s an important message.

    I’m so sorry that you feel guilty. I have a lot of the same feelings regarding Blythe and her corn allergies. I know the cause. And I DID try to put my foot down, but not hard enough.

    But I also know, you are an amazing mother to your beautiful Jenna. Incredible. She is so very lucky to have you in her corner. xoxo

  17. MommyGeekology

    July 6, 2010 at 8:10 pm

    I don’t know how I missed this post… but I just wanted to say that I am so sorry. That I am angry on your behalf, on J’s behalf, on PsychDaddy’s behalf. On “Beth’s” behalf. I am just angry to hear that something like this happened – will likely happen again without awareness.


    Your family is beautiful anyway, by the way. Jenna is simply gorgeous.

  18. Soma

    October 20, 2017 at 5:49 pm

    Hi, I had a baby with two “defects” I hate that word. She passed in hospital at three months old. I too wonder whether chemicals caused this. I was handed a spray at work to clean desks as we were moving and I breathed it in and it filled my lungs so much I was going to pass out I was five weeks and wonder if that was the cause. We weren’t given any generic reason either.

  19. Mrs. H

    February 14, 2018 at 9:06 am

    The first day of November 2016 was Rosh Chodesh Kislev. That was the day I gave birth to my baby boy. An hour later, my husband and I said our final goodbye to him.
    My son was born with anencephaly, a serious birth defect where the baby is born missing parts of the brain and skull. Thankfully, we were prepared for this terrible event, having learned about his condition at an earlier sonogram.

    One of the known causes for this tragic condition is exposure to toxic chemicals in early pregnancy. I would like to share my story in the hope that other readers will understand the dangers of moisture cure urethane (MCU) hardwood floor finish.

    When we decided to scrape the floors in our home, wanting to do our due diligence, we asked Mr. Sofer — a man who is very educated about toxic chemicals that are used in paint and floor finish — for his advice. He warned us not to do it as it was potentially dangerous, especially to an unborn baby. At that time, I was not yet aware that I was expecting, so we chose to go ahead with it, in spite of the advice he gave us.

    Incredibly, the scrapers who did the work told us that MCU is safe.

    In case there are those who suspect that there might have been other causes for my son’s condition, I need to note that I had no infections or viruses throughout the entire time. This medical condition also has no genetic explanation, and I took plenty of folic acid throughout.

    I believe that my child was a korban of MCU, and I hope that in the zechus of my doing my part in bringing awareness of this issue, and thereby, b’ezras Hashem, preventing the pain for other parents, my child’s pure neshamah, which returned to Shamayim much too soon, will have an aliyah.

    I hope my story will serve as a wake-up call to people so they won’t repeat the fatal mistake we made.

    Mrs. H.
    Monsey, NY

    P.S. Moisture Cure Urethane ingredients are Xylene, Toluene Diisocyanate TDI, Ethyl Benzene, Ethyoxy Ethanol Acetate, Parachloro Benzotri Fluoride, Tert Butyl Acetate, Aromatic hydrocarbons and more…


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