A “Serious Concern” – Worrying Numbers of Pregnant Women Are Being Exposed to Cancer-Causing Chemicals

Artists Illustration Cancer Cells

The researchers find the exposure to these chemicals to be highly concerning due to the chemical’s link to cancer.

The cancer-causing chemicals can be found in dishware, hair coloring, plastics, and pesticides.

According to experts at the University of California, San Francisco and Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, pregnant women in the United States are being exposed to chemicals such as melamine, cyanuric acid, and aromatic amines, which can increase the risk of cancer and harm child development.

Melamine and cyanuric acid were discovered in virtually all research participants’ samples, although the greatest levels were observed among women of color and those who had greater exposure to tobacco. Four aromatic amines, which are commonly used in products containing dyes and pigments, were also discovered in virtually all pregnant participants.

People may come into contact with melamine and aromatic amines through the air they breathe, contaminated food they eat, household dust they inhale, drinking water, or by using objects that contain plastic, dyes, and pigments. 

“These chemicals are of serious concern due to their links to cancer and developmental toxicity, yet they are not routinely monitored in the United States,” said Tracey J. Woodruff, Ph.D., a professor of obstetrics, gynecology, and reproductive medicine who directs the UCSF Program on Reproductive Health and the Environment, and is the co-senior author of the recent study published in the journal Chemosphere.

Melamine and cyanuric acid, one of its major byproducts, are both high-production chemicals that are manufactured at a rate of more than 100 million pounds annually in the United States alone. When exposure to these chemicals happens together, they can be more toxic than either one alone. Aromatic amines are present in hair dye, mascara, tattoo ink, paint, tobacco smoke, and diesel exhaust. Melamine is present in dishware, plastics, flooring, kitchen counters, and pesticides. Cyanuric acid is used as a disinfectant, plastic stabilizer, and cleaning solvent in swimming pools.

After baby formula and pet food poisoning incidents in 2004, 2007, and 2008 that led to multiple fatalities as well as kidney stones and urinary tract blockage in some individuals, melamine was shown to be a kidney toxicant. Further animal studies suggested that melamine also reduces brain function. 

For their study, researchers measured 45 chemicals associated with cancer and other risks using new methods to capture chemicals or chemical traces in urine samples from a small but diverse group of 171 women who are part of the National Institutes of Health’s Environmental influences on Child Health Outcomes (ECHO) Program. The study period covered 2008 to 2020.

The 171 women came from California, Georgia, Illinois, New Hampshire, New York, and Puerto Rico. About one-third (34%) were white, 40% were Latina, 20% were Black, 4% were Asians, and the remaining 3% were from other or multiple racial groups. Prior studies on melamine were conducted among pregnant women in Asian countries or limited to non-pregnant people in the U.S.

“It’s disconcerting that we continue to find higher levels of many of these harmful chemicals in people of color,” said study co-senior author Jessie Buckley, Ph.D., an associate professor at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

For example, levels of 3,4-dichloroaniline (a chemical used in the production of dyes and pesticides) were more than 100% higher among Black and Hispanic women compared to white women.

“Our findings raise concerns for the health of pregnant women and fetuses since some of these chemicals are known carcinogens and potential developmental toxicants,” said Giehae Choi, a postdoctoral fellow at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and the first author of the study. “Regulatory action is clearly needed to limit exposure.”

Reference: “Exposure to melamine and its derivatives and aromatic amines among pregnant women in the United States: The ECHO Program” by Giehae Choi, Jordan R. Kuiper, Deborah H. Bennett, Emily S. Barrett, Theresa M. Bastain, Carrie V. Breton, Sridhar Chinthakindi, Anne L. Dunlop, Shohreh F. Farzan, Julie B. Herbstman, Margaret R. Karagas, Carmen J. Marsit, John D. Meeker, Rachel Morello-Frosch, Thomas G. O’Connor, Edo D. Pellizzari, Megan E. Romano, Sheela Sathyanarayana and Tracey J. Woodruff, 30 August 2022, Chemosphere.
DOI: 10.1016/j.chemosphere.2022.135599

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