Pregnant women are exposed to highly toxic chemicals in personal care and home care products: study

Over the last couple decades we have published a number of scientific research studies linking chemicals of concern in food and personal- and home-care products to increased risk for health problems to pregnant women and their offspring. Now, a new study funded by the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) has demonstrated that pregnant women in the U.S. are being exposed to chemicals like melamine, cyanuric acid, and aromatic amines in personal-care/cosmetics and home-care products that can increase the risk of cancer and developmental toxicity to their offspring.

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Study overview

The 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. Study participants had an average age of 29.5 years at the time of urine sample collections.  Sixty-eight percent of women were either married or living with a partner, and 46% of women had attained at least a Bachelor’s degree.

The collection of urine samples occurred during all three trimesters and all four seasons, and the majority of samples were collected between 2017 and 2020.

Melamine and cyanuric acid were found in nearly all study participants’ samples, but the highest levels were found in women of color and those with greater exposure to tobacco. Four aromatic amines that are commonly used in products containing dyes and pigments were also found in nearly all pregnant participants. Another finding of note:  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.

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How people are exposed to these chemicals of concern

As for melamine and aromatic amines, people can be exposed to these toxins in a variety of ways: through the air they breathe, by eating contaminated food or ingesting household dust, as well as from drinking water or by using products that contain plastic, dyes, and pigments.

Melamine and its major byproduct, cyanuric acid, are each high production chemicals that exceed 100 million pounds per year in the U.S. alone. When exposure to these chemicals happens together, they can be more toxic than either one alone.

Melamine* is found in dishware, plastics, flooring, kitchen counters, and pesticides;

Cyanuric acid is used as a disinfectant, plastic stabilizer, and cleaning solvent in swimming pools;

Aromatic amines are found in hair dye, mascara, tattoo ink, paint, tobacco smoke, and diesel exhaust.

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*Melamine was recognized as a kidney toxicant after baby formula and pet food poisoning incidents in 2004, 2007, and 2008 that caused several deaths as well as kidney stones and urinary tract obstruction in some people. Additional animal experiments suggest melamine reduces brain function.

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Why exposure to these toxic chemicals in cosmetics, personal care and home care products is even possible

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“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.”

-Dr. Tracey J. Woodruff, study researcher, program director and professor of obstetrics, gynecology and reproductive medicine, UCSF Program on Reproductive Health and the Environment


Journal reference: 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, Susan Schantz, Rebecca J. Schmidt, Deborah J. Watkins, Hongkai Zhu, Kurunthachalam Kannan, Jessie P. Buckley, Tracey J. Woodruff. Exposure to melamine and its derivatives and aromatic amines among pregnant women in the United States: The ECHO Program. Chemosphere, 2022; 135599. Overview | Overview| Study.  DOI: 10.1016/j.chemosphere.2022.135599