Pregnant? Avoid Everyday Toxins & Chemicals

An Interview with Alexandra Zissu, co-author of The Complete Organic Pregnancy

By Larissa Phillips

No sushi, no hair dye, no extreme sports.

Most expectant moms know by now that pregnancy is a time to watch what they eat, breathe and do. But more and more, researchers are discovering that babies in utero are vulnerable to the everyday chemicals in our lives.

How's this for scary: In a study spearheaded by the Environmental Working Group, researchers at two major laboratories found an average of 200 industrial chemicals and pollutants in umbilical cord blood from 10 U.S. babies born in August and September of 2004.

Before you throw in the towel and just hope for the best, consider taking a look at The Complete Organic Pregnancy, by Alexandra Zissu and Deirdre Dolan. This thoroughly researched book takes a hard look at what it means to be pregnant in our modern world and offers advice for creating the safest pregnancy possible. Surprisingly upbeat and encouraging, the authors (who are also moms) calmly offer useful tips and enough scientific facts to convince even the most skeptical of husbands. We recently discussed how to have a safer pregnancy with co-author Alexandra Zissu.

Your book, The Complete Organic Pregnancy, presents some pretty alarming information about the toxins in our lives. It sounds like there is more to it than just eating organic foods.

Chemicals are under the kitchen sink, they're hiding in the mattress you spend a third of your life on, and they're in most of the shampoos and cosmetics you always assumed were safe. Essentially, it's about avoiding toxins, which is pretty easy once you identify them.

Is it really that bad out there? Women have been giving birth for millions of years before the organic movement came along. Why all the concern all of a sudden?

What's been going on for millions of years isn't what concerns us. It's the last fifty years and the 80,000 man-made chemicals that have been introduced in that time that freaks us out. Science has outpaced us, and the problem is that the health effects of only 5 percent of those new chemicals have been tested. Vegetables

So, we may not even know what's out there?

Our moms grew up inhaling DDT and Deirdre and I both (most likely) grew up in houses with lead paint. Having an organic pregnancy is a way of trying to avoid or at least limit exposure to whatever the next DDT or lead paint might turn out to be. It's defensive driving with your body.

The Complete Organic Pregnancy, by Alexandra Zissu and Deirdre Dolan, Collins, 2006; $14.95.What's an example of an everyday substance that we've just discovered is dangerous?

The chemical that makes Teflon nonstick was created in the 1930s, and although it has been suspect for years, it took until this year for the government to admit it's not safe and for companies to start phasing it out. Most people we know - pregnant moms included - are still cooking on it.

You both have babies of your own. Did you find it challenging to follow your own advice while you were pregnant?

On the contrary, I was pregnant while we were writing the book, and Deirdre was pregnant while we were editing the book. If anything, we wish the book had been finished before either of us got pregnant, as there is advice we stumble on even now that we would have wanted to follow. Being pregnant and having a newborn throughout the process was the best inspiration we could hope for.

For pregnant women who've never been organic before, where do you start?

Start by making the changes that are easiest for you. We always say 10 percent organic is better than zero percent. Don't drive yourself crazy.

Can you give us a few golden nuggets of advice?

We'd suggest eating organic food (paying special attention to meat and dairy), replacing all of your cleaning products with nontoxic versions (to drastically improve indoor air quality), and avoiding plastic, especially vinyl. (Store food in and drink out of glass, use glass baby bottles, and avoid overly plastic-y baby products.)

That sounds manageable. What else?

If you're considering renovating your living space, we'd say don't; it is too risky. Demolition releases all sorts of unknown chemicals that could interfere with your growing baby, as do construction materials like paint, plywood and wall-to-wall carpeting. If you're going to renovate, we have many suggestions on how to do it as safely as possible in the book.

What's the best part about making the switch to organic?

Being pregnant is an incredible journey. But it can also be scary. How are you going to protect this teeny thing from the big bad world and all of the chemicals floating around in it? Switching to organic made us both feel proactive. By actively avoiding the scary stuff in everything from nail polish to strawberries to antibacterial hand gel, we felt we were making good choices for our babies - mothering them - before they even arrived. We also like knowing that our organic choices are less harmful for the Earth our babies are growing up in.

Probably the best part is the peace of mind that comes with knowing that we're doing everything we can to give our babies the best shot at life - and did so even before they were born.


The Complete Organic Pregnancy, by Alexandra Zissu and Deirdre Dolan, Collins, 2006; $14.95.

Larissa Phillips is an award-winning writer, cooking instructor and contributing food editor for Dominion Parenting Media. Click here to subscribe to her monthly Feeding Your Family e-mail newsletter.
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