Toxic substances exposure to

It's rare to be exposed to substances that are harmful to a developing fetus. But it can happen. Agents that are known to harm a fetus if a woman is exposed to them during pregnancy are called teratogens. They can cause a miscarriage or birth defects. Some substances may harm an infant through breast-feeding.

Substances known to be harmful include:

• Pesticides

• Heavy metals, such as lead and mercury

• Drugs used to treat cancer, such as methotrexate and aminopterin

• Ionizing radiation (X-rays)

• Some viruses, bacteria and protozoa

Organic solvents such as benzene are suspected to be harmful, although results of studies are inconclusive. Women who work in health care, farming, manufacturing, dry cleaning, printing, crafts businesses such as painting or pottery glazing, or electronics should be aware of the substances they're exposed to at work.

Industries in the United States are required to provide information to employees about hazardous substances in a workplace. As long as you and the company you work for follow Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA) practices, it's unlikely that your fetus will be harmed. Proper clothing and safety measures can reduce or prevent exposure.

Fortunately, few birth defects are caused by environmental agents. Yet, it's best to avoid exposure to known or suspected harmful substances.

Talk to your health care provider about any exposure you have to chemicals, drugs, metals or radiation. You'll also want to tell the health care provider about any equipment in the workplace designed to minimize exposure, such as gowns, gloves, masks and ventilation systems. The health care provider can help determine if a risk exists and, if so, what can be done to eliminate it or reduce it. Although your health care provider will try to be helpful, he or she may not know of the specific use of an agent in a given industry.

It's a good idea to discuss any concerns you may have about being exposed to toxic substances with your employer or union representative. Several federal laws are designed to protect the health, safety and employment rights of pregnant working women. To find out about laws on workplace safety, contact your state or county health department.

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