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An important study was recently published that documents that when pregnant women are exposed to potentially harmful chemicals in the environment around them (environmental pollutants), many of these chemicals also get transferred to the fetus. Many of the 59 chemicals looked for were detected in the newborn babies' umbilical cords (thus the chemicals had crossed the placenta to the fetus during the pregnancy). Some chemicals were measured in higher levels in the umbilical cord than in the mother (as measured in her blood), while only cadmium appeared in mothers, but not in the umbilical cord (thus there was some protection for the fetus from that particular chemical).

This study did not look at the effects on the fetus and newborn from exposure to all these toxic chemicals - it just found that out of 59 chemicals tested for, the median number was 25 in maternal blood and 17 in umbilical cord blood. Eight of the 59 chemicals analyzed were detected in more than 90 percent of both the maternal and cord blood samples - and these included lead and mercury.

The researchers pointed out that no human studies have examined the developmental and reproductive health effects on the fetus and baby from being exposed to multiple chemicals simultaneously during pregnancy - which of course can have bigger risks and negative effects than being exposed to only one chemical at a time. Other studies have already shown that there are negative health effects (adverse neurodevelopmental effects) from a number of these chemicals, such as PCBs, PBDEs, Pb (lead) and Hg (mercury). Bottom line: No one really knows what these mixtures of chemicals do to the developing baby, but it is known that these chemicals have potential health risks. From Futurity:

Mom’s exposure to toxic chemicals shows up in newborn

Low-income and Latina pregnant women in a recent study had widespread exposure to environmental pollutants. In addition, many of the toxins showed up at even higher levels in their newborns. The study is the first in the United States to measure exposure to 59 toxic chemicals in pregnant women and their newborns.

“Pregnant women in the US are exposed to many harmful industrial chemicals that have been linked to premature birth, low birth weight, and birth defects, but estimates of how efficiently pollutants are transferred from mother to fetus have varied widely,” says Tracey Woodruff, professor of obstetrics, gynecology, and reproductive sciences and the Philip R. Lee Institute for Health Policy Studies at the University of California, San Francisco. “Our findings have found that many chemicals do indeed accumulate in the fetal environment and are absorbed at greater levels by fetuses than by the pregnant women themselves. This may have significant consequences for the growing fetus, since many of these chemicals are known to affect development.”

Researchers measured polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), organochlorine pesticides (OCPs), polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs), perfluorinated compounds (PFCs), mercury, and lead, among other chemicals. These industrial pollutants are common in the environment, and in previous studies many have been detected in greater than 99 percent of US pregnant women, according to National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) data.

“Contrary to previous research, we found evidence that several PCBs and OCPs were often higher in umbilical cord samples than in maternal blood samples,” says Rachel Morello-Frosch,  professor of environmental science, policy and management at the University of California, Berkeley. The study also found that concentrations of mercury and certain PBDEs were often higher in umbilical cord samples than in maternal samples, and for most PFCs and lead, cord blood concentrations were generally equal to or lower than maternal concentrations, which is consistent with previous research.

Almost 80 percent of the chemicals detected in maternal blood samples were also detected in the umbilical cord blood samples, indicating that they passed through the placenta and entered the fetal environment, where they can pose a health risk to the developing baby. For those chemicals detected in at least 20 paired maternal and umbilical cord samples, 77 percent had significant correlations between maternal and umbilical cord concentrations.

The women in the study were participating in the Chemicals in Our Bodies Study, also referred to as the Maternal and Infant Environmental Exposure Project. Of the women participating in the current study, 95 percent had a combined annual household income of less than $40,000, two-thirds were Latina, and a third were born in Mexico, where they may have had less exposure to environmental toxics like the PBDEs found in flame retardants that have been widely used in the US. This demographic is often not well-represented in larger biomonitoring studies, such as NHANES, that form the basis of most of what is known about pregnant women’s exposure to environmental toxics nationally.

The study also provides a first indication of how several different classes of environmental chemicals found in a pregnant woman’s blood are also present in the newborn....From 2010 to 2011, researchers collected maternal blood samples from 77 pregnant women at Zuckerberg San Francisco General. Once they delivered their babies, researchers collected umbilical cord blood samples from 65 of these women. Of those samples tested for all 59 chemicals, the median number was 25 in maternal blood and 17 in umbilical cord blood. Eight of the 59 chemicals analyzed were detected in more than 90 percent of both the maternal and cord blood samples. 

Another reason to cut back on soda and highly processed foods. Research in mice and women showed that a high-fructose diet during pregnancy may cause defects in the placenta and restrict fetal growth. But the advice in the article was disturbing - rather than giving a drug (allopurinol) to pregnant women with high fructose levels (which is what the researchers suggest), why not focus on giving them nutrition advice and strongly encourage them to avoid or cut back on high fructose products? Especially foods containing high fructose corn syrup (HFCS), such as soda and highly processed desserts.

Nutrition and why it's important should be discussed extensively with pregnant women, starting with the first prenatal care visit. Good advice is to read food labels and avoid products that list fructose, high-fructose corn syrup, or corn syrup solids. One easy first step would be to stop drinking soda and sweet drinks and juices. The researchers admit: "One of the best ways to ensure healthy maternal and fetal outcomes is by eating natural foods." Natural foods and good nutrition, not drugs, should be the focus. From Science Daily:

High-fructose diet during pregnancy may harm placenta, restrict fetal growth

Consuming a high-fructose diet during pregnancy may cause defects in the placenta and restrict fetal growth, potentially increasing a baby's risk for metabolic health problems later in life, according to research in mice and people by a team at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis.

However, giving the mice allopurinol, a generic drug frequently prescribed to treat gout and kidney stones, appears to mitigate the negative maternal and fetal effects. The findings suggest it may be possible to devise a prenatal screening test and treatment plan for pregnant women with high fructose levels. The study is available online in Scientific Reports, a journal affiliated with Nature Publishing Group.

Fructose, a sugar occurring naturally in fruits and honey, has been popular for decades among food manufacturers who process it into high-fructose corn syrup used to sweeten food and beverages. In fact, researchers have reported that the refined sugar accounts for more than half of all sweeteners used in the U.S. food-supply chain. And in recent years, there's growing concern that fructose in processed foods and sugary drinks may be linked to diabetes and obesity. "Since the early 1970s, we've been eating more fructose than we should," said Kelle H. Moley, MD,.....This study shows potentially negative effects of a high-fructose diet during pregnancy.

Fructose is processed differently than other sugars such as glucose, which the body converts into energy. Instead, fructose is broken down by liver cells that turn the sugar into a form of fat known as triglycerides while also driving high levels of uric acid, a normal waste product found in urine and stool. Too much uric acid can create metabolic mayhem resulting in obesity, type 2 diabetes and other health conditions.

Studying mice, the researchers found elevated uric acid and triglycerides in otherwise healthy mice who were fed a high-fructose diet during pregnancy. Additionally, the mice developed smaller fetuses and larger placentas than those fed standard rodent chow.

Maternal health also may suffer. Metabolic problems caused by high levels of uric acid and fat increase a woman's risk of developing pregnancy complications such as preeclampsia -- a potentially serious condition in pregnancy often marked by high blood pressure, swelling and high protein levels in the urine -- and gestational diabetes, Moley said.

To assess the relevance of the mouse data in pregnant women, the researchers examined the association between fructose and placental uric acid levels in a small controlled group of 18 women who underwent scheduled cesarean sections. The women had no disorders that would have caused elevated uric acid. "We found a correlation suggesting similar maternal and fetal effects occur in humans," Moley said.

 Most people know that heavy drinking of alcohol, smoking marijuana, cigarette smoking, and using methamphetamine during pregnancy should be avoided because they can have negative effects on the developing fetus. However, this study found that each of these also had a distinct negative effect on the placenta, suggesting that "different mechanisms mediate their effects on placental development". From Science Daily:

Effects of alcohol, methamphetamine, and marijuana exposure on the placenta

In the United States, prenatal alcohol exposure (PAE) is the most common preventable cause of developmental delay. Animal studies have shown some of the adverse effects of PAE on placental development, but few studies have examined these effects in humans. This is the first study to examine the effects of prenatal exposure to methamphetamine, marijuana, and cigarette smoking on human placental development.

Researchers collected placentas from 103 Cape Coloured (mixed ancestry) pregnant women recruited at their first antenatal clinic visit in Cape Town, South Africa. Of these, 66 heavy drinkers and 37 non-drinkers were interviewed about their alcohol, cigarette smoking, and drug use at three antenatal visits. A senior pathologist, blinded to exposure status, performed comprehensive pathology examinations on each placenta using a standardized protocol. In multivariable regression models, effects of prenatal exposure were examined on placental size, structure, and presence of infections and meconium.

Results show that alcohol, methamphetamine, and marijuana were associated with distinct patterns of pathology, suggesting that different mechanisms mediate their effects on placental development. Alcohol exposure was related to decreased placental weight and a smaller placenta-to-birth weight ratio. By contrast, methamphetamine was associated with larger placental weight and a larger placenta-to-birth weight ratio. Marijuana was also associated with larger placental weight. In addition, alcohol exposure was associated with an increased risk of placental hemorrhage. Finally, alcohol and cigarette smoking were associated with a decreased risk of intrauterine passing of meconium, a sign of acute fetal stress and/or hypoxia; methamphetamine, with an increased risk. These findings may be important in the long-term teratogenic effects of prenatal alcohol and drug exposure.

This article summarizes some of the same things I've been posting here. From NY Times:

We Are Our Bacteria

We may think of ourselves as just human, but we’re really a mass of microorganisms housed in a human shell. Every person alive is host to about 100 trillion bacteria cells. They outnumber human cells 10 to one and account for 99.9 percent of the unique genes in the body.

Our collection of microbiota, known as the microbiome, is the human equivalent of an environmental ecosystem. Although the bacteria together weigh a mere three pounds, their composition determines much about how the body functions and, alas, sometimes malfunctions. Like ecosystems the world over, the human microbiome is losing its diversity, to the potential detriment of the health of those it inhabits.

Dr. Martin J. Blaser, a specialist in infectious diseases at the New York University School of Medicine and the director of the Human Microbiome Program, has studied the role of bacteria in disease for more than three decades. In his new book, “Missing Microbes,"Dr. Blaser links the declining variety within the microbiome to our increased susceptibility to serious, often chronic conditions,  from allergies and celiac disease to Type 1 diabetes and obesity. He and others primarily blame antibiotics for the connection.

The damaging effect of antibiotics on microbial diversity starts early, Dr. Blaser said. The average American child is given nearly three courses of antibiotics in the first two years of life, and eight more  during the next eight years. Even a short course of antibiotics like the widely prescribed  Z-pack (azithromycin, taken for five days), can result in long-term shifts in the body’s microbial environment.

But antibiotics are not the only way the balance within us can be disrupted. Cesarean deliveries, which  have soared  in recent decades, encourage the growth of microbes from the mother’s skin, instead of from the birth canal, in the baby’s gut, Dr. Blaser said in an interview.

This change in microbiota can reshape an infant’s metabolism and immune system. A recent review of 15 studies involving 163,796 births found that, compared with  babies delivered vaginally, those born by cesarean section were 26 percent more likely to be overweight and 22 percent more likely to be obese as adults. 

The placenta has a microbiome of its own, researchers have discovered, which may also contribute to the infant’s gut health and help mitigate the microbial losses caused by cesarean sections.

Further evidence of a link to obesity comes from farm animals. About three-fourths of the antibiotics sold in the United States are used  in  livestock. These  antibiotics change the animals’ microbiota, hastening their growth. When mice are given the same  antibiotics used on livestock, the metabolism of their liver changes, stimulating an increase in body fat, Dr. Blaser said.

Even more serious is  the increasing number of serious disorders now linked to a distortion in the microbial balance in the human gut. They include several that are becoming more common in developed countries: gastrointestinal ailments like Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis and celiac disease; cardiovascular disease; nonalcoholic fatty liver disease; digestive disorders like chronic reflux; autoimmune diseases like multiple sclerosis and rheumatoid arthritis; and asthma and allergies.

Of course we should expect to find bacteria in a healthy placenta. It only makes sense. But this is interesting stuff - the possibility that the placental biome being out of whack playing a role in preterm birth. From Medical Xpress:

Bacteria live even in healthy placentas, study finds

Surprising new research shows a small but diverse community of bacteria lives in the placentas of healthy pregnant women, overturning the belief that fetuses grow in a pretty sterile environment. These are mostly varieties of "good germs" that live in everybody. But the study also hints that the make-up of this microbial colony plays a role in premature birth.

We share our bodies with trillions of microbes—on the skin, in the gut, in the mouth. These communities are called our microbiome, and many bacteria play critical roles in keeping us healthy, especially those in the intestinal tract. Healthy newborns pick up some from their mother during birth, different bugs depending on whether they were delivered vaginally or by C-section. What about before birth?

Aagard's team earlier had studied the microbiome of the vagina, and learned that its composition changes when a woman becomes pregnant. The puzzle: The most common vaginal microbes weren't the same as the earliest gut bacteria that scientists were finding in newborns. What else, Aagaard wondered, could be "seeding" the infants' intestinal tract?

With colleagues from Baylor and Texas Children's Hospital, Aagaard analyzed 320 donated placentas, using technology that teases out bacterial DNA to evaluate the type and abundance of different microbes. The placenta isn't teeming with microbes—it harbors a low level, Aagaard stressed. Among them are kinds of E. coli that live in the intestines of most healthy people. But to Aagaard's surprise, the placental microbiome most resembled bacteria frequently found in the mouth, she reported in the journal Science Translational Medicine. The theory: Oral microbes slip into the mother's bloodstream and make their way to the placenta.

Why does the body allow them to stay? Aagaard said there appears to be a role for different microbes. Some metabolize nutrients. Some are toxic to yeast and parasites. Some act a bit like natural versions of medications used to stop preterm contractions, she said. In fact, among the 89 placentas that were collected after preterm births, levels of some of the apparently helpful bacteria were markedly lower, she said.