14/08/2014 12:50 BST | Updated 22/05/2015 06:12 BST

Row Over Advice For Pregnant Women To Avoid Plastic Food Packaging And Cosmetics

Row over advice to avoid plastic food packaging and cosmetics while pregnant

The Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists has been accused of adding to the stress of expectant mums with alarmist advice on everyday chemicals they should avoid while pregnant.

RCOG suggests mums-to-be should avoid everything from tinned food, to ready meals, to shower gel, to cosmetics, to food packaging, and even to furniture.

In other words, pretty much everything we all come into contact with in our everyday lives.

They say there is not enough information about chemicals in these items and thus advise that pregnant women might want to 'play it safe' by avoiding them, if possible.

Presumably by wrapping themselves in (chemical-free) cotton wool and hibernating for nine months.

The RCOG says its paper on the issue is informing women and filling a void because, until now, there has been no official advice for pregnant and breastfeeding women to turn to.

But it also said it is unlikely that any of the exposures are truly harmful for most babies, say the report's authors, and, based on current evidence, it is impossible to give an accurate assessment of risk.

Nevertheless, they say women should make an informed choice and at the same time 'not wrap themselves up in a bubble'. Or cotton wool!

Authors, Dr Michelle Bellingham and Professor Richard Sharpe say pregnant women can be exposed to a complex mixture of hundreds of chemicals at low levels through the food they eat and the everyday products they use.

Chemicals, such as bisphenol A and phthalates, can leach into food packaging and containers, including food and beverage cans and plastic-wrapped ready meals.

Among other warnings are: cosmetic products and toiletries such as moisturisers, shower gel and sunscreen could, theoretically, also pose a chemical risk; cleaning products, air fresheners and non-stick frying pans can be added to the hazard list; pregnant women might also want to avoid decorating the new baby's room with fresh paint as breathing the fumes may be harmful.

Prof Sharpe said: "For most environmental chemicals we do not know whether or not they really affect a baby's development, and obtaining definitive guidance will take many years.

"This paper outlines a practical approach that pregnant women can take, if they are concerned about this issue and wish to 'play safe' in order to minimise their baby's exposure."

He said women should not be alarmed and that the potential risks were likely to be small. Dr Bellingham added that the paper was primarily aimed at health professionals advising women at ante-natal classes.

"We are trying to empower women, not scare them. There is a void at the moment in terms of information about chemicals," she said.

But many expert organisations were quick to criticise the RCOG advice.

Tracey Brown, of Sense About Science, said: "Pregnancy is a time when people spend a lot of time and money trying to work out which advice to follow, and which products to buy or avoid. The simple question parents want answered during pregnancy is: 'Should we be worried?' "What we need is help in navigating these debates about chemicals and pregnancy. Disappointingly, the RCOG report has ducked this." Rosemary Dodds, of the National Childbirth Trust, said it was unacceptable that pregnant women today were still having to make decisions without clear information on possible risks.

Janet Fyle, of the Royal College of Midwives, said pregnant women must take the advice with caution and use their common sense and judgement and not be unnecessarily alarmed about using personal care products, such as moisturisers, cosmetics and shower gels.

"There needs to be more scientific and evidence-based research into the issues and concerns raised by this paper," she said.

Dr John Harrison, director of Public Health England's Centre for Radiation, Chemical and Environmental Hazards, said: "We agree that it would be sensible for pregnant women to avoid using hazardous chemicals such as pesticides or fungicides as a precaution, or in line with product information.

"However, there is no evidence to suggest that chemicals in items such as personal care products are a risk to public health."

Parentdish's advice:

Most pregnant women are already doing their best to follow a healthy lifestyle for the sake of their unborn baby. Being told to avoid everyday products because of a possible but unproven risk is putting pressure and potential guilt on women.

In a frankly ludicrous statement, the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists' statement says: 'The paper recommends that the best approach for pregnant women is a 'safety first' approach, which is to assume there is risk present even when it may be minimal or eventually unfounded.'

You could use the same argument to never step outside your front door. This sort of advice is scare mongering and leads to confusion. For women who have gone through the heartbreak of a miscarriage, these reports may lead to entirely unfounded feelings of guilt.

Our advice to pregnant women is simple: eat well, avoid stress and enjoy your pregnancy.

You may find this previous article on Parentdish helpful.

How mothers are bored of ridiculous research and guilt-making headlines