Pregnant women are exposed to cancer-causing chemicals in dishware and other products

Most chemicals are positively associated with the tobacco biomarker cotinine.


Tens of thousands of chemicals are used in the United States, with a small fraction biomonitored in the general population. Pregnancy exposures are concerning as susceptibility is heightened for pregnant women and developing fetuses.

A new study by the UC San Francisco and Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health measured the chemical exposure in pregnant women across the country. Scientists found that pregnant women are exposed to cancer-causing chemicals in dishware, hair coloring, plastics, and pesticides. The chemicals such as melamine, cyanuric acid, and aromatic amines can put them in risk of developing cancer and can also harm child development.

Nearly all study participants had melamine and cyanuric acid in their samples, however, women of color and those with more smoke use had the highest concentrations. Almost all of the pregnant participants also had elevated levels of four aromatic amines, which are frequently used in products with colors and pigments.

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

Tracey J. Woodruff, Ph.D., a professor of obstetrics, gynecology, and reproductive medicine who directs the UCSF Program on Reproductive Health and the Environment, said, “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.”

Researchers from the National Institutes of Health’s Environmental Influences on Child Health Outcomes (ECHO) Program collected urine samples from 171 women from a small but diverse group. Using new methods to capture chemicals or chemical traces, they measured 45 chemicals linked to cancer and other risks. The study’s period was from 2008 through 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 co-senior author Jessie Buckley, Ph.D., an associate professor at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, said, “It’s disconcerting that we continue to find higher levels of many of these harmful chemicals in people of color.”

“For example, 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 than white women.”

Giehae Choi, a postdoctoral fellow at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and the first author of the study, said“Our findings raise concerns for the health of pregnant women and fetuses since some of these chemicals are known carcinogens and potential developmental toxicants. Regulatory action is needed to limit exposure.”

Journal Reference:

  1. Giehae Choi, Jordan R. Kuiper et al. Exposure to melamine and its derivatives and aromatic amines among pregnant women in the United States: The ECHO Program. Chemosphere August 2022, 135599. DOI: 10.1016/j.chemosphere.2022.135599
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