Pregnancy and chemical lab safety

A query from my inbox last week: Are there any safety resources for women scientists who are pregnant, other than MSDSs?

The short answer to this question is that your best resources is likely to be the safety office at your school or workplace.

Otherwise, the National Institute for Occupational Safety & Health has a page with information on reproductive health and the workplace, as does the University of California, Davis.

Yale University says in its Chemical Hygiene Plan:

Exposure to certain chemicals may adversely affect the fertility of the parents and may affect the developing fetus during pregnancy. Therefore, anyone working with reproductive toxins or teratogenic agents and planning to conceive a child or are pregnant should consult their Principal Investigator, the Chemical Hygiene Officer, and/or the Department of Employee Health or Student Health as appropriate for opinions regarding risks of exposure and potential exposure control options. The Chemical Hygiene Officer can assess potential exposures and work with the individual and with the Principal Investigator or laboratory supervisor as appropriate, to adjust work practices to minimize any potential risk. The Employee Health or Student Health Physician can discuss the potential risks of exposure as they apply to each particular situation. A list of suspected reproductive toxins and teratogenic agents can be obtained from Yale Environmental Health and Safety.

I checked for information at a few additional schools and didn’t find much else. If anyone knows of additional resources, please feel free to post them in the comments or email them to me.

Author: Jyllian Kemsley

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  1. The following information and resources may be helpful to female and male scientists. Reproductive health hazards may affect both male and female fertility as well as the growth and development of the unborn child.

    1) GHS has three hazard categories for reproductive toxicity (plus an additional one for lactation effects). Categories 1a and 1b are assigned to substances known to have produced an adverse effect in humans based on epidemiological evidence (1a), or presumed to produce an adverse effect based on animal studies (1b). Both hazard categories carry the same hazard statement H360, “May damage fertility or the unborn child.” H361, “Suspected of damaging fertility or the unborn child,” is used for category 2, denoting that there is some evidence from humans or experimental animals of an adverse effect.

    2) Although in theory GHS provides objective criteria for assigning these hazard categories, in practice there is no definitive list of reproductive hazards (and that includes CA Prop 65). For some compounds, if you look at SDS from 10 different manufacturers or vendors, you may find them roughly equally divided between those that assign a reproductive toxicity hazard and those that do not.

    3) More descriptive information (and context) for chemicals or classes of chemicals that have public health hazards may be found on so-called ToxFAQs sheets published by the Agency for Toxic Substance and Disease Registry (ATSDR) division of the CDC.

    4) For example, boric acid (and sodium borate or borax) are reliably listed as GHS Category 1, H360 on most SDS. The ToxFAQ for boron states: “We do not know whether boron causes birth defects in people. Low birth weights, birth defects, and developmental delays have occurred in newborn animals whose mothers were orally exposed to high doses of boron (as boric acid) during pregnancy. The doses that produced these effects in pregnant animals are more than 800 times higher than the average daily intake of boron in food by adult women in the U.S. population.”

    5) ATSDR provides a searchable database but not a specific list of possible reproductive hazards.

    6) National Toxicology Program (NTP) Teratology Studies has information on a very limited number of substances that have been tested according to specific protocols.

    7) The Developmental and Reproductive Toxicity Database (DART) is a service provided by the NIH National Library of Medicine and Toxnet. DART is a searchable database of chemicals that returns published literature citations concerning reproductive health studies primarily in animals for each chemical. The citations provide hyperlinked access to the abstracts and conclusions for each study. The information itself is not further classified by DART.

    8) Catalog of Teratogenic Agents, 13th Edition, by Thomas Shepard and R.J. Lemire (2010) is considered a comprehensive one-volume reference with information on 3200 teratogenic agents. Some information may be accessed online.

    Irene Cesa

    Irene G. Cesa, Ph.D.
    Technical Consultant
    Flinn Scientific, Inc. (retired)

  2. I became pregnant ~ 3 months ago while working in a chemistry lab at an academic institution. I contacted the school’s Environmental Health & Safety division, and the person in charge asked me to email him the MSDS of all compounds I work with. I did, but also told him (which I had already discovered for myself) that pretty much all the solvents I was using (these were not everyday common solvents, fairly more “exotic” at least in the synthetic community) had ZERO information listed under the reproductive toxicity and teratogenicity categories.

    The safety officer responded: “you’re right, there really isn’t much information on these”. He also told me to make sure that I am “working in a fumehood, wearing gloves, lab coat and goggles.” I was obviously doing these things already (even before I was pregnant). He did not visit the lab I worked in to assess other risks – it is a shared lab so there are other solvents present, other than the ones I am working with. I further contacted my provincial health & safety organization, and was given the same “information”.

    I am currently still working in the lab, although I am part time so my exposure is not as significant as someone working 9-5/5 days a week. Everytime I step foot in the lab I wear an organic vapour respirator (which is considered overkill when everything is done in a fumehood, but I’d rather be extra cautious). I plan on stopping lab work in my 3rd trimester as I think I’ll be too big and would probably knock over glassware with my belly 😉

    Thanks for the article. But I believe there is just not enough information in many MSDS regarding reproductive tox and teratogenicity. In my opinion these sections should be required, as it does not provide adequate advice for a pregnant woman working in a lab.

  3. Very timely article, as I’ve found myself on a research sabbatical, and pregnant. I’ve been surprised to find the reproductive hazards of “normal” organic solvents like DMF and hexanes.

    I’m rather appalled that between the ACS’s Womens Chemists Committee and the Chemical Health and Safety division that there’s no central website listing current information and each woman chemist has to re-invent the wheel for herself. I’d prefer a current resource like this to any number of luncheons.

  4. I find MSDS’s to be pretty worthless. Head over to Aldrich and take a quick look at the MSDS’s for Holy-Smokes-This-Stuff-Can-Kill-You-NOW chemicals like methyl mercury and phosgene, and compare them to more run-of-the-mill “dangerous” chemicals like benzene or epichlorohydrin. They look pretty much the same at first and even second glance, don’t they? Ask a layman to rank these four chemicals in terms of risk, and I doubt they’d get the right answer much more often than one would expect from random chance.

  5. Pregnancy is a very touchy subject that requires the woman to make the decisions on what she is comfortable with. There is no zero risk situation for pregnant women working in the lab or anywhere really. She has to find the balance between work and level of risk to her and her child. That is very personal so it isn’t very appropriate for Universities or companies to have policies dictating requirements to the women.
    With that said these employers should have resources to help. Safety professionals can basically make them aware of the hazards. With that information the woman should contact her personal physician to discuss the risks and the occupational health physician to discuss controls or work practices appropriate to reduce the risks. As a team everyone can provide their expertise to make it as safe as possible.

    Also this is fairly recent. It isn’t too appropriate for chemicals, but interesting.

  6. As far as I am concerned, MSDSs is really worthless. We should be more serious about this issue.