Paint & Toxic Fumes
Q. My husband and I are trying to get pregnant and are also remodeling a 1937 home. We have a contractor for the majority of the work, but we are painting all the rooms of the house ourselves to try to cut down the costs. Is it harmful for me to be using water-based paints right now?
A. Federal regulations now require that paint no longer contain lead or mercury, which may cause birth defects. Although no studies have specifically addressed the risks associated with exposure to today's paint fumes, it is considered a potential “maybe” risk for pregnant women. To avoid all potential risks for your developing fetus is practically impossible and can literally drive you crazy if you try.
To minimize these “maybe” risks while painting you can try to: work in a well-ventilated area; stop immediately if you find yourself getting the "paint fume" headache; avoid exposure to solvents and cleaning fluids associated with paint removal; and opt for water-based or latex paints instead of oil-based ones.
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Q. I am now six months pregnant. When I was about four months pregnant I got a new computer that was defective. It was three days before I figured out the toxic smell that was giving me a headache was coming from the computer. I think the cooling fan wasn't working properly and it smelled like a chip burning. Do you think I put my baby at risk?
-Michele, New York
A. Prolonged exposure to toxins such as burning plastic may be harmful to a developing fetus, but I think your exposure was minimal, so you and your baby are most likely just fine.
Q. Can a pregnant woman use a gas BBQ grill? Not changing the tank, but just standing over it when cooking.
-Jennifer, New York
A. As long as you exercise caution not to inhale too much propane gas when starting the grill, it's perfectly fine for a pregnant woman to cook up a few burgers on the grill. You'd probably be exposed to more toxins just by taking a walk down the road with two cars driving by, which, of course, is a minimal amount.
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Q. We got a new cordless phone a few months back. My husband noticed that when it's on the base, the bottom of the phone, the battery and the base all become hot. I've read that these nickel batteries let off toxic fumes that are odorless and tasteless when burned or punctured. Now I'm freaking out that I've been taking in all these fumes. I unhooked it last night and put in my old one that is kind of broken but it doesn't heat up. Am I nuts completely?
-Jennifer, New York
A. I believe it's normal for these types of phones to become warm from charging, but not too hot to touch. Regardless, if the phone is malfunctioning and becoming too hot, it certainly is not burning. If you were to throw the phone into a fire or puncture the battery with a screwdriver, then you may be at risk of exposing yourself to toxic fumes. You and your baby should be fine. And, no, you are not nuts. It's very common and completely normal to be paranoid about exposing yourself to possible risks to your developing baby.
Q. I am in my first trimester. Is it safe for me to repaint my house now or later on in my pregnancy?
A. Although no studies have specifically addressed the risks associated with exposure to today's paint fumes, it is considered one of those "maybe" risks for pregnant women. (See the other paint fumes question for more details.)
If you have the choice of when to paint your house, I suggest later in the pregnancy. The first two trimesters are the most delicate for the baby's development. Essential organs and body parts are being formed. If you can avoid paint fumes during this time of growth, your baby will be less affected by this "maybe" risk.
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Q. My daughter is seven months pregnant and when I went to her home I noticed a gas smell. She said it had been that way for over a month. Is that smell harmful to my unborn grandchild?
A. The smell of gas might indicate a problem with a fuel-burning appliance that isn't working properly or venting as it should. Fuel that does not burn completely can create high levels of carbon monoxide (CO). Carbon monoxide is what may be harmful to an unborn baby. If a pregnant woman is exposed to carbon monoxide, the baby absorbs more carbon monoxide than the mother does herself. A pregnant woman may not have many symptoms, but the baby may be affected. Symptoms include: shortness of breath, nausea, headaches and dizziness. Pregnant moms should be careful to prevent exposure.
I think your daughter should contact her gas company immediately to check for a leakage problem. She may also want to consider installing a carbon monoxide detector in her home to avoid accidental exposure in the future.
Q. I am 17 weeks pregnant and my boyfriend's car has an oil leak. Sometimes the car fills up with smoke for a minute. Is it really harmful to my baby if I breathe in the burnt oil?
A. Toxic fumes, such as burnt oil, should be avoided during pregnancy if possible. Too much exposure for an extended period may be harmful to a developing fetus, but I wouldn't worry about breathing in smoky fumes a few times. If you must ride around in this car, maybe you should wait until the smoke has cleared before you get in.