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UCSF Sustainability Stories

Spotlight on Sustainability:  Tracey Woodruff—New Study Finds Toxins in Pregnant Women

WoodruffThe UCSF School of Medicine’s program on Reproductive Health and the Environment, housed within the Department of Obstetrics, Gynecology and Reproductive Sciences, is dedicated to creating a healthier environment for human reproduction and development by advancing scientific inquiry, clinical care and health policies that prevent exposures to harmful chemicals in our environment.

But is a rather tall order.

Tracey Woodruff, PhD, MPH, director of the UCSF Program on Reproductive Health and the Environment (PRHE), is lead author on a new study, which found that virtually all U.S. pregnant women carry multiple chemicals, including some banned since the 1970s and others used in common products, such as, food packaging and beverage and food cans and sunscreen.  Woodruff recently told Time Magazine, “We looked at data on 163 chemicals and found that many of them are present in virtually all pregnant women.”

“It was surprising and concerning to find so many chemicals in pregnant women without fully knowing the implications for pregnancy,” Woodruff said in the UCSF news release .

StaffWoodruff counted the number of chemicals that pregnant women are exposed to and discovered that 43 of the 163 chemicals tracked were found in more than 99 percent of pregnant women. “Our main challenge is to put this issue on the radar of professional groups focused on pregnant women. It has taken the past three years to engage with groups like ACOG (spell out) to see the connections between environmental and fetal development,” explained Linda C. Giudice, MD, PhD, founder of PRHE and chair of the Department of Obstetrics, Gynecology and Reproductive Sciences at UCSF. 

“Our findings indicate several courses of action. First, additional research is needed to identify dominant sources of exposure to chemicals and how they influence our health, especially in reproduction,” said Woodruff. “Second, while individuals can take actions in their everyday lives to protect themselves from toxins, significant, long-lasting change only will result from a systemic approach that includes proactive government policies.”

Tips and Resources

Woodruff offers these tips on how everyone can avoid environmental toxins from contaminating their bodies and adversely affecting their health:

  • Eat healthy.  Eat a healthy diet low in fats because according to Woodruff some chemicals like to hang out in fat.

  • Choose personal-care products carefully.  Choose personal-care products wisely, opting for those with fewer, less toxic ingredients. Skin Deep is a safety guide to cosmetics and personal care products. This database pairs ingredients in nearly 25,000 products against 50 definitive toxicity and regulatory databases and provides safety ratings for nearly a quarter of all products on the market.

  • Reach for a mop. Lead, pesticides and flame retardants are present in dust. Sweeping or dusting may spread toxins into the air instead of removing them from your home.

  • Don’t spray bugs. Avoid pesticides, which are toxic chemicals made to kill unwanted insects or weeds. Instead, keep your home clear of food crumbs and spills. Use baits and traps instead of sprays, dusts or bombs. Avoid using chemical tick-and-flea collars or dips for your pets.

  • Avoid dry-cleaning clothes. Most cleaners use a chemical called perchloroethylene (PERC), which can pollute the air in your home. Use water instead. Most clothes labeled as “dry clean only” can be washed with water. Hand wash them or ask your dry cleaner to wet clean them for you.

  • Check air quality forecasts. Exercise as far away as possible from sources of air pollution (such as traffic or factories) and do not exercise on bad air quality days.


Toxic Matters
is an online and print resource created by an alliance of partners led by PRHE. It is designed to help consumers make smarter decisions about substances that can harm general and reproductive health. The brochure and web page include tips on reducing exposure to metals and synthetic chemicals in everyday life — at home, at work, and in the community — and provide links to other sources of detailed information.

“We’ve identified key areas where exposures are constant and avoidable,” said Woodruff. “Although certain groups are most vulnerable, toxic substances in the environment affect every person, every day and are the responsibility of all of us.”

Learn More

Story by Deborah Fleischer, Green Impact
Photo by Susan Merrell