Can the Gulf Oil Spill Harm Babies in the Womb?

In general, the levels of potentially harmful chemicals released from the gulf oil spill are well below the levels that could cause harm to pregnant women or their unborn babies, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

However, the CDC notes the chemicals in the oil could cause harm under some conditions. The effects depend on many things, including: how the mother came into contact with the oil, how long she was in contact with it, how often she came into contact with it and the overall health of the mother and her baby.

The CDC recommends that everyone, including pregnant women, avoid the oil and spill-affected areas. Chemicals can enter the body in several ways, some of which may go unnoticed. People can be exposed to the chemicals by breathing them, by swallowing them, or by absorption through the skin. Generally, a pregnant woman will see or smell the chemicals in oil before they can hurt her or the baby, the CDC says.

Among the CDC's recommendations for pregnant women:

  • If you live along the coast, avoid areas where there are reports of oil reaching the shore.
  • If the smell bothers you or you see smoke, stay indoors, set your air conditioner to reuse indoor air and avoid physical activities that put extra demand on your lungs and heart.
  • If you find any oil, avoid touching it, as well as oil spill-affected water and sand.
  • If some of the oil gets on your skin, wash it off as soon as you can with soap and water.
  • If you begin to feel sick after coming into contact with the oil or spill-affected areas, contact your doctor or other health professional.

The CDC and Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) are working together to continue monitoring the levels of oil in the environment and will notify the public if they find levels of chemicals that are more likely to be harmful.

Air and smell

The EPA is testing the air around the gulf daily to check whether chemicals from oil vapors have reached unsafe levels. Right now, levels are low enough that breathing the air wouldn't be expected to be harmful, the CDC says.

Burning the oil — a technique cleanup crews are using to try and stop oil from reaching shore —  can create a mix of very small particles and liquid droplets known as particulate matter (PM). The smallest particles can get deep into the lungs; however, PM should not reach the shore because the fires are far offshore, according to the CDC. Crews carefully watch the weather, wind and water conditions and monitor the air when they burn the oil.

The strong smell from the oil spill may give pregnant women headaches or upset stomachs. Because of these symptoms, pregnant women may want to stay indoors and set their air conditioners to reuse indoor air.

A type of mask known as an N95 respirator with an odor control feature may provide some relief from the smell, the CDC says.


Drinking water is not expected to be affected by the spill.

However, swimming in water affected by the oil spill will be unpleasant and could cause harm, the CDC says.

Anyone who comes in contact with oil and notices rashes or dark sticky spots on the skin even after the area has been washed should consult a doctor or other health care professional.

Oil spill dispersants — chemicals applied to break an oil slick into small droplets and prevent it from coming back together — contain chemicals that can harm people. For instance, prolonged contact with dispersants can cause a rash, dry skin and eye irritation. Breathing in or swallowing dispersants can cause nausea, vomiting and throat and lung irritation.

However, it is unlikely that coastal residents will come into contact with undiluted dispersants, the CDC says. It is possible that diluted dispersants could reach the coast in the air or the water. The EPA is monitoring the air and water along the shore for dispersants and has not detected any at levels that could be a threat a pregnant women or her unborn child.

Live Science Staff
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