The effects of asbestos exposure on pregnancy
With asbestos being such a noted threat to human health when one comes into contact with and inhales or ingests its fibres, it is understandable that some people may be concerned about the possible impact asbestos exposure could have on a pregnant woman and her child.
Below, we have set out the essentials of what is known about the level of risk to women and to pregnancy posed by asbestos.
What dangers does asbestos pose to human health?
The 20th century was very much the “asbestos century”, with the material proving ubiquitous in its use across an extremely wide range of products over the decades, ranging from building insulation material, boilers and pipes to floor tiles, car brakes, and asbestos cement for roofing sheets.
However, as the century wore on, the pernicious health effects of asbestos ingestion or inhalation became increasingly well-known. This culminated over the decades in the importation of blue and brown asbestos into the UK being banned in 1985; this was followed by the banning of white asbestos in 1999.
Today, the dangers that asbestos continues to pose to human health should not be in doubt. The tendency for many asbestos-related conditions, such as mesothelioma and asbestosis, to only develop in the body many years or even decades following exposure, has helped ensure the health impacts of asbestos are far from just a matter of the past.
This much is illustrated by recent data, which showed that hundreds of asbestos deaths continue to occur in women each year; it is expected that this trend will continue throughout the 2020s.
What level of risk do women face from asbestos?
Historically, asbestos tended to be used in then-male-dominated fields, with the likes of construction workers, machinists, car mechanics, power plant workers and firefighters particularly likely to come into contact with it and breathe in its fibres.
Women have not traditionally directly encountered asbestos to the extent that men have. However, even in decades past, it was understood that women could be exposed to the substance through such circumstances as home renovations, and their male partners bringing home asbestos on their clothing.
It should also be noted that there is a high likelihood of any given domestic or non-domestic building in the UK still containing asbestos if it was constructed before the year 2000. So, although undisturbed asbestos is typically harmless, the risk cannot be entirely ruled out of the material being disrupted in the home and dangerous fibres being released as a result.
Could asbestos exposure directly or indirectly affect a pregnancy?
The short answer to this question is that on the basis of the research that has been undertaken so far, it does not appear likely that a pregnant woman coming into contact with asbestos would directly affect her unborn child. However, there may be scope for indirect impact.
According to a Public Health England (PHE) guidance document on asbestos, “several experimental studies have suggested that asbestos does not cause adverse pregnancy outcomes or birth defects.”
A similar message has been imparted by the US Agency for Toxic Substances & Disease Registry, which has stated that “developing foetuses and infants are not likely to be exposed to asbestos through the placenta or breast milk of the mother.”
Such conclusions are seemingly backed by science; although asbestos does consist of microscopic fibres, it should be unable to infiltrate the placenta, and therefore reach an unborn child.
As for the notion of asbestos potentially reaching a child via a mother’s breast milk, this has been widely dismissed on the grounds that although asbestos fibres do have the ability to infiltrate the bloodstream, the numbers of fibres that would actually do so is quite small, with this being a rare occurrence in any case. So, the risk of asbestos fibres contaminating breast milk would seem to be extremely low.
However, not everything we know about the potential impacts of asbestos exposure on pregnancy is necessarily as reassuring as the above. For example, one previous report published by pubmed.gov concerned women and girls from the asbestos-riddled town of Wittenoom in Australia; it stated that asbestos fibres had been found in women’s lung, ovary, and pleural and peritoneal mesothelium.
What’s more, the report noted that asbestos fibres had been detected in the placental digests of both live and stillborn infants. The conclusion was merely that such a “cluster of gestational trophoblastic diseases has some biological plausibility for asbestos causation”; nonetheless, even just “plausibility” could still be a cause for extreme concern.
What about possible indirect effects on pregnancy arising from asbestos exposure?
Irrespective, of course, of any scope for asbestos exposure to directly affect pregnancy, it is still crucial that women and families do everything possible to guard against any chance of coming into contact with asbestos.
Part of the reason for this is because in the event of an expectant mother developing asbestos-related disease, there could still be a significant knock-on effect on the health of her unborn child. A pregnant woman suffering from asbestos-related breathing difficulties, for example, might mean the baby being at risk of not receiving enough oxygen for optimal development.
Along similar lines, if a pregnant woman was to develop tumours in her stomach or abdomen, the tumours’ growth could consume nutrients that are required by the baby.
Asbestos risk levels to unborn babies would seem relatively low – but they are unlikely to be zero
The good news is that, overall, there would not seem to be an especially great risk of an unborn child suffering direct health impacts as a consequence of the expectant mother ingesting or inhaling asbestos.
However, with the risk of such direct impacts not completely ruled out, and indirect impacts seemingly still possible, it remains vital for pregnant women to take every step they can to avoid coming into any direct contact with asbestos in the first place – for their health, and that of their baby.