How to Limit Pesticide Exposure During Pregnancy and Breastfeeding


From the moment you find out you’re pregnant, you may feel a powerful urge to protect your developing baby. Routine events, like grocery shopping, may be a new source of anxiety. Were those strawberries you’re craving sprayed with pesticides? If so, could they harm your baby? Learning more about what scientists know about pesticides and pregnancy, and how you can limit exposure, may help guide those grocery-aisle decisions.

Pesticides and Early Pregnancy

As the American Pregnancy Association explains, pesticides work by using chemicals to target pests’ nervous systems. Because your baby’s nervous system is developing between weeks 3 and 8 of your pregnancy, it’s generally wise to avoid pesticide exposure during this time in particular.

If you live in an agricultural area, the APA recommends removing yourself from the area altogether if possible. If you’re an avid gardener, consider stopping the use of pesticides in your home and yard, or leave the house while someone else sprays your plants.

Risks of Pesticides

Pesticide exposure during pregnancy has been linked with increased prevalence of several conditions, such as ADHD and autism. Studies have also found lower IQ scores associated with exposure to certain pesticides in early development. Some of these studies were based on a relatively small sample size, and the scientific community still has more to learn about the effects of pesticide exposure during pregnancy. Overall, though, the evidence seems to suggest it’s a good idea to take a conservative approach and keep pesticide exposure as low as possible.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention notes certain professions that carry a high risk for pesticide exposure:

  • Farmers
  • Greenhouse workers
  • Veterinarians and animal handlers
  • Landscapers
  • Lawn and pest service providers
  • Air crew

If you or your partner work in one of these fields, ask your employer about any possible accommodations to reduce contact with pesticides. Some pesticides can pass through to breast milk, so continue to minimize exposure until you are no longer nursing.

Why You Shouldn’t Panic

Links between neurological conditions and pesticide exposure can sound scary and overwhelming. But you may notice that in some of the studies, the pregnant women who participated lived in close proximity to agricultural centers or other areas that use large quantities of pesticides. Many people reading this don’t experience nearly the same levels of pesticide exposure.

The good news is that in many cases, incidental exposure to pesticides will not affect a pregnancy. If you apply flea medication to your dog before you know you’re pregnant, or pass by a landscaper spraying the bushes, don’t panic. There’s a high likelihood that everything will turn out fine.

Another piece of good news is that you may have a fair amount of control over your exposure to pesticides. For many families, ceasing use of in-home pesticides and switching to organic food when possible may have a big effect on reducing overall pesticide exposure.

Picking Fruits and Vegetables

USDA organic produce is not treated with pesticides. In order to be certified organic, a farm must cease pesticide use in the soil for at least three years. Eating organic food has been shown to reduce the pesticide residue in participants’ bodies.

The main downside to buying organic is cost. Organic produce tends to be considerably more expensive. One strategy that can help you balance budget and pesticide exposure is to be selective about organic purchases. The “dirty dozen” foods listed by the Environmental Working Group tend to have the highest levels of pesticides when grown using conventional methods:

  • Apples
  • Peaches
  • Nectarines
  • Strawberries
  • Grapes
  • Potatoes
  • Celery
  • Snap peas
  • Bell peppers
  • Spinach
  • Cucumber
  • Cherry tomatoes

Other foods, such as the “clean fifteen,” have far fewer pesticides:

  • Sweet potatoes
  • Avocados
  • Cauliflower
  • Sweet corn
  • Eggplant
  • Cabbage
  • Sweet peas
  • Onions
  • Asparagus
  • Cantaloupe
  • Grapefruit
  • Pineapples
  • Mangos
  • Papayas
  • Kiwis

A good rule of thumb is to check whether a food has a thick peel or other barrier that you remove before eating. If so, the peel may absorb much of the pesticide load, and since you throw it away, most of the chemicals don’t enter your body. If you can imagine yourself eating the peel, it’s worth reaching for the organically grown variety.