By Chris Stallman, Certified Genetic Counselor, MotherToBaby Arizona
As a teratogen information specialist, I provide the most up-to-date information about exposures during pregnancy, breastfeeding, before pregnancy or in cases of adoption. Over the years, I have been asked questions about hair dye, heroin, and lots of things in between. I never thought I would be getting questions from multiple people about tear gas and pepper spray exposure during pregnancy. But here we are.
Protests happening in many cities in the United States right now are resulting in some exposure to riot control agents such as tear gas and pepper spray. Even if women who know they are pregnant do not participate in a protest, about 50% of pregnancies in the US are unplanned. This means some women who are participating in the protests may not even know they are pregnant at the time of exposure.
Common protest-related exposures that we have been asked about include:
There are multiple chemicals in tear gas. It can cause tearing of the eyes, irritation of mucous membranes, cough, difficulty breathing and irritation to the skin. A common chemical in tear gas is called 2-chlorobenzalmalononitrile (also called o-chlorobenzylidene malononitrile or CS for short).
In every pregnancy, a woman starts out with a 3-5% chance of having a baby with a birth defect. This is called her background risk. Based on the very limited information we have, exposure to CS gas is not expected to increase the chance of birth defects over the background risk. A report looking at CS exposure found no major increases in miscarriages, stillbirths, or birth defects.
The active ingredient in pepper spray is capsaicin, a chemical that comes from chili peppers. Effects from pepper spray exposure can include irritation of the eyes, skin, and mucous membranes, coughing, and trouble breathing or speaking. Like tear gas, there is very limited information on the use of capsaicin in pregnancy and from what we do know, it is not expected to increase the chance of birth defects over the background risk.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has more information on riot control agents such as tear gas and pepper spray, as well as tips on how you can protect yourself and what to do if you are exposed: https://emergency.cdc.gov/agent/riotcontrol/factsheet.asp.
Trauma can be caused by physical injury, such as being hit (by a hand or fist or by objects such as a baton or a rubber bullet) or falling. Trauma can also be psychological, which can stem from violence or from mental/emotional stress. There are individual reports of babies born with and without birth defects following trauma. Pregnancy outcomes may differ based on the type of trauma experienced and based on the severity of the trauma. Our fact sheet on trauma has more information: https://mothertobaby.org/fact-sheets/trauma/.
For most of us, stress is a part of “normal” life. However, the world is anything but normal right now. While it is unlikely that stress alone will increase the chance of birth defects, being under a lot of stress over time can affect your health and well-being. Stress can increase the chance for developing conditions such as high blood pressure or depression. If you already have medical problems, stress may make them worse. If stress is causing you to have any medical problems, it’s suggested that you talk to your healthcare provider. More information about stress during pregnancy and breastfeeding can be found in our fact sheet at https://mothertobaby.org/fact-sheets/stress-pregnancy/.
As crowds gather, it’s important to practice social distancing and other safety techniques to prevent the spread of COVID-19. For a recent MotherToBaby Fact Sheet on COVID-19 in pregnancy, please visit: https://mothertobaby.org/fact-sheets/covid-19/.
Of course, it’s suggested for women who are pregnant to minimize these exposures as much as possible. However, sometimes it’s unavoidable. Just know that even during these troubled times, if you have questions for us at MotherToBaby, we are here to answer them as best we can.
We’re all in this together. Please be safe out there.
Chris Stallman is a certified genetic counselor based in Tucson, Arizona and proud mother of four. She currently works for The University of Arizona as a Teratogen Information Specialist and Program Coordinator at MotherToBaby Arizona. Chris is also the host of the The MotherToBaby Podcast where she answers callers’ questions and interviews other experts on topics related to exposures, like medications and more, during pregnancy and breastfeeding.
MotherToBaby is a service of the Organization of Teratology Information Specialists (OTIS), suggested resources by many agencies including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). If you have questions about exposures during pregnancy and breastfeeding, please call MotherToBaby toll-FREE at 866-626-6847 or try out MotherToBaby’s new text information service by texting questions to (855) 999-3525. You can also visit MotherToBaby.org to browse a library of fact sheets about dozens of viruses, medications, vaccines, alcohol, diseases, or other exposures during pregnancy and breastfeeding or connect with all of our resources by downloading the new MotherToBaby free app, available on Android and iOS markets. Also, make sure to subscribe to The MotherToBaby Podcast available on iTunes, Google Play Music, Spotify and podcatchers everywhere.