The use of sterilizing agents to prevent infections from being transmitted to patients via instruments and equipment may come at the price of the unborn child of a health care worker.
Despite workplace protections, pregnant nurses may still be at risk from exposure to chemotherapy and sterilizing agents like glutaradehyde. An analysis of information from almost 7,500 pregnant nurses in the Nurses’ Health Study found a significantly higher risk of spontaneous abortion in the first trimester among nurses who handled antineoplastic drugs and in the second trimester among nurses who worked with sterilizing agents.
“The women exposed to anti-neoplastic drugs had twice as high of risk as those who did not report that [exposure],” says Christina Lawson, PhD, epidemiologist with the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) in Cincinnati. There was a similar two-fold increase related to sterilizing agents, including ethylene oxide, formaldehyde and glutaraldehyde.
“We caution women that if something is termed a carcinogen, it’s probably also a reproductive hazard,” says Lawson. “Generally, you should stay away from carcinogens during pregnancy.”
The study is significant because it didn’t ask nurses only about known exposures, such as spills, says Martha Polovich, PhD, RN, AOCN, director of clinical practice at the Duke Oncology Network in Durham, NC. “They merely asked the nurses to report the number of hours they worked with these chemicals,” she says. “Nurses working with the chemicals had a higher rate of miscarriage.”