Teratogens

Nationwide Cerebral Palsy Resource Network

A birth defect, also known as a congenital anomaly, is defined as a functional, metabolic or structural abnormality that develops during or prior to birth, but usually does not present itself until the time a child is actually born. Birth defects can be caused by a wide variety of factors, including exposure to teratogens, or toxins.

There are more than 4,000 types of birth defects that are currently known, with some more serious than others. Generally speaking, birth defects often lead to significant mental, emotional and physical challenges and in certain cases, may be fatal. If your child developed a birth defect due to teratogen exposure, please call Stern Law, PLLC (800)462-5772 for a free review of your case.

What exactly are teratogens?

Teratogen exposure is one of the more common ways in which fetal abnormalities can manifest. Specifically, teratogens are drugs or other substances that are capable of interfering with the normal growth and development of a fetus. Any agent or factor that causes malformation of an embryo is referred to as a teratogen, which is usually something in the environment that you may be exposed to during your pregnancy. Examples of teratogens include:

  • Chemicals
  • Prescription and over-the-counter medications
  • Radiation
  • Viruses
  • Drugs
  • Stressors
  • Malnutrition, which can impair prenatal development

Over-the-counter and prescription drugs are common teratogens, and not surprisingly, a majority of women might use these substances at some point during their pregnancy. Although there are many drugs that are safe for pregnant women to consume, there are some that may pose a threat to the health and welfare of a growing fetus. A fetus that is exposed to teratogens may be born with a number of complications, including birth defects and developmental malformations. Typically, abnormalities arise during the first trimester when your child’s organ systems are forming.

Accordingly, doctors and other medical professionals have an unwavering duty to recommend or prescribe only over-the-counter medicine or prescription drugs they know are safe during each stage of gestation. The failure of medical professionals to adhere to this standard of care that all pregnant women and their unborn children deserve may result in significant liability should birth defects occur.

Teratogenic prescription and over-the-counter drugs and birth defects

Teratogenic medications may cause birth defects in one of three ways:

  • They can directly cause harm to a fetus
  • They can cause damage to the umbilical cord of placenta
  • They can cause the onset of contractions to occur and/or the premature delivery of a child

With this in mind, the following are a list of some of the most common drugs known to cause birth defects in unborn children:

  • Antibiotics - While certain antibiotics such as penicillins, cephalosporins, and erythromycins are generally considered safe for consumption by pregnant women, others are not. Unsafe medicines include tetracyclines, sulfa drugs, or Bactrim, nitrofurantoins, or Furadantin and Macrobid, and ciprofloxins, all of which have been associated with causing serious birth defects in unborn children.
  • Benzodiazepines – Drugs such as sleeping pills, tranquillizers – including lithium and phenothiazine – and other anti-anxiety medications have been associated with congenital deformities, including cleft lips and cleft palates.
  • Anti-tumor medications – Drugs such as Aminopterin are used to treat malignant tumors, but they have been associated with a variety of different birth defects. They work by blocking folic acid, which is crucial for DNA production and cellular growth in an unborn baby. Folic acid is used by many pregnant women to help prevent birth defects. When a substances blocks folic acid, it increases the likelihood of a child developing certain defects, such as brain abnormalities including anencephaly, hydrocephalus, neural tube defects and facial deformities such as cleft lips and cleft palates.
  • Anti-cancer medications – Teratogens such as Chlorambucil, Cyclophosphamide, and Bulsulfan have been associated with birth defects such as underdevelopment, mental retardation and cleft palates and lips.
  • Anti-seizure medications – Anticonvulsants such as Valproate and Toprimate can lead to serious birth defects including organ deformities, congenital deformities of the face and mouth, and spina bifida.
  • Accutane, Soriatane and other similar dermatological drugs -These types of medications should not be taken by a pregnant woman under any circumstances, as they can cause significant harm to a developing fetus, such as heart defects, underdevelopment of the lower jaw, and other serious birth defects. In fact, these drugs should not be used by a woman for a period of three years prior to conception.
  • Blood thinners - Warfarin and many other anti-coagulant medications can cause central nervous system defects such as mental retardation, as well as optic nerve abnormalities and conditions.
  • Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, or NSAIDs – Aspirin, ibuprofen and other similar drugs known as salicylates can cause certain birth complications as well as birth defects such as cleft palates and cleft lips in unborn children.
  • Anti-depressants – Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, or SSRIs, are used to treat depression, anxiety and other emotional disorders. They have been shown to cross the placenta and affect a growing baby. While the majority of SSRI’s have a mild effect on a child, some can cause debilitating birth defects. In 2005, the FDA issued a public warning that Paxil can double the risk of having a child with heart defects if taken during a pregnant woman’s first trimester. A study issued in 2006 found that when taken during pregnancy, Prozac greatly increases the risk of a child born with a type of birth defect known as PPHN, or primary pulmonary hypertension.
  • Hormones – Medications such as androgens and progestins have been shown to cause female babies to be born with more masculine features. Specifically, the child’s clitoris may be enlarged as well as the outer lips of her genitalia may be fused. Additionally, a hormone known as DES, or diethylstilbestrol, is a form of estrogen that can cause abnormalities in a female baby’s uterus, vagina and cervix.
  • Blood pressure medication – Drugs known as angiotensin-converting enzyme, or ACE inhibitors, are used to treat hypertension. This medication can cause a litany of birth defects to develop during pregnancy, such as fetal grown restriction, abnormalities of the kidneys and sometimes death of an unborn child.

Teratogenic environmental hazards and birth defects

Several chemicals and environmental hazards are known to cause serious congenital abnormalities in a growing fetus. Whether through inhalation, skin absorption or ingestion, a pregnant woman can unknowingly expose her unborn child to teratogenic hazards, such as:

  • Cadmium
  • Lead
  • Arsenic
  • Mercury
  • Carbon monoxide
  • Chlorine
  • Toluene, and other organic solvents
  • PCBs
  • Pesticides
  • Fungicides
  • Rodenticides
  • Xylene
  • Methyl ethyl ketone
  • Radiation, including X-rays

Alcohol, smoking, drugs and birth defects

Alcohol, cigarette smoke and illegal drugs are highly toxic to a fetus and may cause serious and sometimes life threatening birth defects, as follows:

  • Alcohol - As most people are aware, alcohol is a well-known cause of birth defects and other serious conditions during pregnancy. Specifically, even small to moderate amounts of alcohol consumed during pregnancy may contribute to serious developmental problems in an unborn baby. Generally, abnormalities caused by alcohol may include deformities of the face and extremities as well as heart conditions, mental retardation and fetal growth restrictions. Most frequently however, children born to women who consumed alcohol during their pregnancy typically suffer from developmental, psychological and behavioral problems. Notwithstanding this, the culmination of the aforementioned mental and physical defects that can develop in a fetus exposed to alcohol is known as fetal alcohol syndrome, which involves permanent and irreversible damage to a child’s central nervous system.
  • Cigarette smoke – Smoking during pregnancy or being exposed to second hand smoke is linked to several different fetal abnormalities, such as fetal growth restrictions and preterm delivery. Smoking can also cause developmental problems in the brain, respiratory and cardiovascular systems of an unborn baby. The extent of harm to a child depends upon how much a mother smokes during her pregnancy, and for how long.
  • Drugs - Exposure to illegal substances such as marijuana, amphetamines, and opioid drugs during pregnancy can cause significant fetal abnormalities and other serious conditions in an unborn child. If a mother uses marijuana during her pregnancy, it could cause her child to be born with low blood sugar, intracranial bleeding, low levels of calcium in the blood, and other problems such as low birth weight, difficulties with feeding, irritability and rapid breathing. With regard to amphetamines, also known as “speed,” these types of drugs are responsible for stimulating the central nervous system. However, when used during pregnancy, they can result in serious birth complications, such as low fetal birth weight, intracranial bleeding, and premature birth. The use of opioid drugs such as methadone and heroin during pregnancy can also lead to various birth defects and fetal abnormalities, such as low birth weight, fetal grow restriction and premature birth. Lastly, those who consume cocaine during pregnancy have a higher likelihood of miscarriage and also, giving birth to a child with fetal grown restriction, microcephaly, abnormalities in the genital and urinary tracts and neurobehavioral problems. If a woman uses any of the aforementioned drugs, it can lead to a condition known as neonatal abstinence syndrome, which is where a newborn experiences drug withdrawal.

If you suspect that you were exposted to teratogenic drugs or other substances due to medical negligence, it is crucial that you consider your legal rights and options. Please contact Stern Law, PLLC by calling (800)462-5772 for a free consultation.