Brain Damage From Inhalants During Pregnancy

Inhalants are a broad, diverse group of chemicals united mainly by their role in opportunistic substance abuse among preteens, teenagers and adults.

When used during pregnancy, these chemicals can pass into a fetus’s bloodstream, sometimes triggering miscarriage, premature childbirth and damage to normal brain development.

In addition, afflicted babies can develop a condition called “fetal solvent syndrome,” according to the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. It produces effects that strongly resemble those of fetal alcohol syndrome.

Like alcohol and classic drugs of abuse that produce harmful changes in pregnancy — such as cocaine, amphetamine, methamphetamine and heroin— inhalants achieve their negative pregnancy-related effects because they can pass through a blood vessel network called the placental barrier, which indirectly connects the blood supply of an expectant mother and the blood supply of her developing fetus inside the placenta. In order to survive, a fetus relies on this barrier for the transfer of oxygen and nutrients from the maternal bloodstream; it also relies on the placental barrier to pass carbon dioxide and other types of waste to the maternal bloodstream for eventual elimination.

Miscarriage and premature birth

Miscarriages occur in the initial 20 weeks of pregnancy when the fetus and placenta spontaneously stop functioning and (in most cases) pass from the uterus. The National Inhalant Prevention Coalition identifies two types of inhalants — nitrous oxide (laughing gas, “whippets”) and a chemical called trichloroethylene — as potential causes of a miscarriage. Nitrous oxide is found in certain surgical and dental anesthetics, as well as in whipped cream canisters; products that contain trichloroethylene include adhesives, sealants, antifreeze, and certain types of glue and paint. A premature birth occurs whenever a child is born before the 37th week of a pregnancy; this type of birth can produce a variety of health problems, including brain hemorrhages, delayed brain development, cerebral palsy, reduced immune system function, jaundice, and deficits in hearing or vision. Inhalants linked to increased risks for premature birth include toluene and Freon.

Altered brain development

Inside an expectant mother’s bloodstream, inhalants called volatile solvents can significantly reduce the amount of oxygen available for transfer to a developing fetus, the Royal Women’s Hospital reports. In turn, reduced oxygen flow to the fetus can potentially produce oxygen deficits that alter or delay the development of the brain skills that people rely on from birth for such basic tasks as learning, using memory, and exercising higher-level judgment and decision-making abilities. In some cases, these delays may be temporary; in other cases, they may remain as permanent mental impairments. Inhalants classified as volatile solvents include paint thinner, paint remover, gasoline, de-greasers and various types of dry-cleaning fluid.

Fetal Solvent Syndrome

In most cases, fetal solvent syndrome occurs in the children of women who used an inhalant called toluene during their pregnancies. Substances that contain this chemical are typically volatile solvents, and include gasoline, paint removers, paint thinners, certain types of glue and paint, and certain types of nail polish. As stated previously, the symptoms of fetal solvent syndrome strongly resemble the symptoms of fetal alcohol syndrome; according to a study published in 2003 in the journal American Family Physician, they include low birth weight, an unusually low level of muscle tone (hypotonia), facial abnormalities that are present from birth (congenital), blunted fingertips, a head size that’s noticeably too small for a newborn’s body size and unusually small fingernails. Additional potential symptoms of the syndrome include permanent mental impairment and reduced or delayed growth of the head and skull after childbirth.

Chromosome alteration or damage

Besides toluene, specific chemicals in volatile solvents that can trigger the onset of fetal solvent syndrome include benzene, petroleum ether, xylene and methanol; all of these chemicals are frequently found in substances preferred by inhalant users. Since many of the chemicals capable of producing fetal solvent syndrome appear in gasoline, doctors also sometimes refer to the condition as “fetal gasoline syndrome.” Among all inhalants, toluene is particularly well-known for its ability to damage fetal or newborn health when used during pregnancy. Apart from fetal solvent syndrome, specific potential impacts of the chemical include chromosome alteration or outright chromosome damage, increased risks for a miscarriage or stillbirth, and an increased risk for withdrawal symptoms in a child born to an inhalant user.

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