Q&A: paint fumes affecting a fetus (updated)

Angie jumps right to the front of the long queue with this:

"I just arrived at my parents house for Christmas, with my partner and10-month-old baby.  I am 15 weeks pregnant, and haven't told anyone as I'm waiting for the amnio results.  We found out as we arrived that my mother painted the whole house a week ago with both latex and oil paint, to spruce up for the holidays.  A little shortsighted, since she lives in New England and it is too cold to leave the windows open.  Despite trying to air out the fumes for a week, the house reeks in all rooms, including where we are sleeping.  I am miserable because of my superhuman sense of smell due to the pregnancy, but I am especially worried about exposure to the fumes for the fetus, as well as for the 10-week old.  We are supposed to stay here for a week, which I am not sure I can stand.

Do you have any input or thoughts, or better skills than I at extracting specific info from the internet?"

Who leaves people hanging for amnio results over a holiday weekend?!

I wish I could say, "Don't worry--it's totally fine," but I obviously can't. On the other hand, I wouldn't spend much time worrying about it for two reasons. The first is that the rooms were painted a week ago so the paint is dry, and it's just the smells and chemicals outgassing, not actual wet paint fumes. Is there any chance that the house is one of those charmingly drafty New England homes, the kind with high heating costs and no danger of radon scares? If so, then you have even less to worry about.

The other thing that makes me not worry so much is that you're in your 15th week. From what we're learning about fetal alcohol exposure, weeks 3-6 appear to be the most critical for staying away from exposure to damaging toxins, but the rest of the first trimester is also the time of greatest and most significant development. A day or two of exposure to smelly paint fumes at 15 weeks is hardly the same as it would be at 5 weeks.

If you want to leave the house, you'll have to bring up the highly legitimate concern of whether your 10-month-old baby should be exposed to paint fumes. It sounds like your mother just wasn't thinking clearly, and thought the fumes would be gone by now, because surely she wouldn't want to expose her grandchild to the fumes. Use that to get you out of the house as much as possible, even if it's just to go stand by the back door inhaling some clean air, or going out to post-holiday sales, or going to visit other people. You can always use the old standby of blaming your pediatrician as an excuse to get out as much as possible.

(FWIW, when I was nine weeks pregnant with my second, my aunt highlighted my hair for me. When I went to wash it out in the shower the fan in the bathroom was broken. I was sucking down hot ammonia steam for a solid 10 minutes, trying desperately to get it out of my hair and my system. I still look at him and wonder if he wouldn't bite me so much if I hadn't inhaled all that ammonia. I don't really think it did him any harm, but I also don't think I'll ever stop feeling guilty about it completely.)

I hope your amnio results come back with no cause for concern.

Are there any toxicologists reading who know more about paint fumes specifically? Or anyone else to offer pseudo-comforting toxin exposure stories like my ammonia confession?

UPDATE: Reader Sarah reminds me that the best place to find out info about any kind of prenatal exposure is to call the counselors at OTIS, the Organization of Teratology Information Specialists.  Their number is 1-866-626-OTIS.  They are experts at giving pregnant women information about all sorts of situations like this -- this is the service the CDC refers women to when they call about exposure issues.

Thanks, Sarah!