Causes of stillbirth (not)


When we learned that Ada had passed away, we knew we wanted to share our sorrow on Facebook. We had been pretty public about our pregnancy from early on. This was in great part because we have friends and family all over the country, including many new or expecting parents, and we wanted to share with them. We also decided that, should we experience a loss, we would want our friends and family to know. We decided it was better to share our happiness and then, if the unthinkable should happen, share our grief. Of course, we never expected we would have to activate that plan, but we are so glad for the support of our friends and family. It’s meant so much to us.

While I am a bit more selective about who I friend on Facebook so I feel comfortable sharing there, I have a non-private Twitter account. So, I was hesitant to post anything about Ada on Twitter. But my real life friends and Twitter friends overlap, so some people were finding out… long story short, I decided to be open about Ada on Twitter too, and I am glad I did. The support there has been amazing and has helped with my healing process.

The reason why I was hesitant to tweet about Ada is that I write (and tweet) about agriculture. Specifically, I like to talk about the science behind agriculture, which has shown appropriate use of biotechnology and pesticides to be safe for consumers. I occasionally get snipey tweets from “anti GMO” folks, and I just knew it was only a matter of time before someone claimed that it’s my fault Ada died because I didn’t eat all organic or some such thing.

I’ve been preemptively blocking anyone who says anything negative to me lately, just because I didn’t want to deal with it. That reflex probably shielded me from a lot, but tonight I got my first accusation. The tweets have since been deleted, but here they are (name withheld to protect the stupid):


I suppose I can’t complain too much because at least this person attempted to be polite (at least at first, now they’re just talking crap about me), but it’s pretty horrible that anyone would be so tied to their agenda that they would effectively accuse a woman of killing her baby. I am just thankful that I got these tweets tonight, when I’ve had some time to heal. I don’t think I would have handled it well last week at all. Still, I knew not to bother trying to sleep till I finished this post.

In the end, I know even more now that I have a lot of support out there, both from people I know in person and those whom I have not yet met. I am heartened more than I am saddened by this experience, and I have been inspired to write a post about it to boot, entwining my babyloss blog with my science communication activities. So, random tweeter, thank you for inspiring this post.

Causes of stillbirth (not)

Humans like explanations. We need explanations. Think horses pulling the sun chariot because we didn’t know why the sun rises. Think parents wanting to blame autism on vaccinations because we don’t fully understand why autism happens. Stillbirth is a lot like that. In a lot of cases (up to 50% of all stillbirths where an autopsy is performed), no reason is found. Unfortunately, this was the case for us. Little Ada was perfect, and there doesn’t seem to be any concerns with my health either. Having a reason wouldn’t make the loss any less painful but at least one could be reassured a little – knowing what went wrong means you have something to avoid should you choose pregnancy again. Not knowing can be very stressful, so I would totally understand if someone would want to find something to blame.

I’ve been planning a science-based post about what are known causes of stillbirth, but I think it’s necessary to spend a little time on what doesn’t cause stillbirth… it’s not pesticide residues or GMOs.

In the US and other “first world” countries, pesticides are very highly regulated by the EPA. In the US specifically, pesticide residues on food are not allowed above certain thresholds (called tolerances). The thresholds are developed using studies on animals, then additional safety factors are added to consider unknown effects such as combinations of residues or effects on children or immunocompromised persons. The USDA monitors the pesticide residues on food and finds year after year that our produce is very safe with regard to pesticide residues (yes, that includes non-organic produce).

Does this mean that all pesticides are 100% safe? Of course not. The whole point of a pesticide is to kill some organism. As a Department of Defense certified pesticide applicator I learned that pesticides must be treated with great caution. Some pesticides are more dangerous than others, but there’s a big difference between being the person handling the sprayer and the person in the grocery store choosing which produce to buy. Pesticide applicators are often exposed to potentially dangerous levels of pesticides, which is why it’s so important to read the labels and use appropriate protective gear.

The reason why this person’s tweets made me so upset is that they are belittling the very real problems experienced by women (and men, and sadly even children) who apply pesticides on farms and other places. This can especially be a problem for low-wage workers. They may not be able to read pesticide labels and may not have access to protective gear. Women may not have the luxury of taking leave while pregnant so must continue to be exposed to pesticides at work – or they may be exposed to pesticides before they know they are pregnant. They may be exposed while washing the work clothes of family members, or by living too close to fields. These higher levels of exposure could potentially be enough to cause problems with a growing fetus.

We should be speaking out in favor of safer conditions for farm workers and other pesticide applicators, following the science. We can find ways to help all people avoid any unsafe pesticide exposure at home and at work, especially pregnant women. Education for workers and managers is key, as is integrated pest management. Laws mandating use of protective gear (with penalties for those employers who don’t provide gear to workers) may be useful. It does not help, and may even hurt, to falsely tie consumer-level exposure to these real problems. People frequently point to studies on farm workers that show harm from pesticides as proof that pesticide residues will harm all of us. They are ignoring the very different exposure route and very different levels of exposure, which is not a very scientific way of looking at things.

There are a few studies that are often pointed to by people who want to claim pesticides are dangerous. I had written quite a few paragraphs about these but of course my WordPress app seems to have lost them, which is very frustrating. I’ll try to rewrite it quickly because I really need to try to sleep…

Some studies expose various human cells to pesticides. The problem with these studies is that there is no exposure route in which you will get a pesticide in direct contact with cells in your kidneys, placenta, etc. Our skin has evolved to protect our cells from the outside environment and it does a very good job. Things that are perfectly safe for our skin cells, such as shampoo or salt water, are deadly to other cell types. This does not mean we should sound the alarms for shampoo and salt water. These types of studies may indicate that more research is needed, but they don’t tell us anything about real world effects of pesticides on human health.

The other study that I’ve seen a lot of people point to claimed to find Bt and Roundup in the blood of pregnant women. The study had a lot of methodological problems, as I described at Biofortified. They didn’t prove there was any pesticide in the blood, and even if they had, they didn’t have any evidence there was a problem.

There have been many feeding studies conducted with GMOs, including long term and generational studies, and many of these were conducted with independent funding (some of these studies can be found here). But if people don’t want to consider the studies, they can use common sense. Humans eat a varied diet that includes very small amounts of ingredients made from GMOs. The animals that produce our meat, milk, and eggs (as well as many lab animals) eat a diet that is almost exclusively made of GMO corn and soy. If there were any harmful effects to be found, these animals would show widespread problems. Farmers would refuse GMO feeds if it caused their animals to be sick or to have reproductive problems. This just isn’t happening.


Pregnant woman can not harm their babies by eating regular foods. We are more likely to harm ourselves and our babies by eating too much sugar or salt. We can protect our babies by avoiding pesticide application while pregnant. Everyone should use protective gear while applying pesticides.

Edit: Thinking about this a bit more, I’m wondering what I did to deserve it. It’s like people don’t even bother to read what I’ve said before chiming in with uninvited accusations that it’s my fault Ada died. God forbid anyone ask questions or try to have a reasonable conversation with me before making assumptions about me. I’ve always talked about the dangers of pesticides, ever since 2000 when I had some rather scary military training about pesticides that included visits from elderly gentlemen who actually had neurological problems from all the pesticides they’d been exposed to. Based on the accusations, you’d think I was running around singing the praises of pesticides and plastic, trying to force my ideas on others. In reality, my only crime is relying on science, and I don’t instigate conversations with the antis. I’m pro science, not pro GMO or pro chemical inputs. Is it really so wrong to seek well-conducted, replicated studies before I leap to conclusions? I’m a liberal, I’m an environmentalist, I embrace science-based sustainability, I even took the time to minor in sustainable ag in grad school – I’m a turq! I spend plenty of time asking questions about over-use of technology. You’d think someone like me would be considered an ally, not an enemy. I don’t think I’ll ever understand the vitriol that comes towards me down the crap chute that is the internet. I have more than enough guilt about Ada as it is, I don’t need insensitive strangers trying to ladle more on in order to further their agenda.


3 thoughts on “Causes of stillbirth (not)

  1. Jani-Petri Martikainen says:

    Sorry to hear about the terrible loss for you and your family. You do a great job and I hope you all the best.

  2. Sarah [] says:

    I’m so sorry to read of your loss and even more sorry for you and troubled that you had to read those tweets that someone so ignorantly and stupidly wrote.

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