Canadian study finds over 400 new reasons not to drink while pregnant

Should pregnant women abstain from alcohol? New research has once again reignited the debate.
Should pregnant women abstain from alcohol? New research has once again reignited the debate. AP Photo/Eric Risberg

The belief that pregnant women should abstain from alcohol is getting more support from what’s being called the most comprehensive review of its kind.

It identifies 428 distinct diseases that can occur in people with Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders (FASD). Those diseases can affect nearly every organ and system of the body, according to Toronto’s Centre for Addiction and Mental Health which examined 128 studies to come up with the findings.

The most severe cases had high levels of hearing loss and impaired vision.

The frequency of hearing loss was estimated to be up to 129 times higher among people with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (the most severe form of FASD) than the general population. Blindness and low vision were 31 and 71 times higher, respectively.

More than 90 per cent of those with FAS also had behavioural problems. About eight in 10 had communications disorders, related to either understanding or expressing language. Seven in 10 had developmental or cognitive disorders, and more than half had problems with attention and hyperactivity.

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Despite conflicting messages — like the previous suggestion that “light drinking” is safe — lead author Dr. Lana Popova feels this research speaks for itself.

“Alcohol can affect any organ or system in the developing fetus,” she stressed.

The researchers say the severity and symptoms of FASD can vary based on how much and when alcohol was consumed, as well as other factors like the mother’s stress levels, nutrition and environmental influences.

Genetic factors like the body’s ability to break down alcohol, in both the mother and fetus, also play a role.

For Popova, the underlying message is clear.

“If you want to have a healthy child, stay away from alcohol when you’re planning a pregnancy and throughout your whole pregnancy.”

The Public Health Agency of Canada, which supports Popova’s study, has also taken the stance that alcohol and pregnancy don’t mix. It argues that “no one knows how much alcohol it takes to harm a developing baby.”

The federal agency recommends pregnant women avoid all types of alcohol: beer, wine, cocktails, coolers, hard liquor and hard ciders.

Despite that, different Canadian surveys suggest that between six and 14 per cent of women drink during pregnancy.

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Dr. Rena Mendelson, a Ryerson University nutrition professor who does not treat pregnancy patients, still feels “an occasional drink is not going to cause severe damage.”

She shared her thoughts with Global News after British researchers claimed in 2013 that expectant moms can consume about two units of alcohol a week (a unit is about half a pint of beer or a single measure or a glass of red wine) without putting their developing babies at risk.

She also admitted there were a number of shortcomings with the British study.

READ MORE: Reality check: Is light drinking during pregnancy safe?

The study even suggested that boys born to “light drinkers” had slightly fewer behavioural problems and higher reading skills, Time reported.

Dr. Gideon Koren, of Sick Kids Hospital in Toronto, has studied the controversial subject for decades and vehemently disagreed with the findings.

He said in his study that he found it surprising that some “Canadian women and many family physicians still believe that women can continue to drink during pregnancy.”

It’s estimated that FASD costs $1.8 billion annually in Canada, due largely to productivity losses, corrections and health care costs, among others.

CAMH researchers believe improving screening and diagnosis is needed. They feel earlier access to programs or resources may prevent or reduce secondary outcomes that can occur among those with FASD, such as problems with relationships, schooling, employment, mental health and addictions, or with the law.

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“We can prevent these issues at many stages,” Popova said.

Her team’s next project will focus on how common FASD is in Canada, compared to Eastern and Central Europe and Africa. 

With files from Carmen Chai, Global News