Kaiser doctor lauded for protecting babies from toxins
Dr. Jeanne Conry doesn’t have much leisurely time left for bird watching anymore.
There also isn’t much time for hiking, swimming, gardening or visiting her fashion-designer daughter in Paris. Her son works as an emergency room technician in Roseville.
The obstetrician and assistant physician-in-chief at Kaiser Permanente Roseville Medical Center is fully immersed in studying the impact of environmental toxins on reproductive health and sharing those lessons with others, including her patients and colleagues with the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. In May, Conry, 60, becomes the fourth female president in the group’s more than six decades of existence.
The Granite Bay resident recently earned recognition by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency as an “eco-friendly hero” who has contributed to protecting public health. She was honored during a ceremony on Jan. 8.
“EPA applauds Dr. Jeanne Conry for her national leadership to promote better health for babies and women by preventing harmful chemical exposures during pregnancy,” said EPA Regional Administrator Jared Blumenfeld, in a news release. “She has made reproductive environmental health a key new emphasis for the obstetrics community.”
Doctors have long known that obesity and diabetes in pregnant woman leads to higher risk of birth defects, but Conry looks at the larger environmental picture — research indicates that most pregnant women have measurable levels of chemicals in their bodies such as mercury, pesticides, bisphenol A (BPA), lead and flame retardants. Exposure can impact birth size and neurodevelopment, and cause defects and other health problems.
“If you know you’re going to have a baby next year, we love that,” Conry said. “Then you can come in and we can counsel you. But that’s not reality. Fifty percent of all pregnancies are unplanned.”
The goal: help women make positive health choices and stay healthy all the time, even if they don’t plan to conceive.
Born in San Francisco, Conry graduated from California State University, Chico and earned her Ph.D. in biology from the University of Colorado. In medical school at the University of California, Davis, she figured she’d become a pediatrician.
“You’re supposed to do whatever rotation you don’t think you’re going to go into first, so I did ob-gyn,” Conry said. “I was hooked the moment I started the rotation … you do a little bit of everything.”
In the 23 years she’s been with Kaiser, Conry helped open the Women’s and Children’s Center and has served on several task forces. Through it all, her interest in preconception health has remained.
Science increasingly shows that certain chemicals are cause for concern. In Conry’s office on a recent morning, she pointed out a chart showing the significant increase of testicular cancer, breast cancer and hypospadias — a birth defect of the penis — and the decline in sperm count over the past 40 years. This change over such a short timeframe can’t be explained by genetics. So what about the increased exposure to chemicals in the industrialized world?
New medications are thoroughly researched before entering the market, unlike chemicals, which can be released into the environment with no research done. Then a few decades later, we start to see the impact, Conry said.
“Mercury poisoning is the classic example,” she said.
In the small seaside town of Minamata, Japan, a company dumped tons of methylmercurcy into the bay over the course of several decades. People living there in the 1950s consumed a lot of fish and the mercury poisoning led to neurological damage in the next generation.
“But it took another 20 years before anyone accepted the research on mercury,” Conry said. “We assume everything is safe until proven otherwise.”
She urges the precautionary principle instead: Assume it’s harmful until proven otherwise.
Conry said physicians have a responsibility to not be “an ostrich with our head in the sand,” and talk to their patients about harmful chemicals. For instance, she said, if you can choose to use the metal water bottle or the plastic one lined with bisphenol A, pick the metal option.
Ultimately, she said, being exposed to fewer chemicals will be a consumer-driven change, determined by the purchasing choices we make.