Ultra-Sounds: Ultra Safe?

Surely you’ve seen the pics on Facebook of your friends’ adorable fetuses.  Ok, not really adorable, let’s be honest here, they look weird crosses between the non-Arnold Terminator and the alien from Alien. But, to their parents at least, those first pictures of Junior couldn’t be more precious.

It seems so routine: of course you’ll have an ultrasound, everyone does, why the hell wouldn’t you?  Well, no one talks about why you wouldn’t, so I am going to do just that.  You don’t need to hear the pro’s; you may want to ponder the con’s a bit.

The main con: we just don’t know that much about the risks and possible negative effects of ultrasounds.  After all, they’re pretty new in the grand scheme of things, and fetuses aren’t that communicative – how would they tell us if something hurt or bothered them?  Squirm is about the only thing they could do (which, actually, seems to happen a lot during ultrasounds).

The official, mainstream line is that ultrasounds carry zero risks.  However there is good reason to doubt this.

This article very thoroughly describes the evidence that repeat ultrasounds may very well be a cause of permanent, long-term harm to the fetus.  Basically, studies showing that ultrasounds are safe took place with equipment made before 1992, which had much lower output levels (six to eight times lower that today’s).  These days, we use new equipment, and no large studies have been conducted with this new equipment.  That’s reason enough for pause, if you ask me.  The article describes a few small studies the results of which suggest ultrasounds carry serious risks to the fetus: “Single or small studies on humans exposed to ultrasound have shown that possible adverse effects include premature ovulation, preterm labor or miscarriage, low birth weight, poorer condition at birth, perinatal death, dyslexia, delayed speech development, and less right-handedness.”  Many other studies, however, have indicated that there are no risks.  Bottom line: we need new studies.  Until we have them, we can’t be sure ultrasounds are safe.

In this article from Midwifery Today – a great resource, BTW – a possible link between the increase in prenatal ultrasound and autism is suggested.  Of note: “The research, funded by the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, also implicated ultrasound in neurodevelopmental problems in children, such as dyslexia, epilepsy, mental retardation and schizophrenia, and showed that damage to brain cells increased with longer exposures.”

Let me be clear: there is no proven link between ultrasounds and any illness, disease, or defect.  But there is no proof that ultrasounds are safe, either.  Given that there is no medical benefit to repeat ultrasounds in the vast majority of cases, why have them, once you are informed of the facts (or lack thereof)?  Just so you can visually confirm that, yep, the little Alien is still there?  It just doesn’t make sense.

My two cents is that if you really want to know gender (though there are lots of reasons NOT to… topic of a future post), then get the one ultrasound.  After that, don’t get any more unless medically indicated.  If offered the ultrasound at a routine exam, simply say you’d rather not.  If someone has a problem with that, they’d better have a good reason — one that doesn’t include paying for the ultrasound equipment and the technician’s salary.