Markers of an Unhealthy Pregnancy: An Assessment of The Ingestion of Soft Rocks During Pregnancy and Blood Lead Levels in Luo Women of Rural Western Kenya
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Geophagia, the consumption of soil or “soft rocks,” is a common practice in certain regions of the world. Although the composition of these non-food items varies regionally, multiple studies have found detrimental health effects, specifically lead toxicity. Trace amounts of lead have been found in the soft rocks that are typically consumed by Luo women living on the Nyakach Plateau in rural western Kenya, and a 1999 study conducted in this area found that 54% of the women admitted to consuming soft rocks during pregnancy. The purpose of this study was to determine the extent of soft rocks consumption during pregnancy and a potential correlation with blood lead levels of mothers living on the Plateau in the Nyanza Province. A 30-question survey about nutritional habits during pregnancy was given to 49 Luo mothers, and their anthropometric (height and weight) and blood (hemoglobin and lead) measurements were recorded. Close to half of the women stated that they had eaten soft rocks during pregnancy, and the average blood lead level of this group was 5.89 μg/dL (range= 4.0-16.0, SD= 2.31). A significant relationship was found between the level of exposure (zero, medium, or high level of soft rocks consumption) and blood lead level (F= 3.76, R2= 0.165054, p= 0.0325). When asked the reason for ingesting the soft rocks, 52% of the women stated their “craving” for the rocks as their primary reason, with the second most-frequent response being a cultural reason. Other alarming findings were that two-thirds stated they ate less during pregnancy, and half of them said they were in poor health during this time. A significant correlation between increased soft rocks consumption and increased lead levels in the bloodstream could indicate that the two are related, or the association may be a marker of general poor health and health behaviors. The findings of this analysis demonstrate high levels of geophagia among the women in this particular region, which may have negative effects on themselves and potentially on their children.