ORANGE — "There is no safe time to use cocaine in pregnancy."
That was the message pediatric researcher Ira J. Chasnoff brought to 100 Orange County pediatricians Tuesday night.
Describing his nationally known research on addicted mothers and their babies, Chasnoff said cocaine use in pregnancy can cause not only low-weight, premature, highly irritable babies, but also anatomical deformities--among them urinary and genital tract malformations, bowel perforations and tiny hands with only two fingers.
The baby may have been normal, the Chicago researchers said, but a single hit of cocaine may cause blood vessels in the mother and her fetus to constrict, digits on the developing baby to hemorrhage and the baby to be born without some of its fingers.
Chasnoff was invited to Orange County not just because local doctors were interested in the issue. Rather Orange County has a growing problem of drug-exposed babies too. County officials say more than 1,200 "drug babies" were born here last year and many experts here believe the number is even higher.
Before Chasnoff spoke, pediatricians from Fountain Valley and Los Alamitos said they have seen a growing number of drug-exposed babies in their private practices.
"There isn't a (hospital) nursery in the county where you don't have two to three babies lying around whose mothers were on drugs," said Burton Willis, a Fountain Valley pediatrician who is president-elect of the Orange County Pediatric Society.
Chasnoff said his studies show that white, middle-class women who visit private doctors are using drugs at about the same rate as black women who receive prenatal care at public clinics.
He sounded one note of hope, however. Drug-exposed babies at age 2 have caught up to normal babies in both weight and height, he said. Further, he emphasized, "these babies are not retarded."
Some of them may have school problems, he said, but at this point studies have not been completed on these children past age 2. Also, he said, rather than being "doomed" because they were exposed to drugs before birth, the babies can be helped by physicians to catch up to their peers.