Dear EarthTalk: I've read that human breast milk contains toxins from pollution and other causes. How serious is this and what affect will it have on my baby?
—Skylar S., New York City
Researchers have found that those of us living in developed countries—men, women and children alike—carry around quite a toxic burden in our bodies from the constant exposure to various chemicals in our urban, suburban and even rural environments. If this weren’t alarming enough, the fact that these chemicals end up in breast milk and are in turn passed along to newborns is even more troubling.
According to writer Florence Williams, whose groundbreaking 2005 article in the New York Times Magazine opened many women’s eyes to the environmental health issues with breastfeeding, breast milk tends to attract heavy metals and other contaminants due to its high-fat and protein content. “When we nurse our babies, we feed them not only the fats, sugars and proteins that fire their immune systems, metabolisms and cerebral synapses,” she reports. “We also feed them, albeit in minuscule amounts, paint thinners, dry-cleaning fluids, wood preservatives, toilet deodorizers, cosmetic additives, gasoline byproducts, rocket fuel, termite poisons, fungicides and flame retardants.”
In the wake of such kinds of news reports, four nursing mothers came together in 2005 to form Make Our Milk Safe (MOMS), a nonprofit engaging in education, advocacy and corporate campaigns to try to eliminate toxic chemicals from the environment and in breast milk. The group educates pregnant women and others about the impacts on children of exposure to chemicals before, during and after pregnancy, and promotes safer alternatives to products such as cleaning supplies, food storage containers and personal care products that contain offending substances.
“Along with its antibodies, enzymes and general goodness, breast milk also contains dozens of compounds that have been linked to negative health effects,” reports MOMS, which lists Bisphenol A (BPA, a plastic component), PBDEs (used in flame retardants), perchlorate (used in rocket fuel), perfluorinated chemicals (PFCs, used in floor cleaners and non-stick pans), phthalates (used in plastics), polyvinyl chloride (PVC, commonly known as vinyl) and the heavy metals cadmium, lead and mercury as leading offenders.
Despite these concerns, some recent research has shown the toxic load in breast milk to be smaller than that in the air most city dwellers breathe inside their homes. Researchers from Ohio State and Johns Hopkins universities measured levels of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) in breast milk and in the air inside the homes of three lactating Baltimore mothers, finding that a nursing infant’s chemical exposure from airborne pollutants to be between 25 and 135 times higher than from drinking mother’s milk.
“We ought to focus our efforts on reducing the indoor air sources of these compounds,” said Johns Hopkins’ Sungroul Kim, the study’s lead author. He concurs with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and many other public health experts that, despite breast milk’s vulnerability to chemical contamination, the benefits of breast feeding—from the nutrition and important enzymes and antibodies it supplies to the mother/child bonding it provides—far outweigh the risks.
CONTACTS: MOMS, www.safemilk.org; Study: Volatile Organic Compounds in Human Milk, www.pubs.acs.org/doi/abs/10.1021/es062362y; CDC, www.cdc.gov.
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