Have you heard about the new book, Breasts: A Natural and Unnatural History?
The author, Florence Williams, was inspired to write the book when, while breastfeeding her child, she wrote an an article for the New York Times in which she had her breastmilk tested for flame retardants (PBDEs). The article is a sobering account of the way our bodies reflect the state of our environment.
In Breasts, Williams addresses toxins and breastmilk again, stating that breasts “soak up pollution like a pair of soft sponges.” It’s enough to make any mom wonder if she’s endangering her child by doing the most natural of things.
But before anyone concludes that breastmilk is unsafe – and research shows that this information can indeed scare women into not breastfeeding – let’s review some facts:
1) Levels of some chemicals in breastmilk have been going DOWN in recent years. Yes, there are chemicals present in breastmilk, and levels of some of them are increasing at a worrying rate. But as Dr. Kathleen Arcaro, an environmental toxicologist at the University of Massachusetts who studies pollutants in breastmilk as well as breast cancer, explained to me in an interview, “the good news is that the concentration of some lipophilic (fat-loving) environmental pollutants in breast milk is decreasing. For instance the level of many pesticides (DDT and its metabolites) and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) has greatly decreased over the last 30 years.”
2) There are toxins in formula, too, sometimes in higher amounts. You have to feed your baby something. So are your choices breastmilk which reflects our environmental exposures, or a perfect, chemical-free food? No!
Dr. Arcaro notes that “pollutants are widely distributed [i.e. in the air, in water] and therefore are in cow’s milk and formula.” Or put more colorfully by Dr. Jack Newman, “There are toxins in formula. Why would everything on earth be polluted, even the far reaches of the Arctic, but not formula?”
A 2009 CDC study of ten different types of formula found found that “perchlorate was a contaminant of all commercially available [formulas] tested.” The FDA has found BPA and trace amounts of melamine in some formulas, and a study out this month found arsenic in an organic toddler formula. One chemical, PAH, is found in the highest levels in formula and cow’s milk, and lowest levels in breastmilk.
I share this not to scare formula feeding mothers but to emphasize that there is no perfect choice. The choice is between two foods which reflect the polluted state of our environment: one confers protection against numerous health problems and one does not. I get very disturbed thinking of mothers turning away from breastfeeding – and thereby increasing their babies’ risk of disease (see Table 1) – for fear of chemical exposure, only to unknowingly feed their babies formula which contains the same substances of concern, and lacks any immunity-building substances.
3) Breastmilk may actually protect babies from the chemicals in it. A hot-off-the-press study has concluded that breastfed babies, due to a healthy bacteria in breastmilk called bifidobacterium actually metabolize perchlorate. The study found, “breast-fed babies can metabolize the environmental contaminant perchlorate, decreasing their risks of detrimental developmental effects from exposure.” As Williams noted in her New York Times article, “breast milk appears to be at least partly protective against the effects of toxic chemicals.” We are only now beginning to understand the constituents of breastmilk and how they interact with a baby’s body. Who knows how else breastmilk might be protective?
4) Research has found no adverse consequences of some key chemicals found in breastmilk. A recent study comparing the health and development of babies exposed to dioxins (nearly twenty years ago, when exposure to dioxins was more common) through breastmilk and those fed formula found no adverse health consequences for the breastfed babies, and significantly better developmental outcomes for those who were breastfed. This confirms the findings of prior research. Williams cites similar findings regarding exposure to PCBs through breastmilk.
5) Not everything in the environment or your diet makes it into your milk. Our bodies have several systems that regulate what gets into our milk, and it’s worth understanding how it works in this context. In order for a substance to get into breastmilk, it must pass through a number of “screens.” Some things we ingest are destroyed in our digestive system, eliminated from our bodies, or held in our livers before they even enter our bloodstream, which is where they may transfer into milk. And not everything that enters our bloodstream makes it into our milk, either. Only substances that are small enough in molecular weight to squeeze in between our milk making cells, or fat-soluble enough to ‘hitchhike’ through the cell walls, make the cut. And (in an act I consider to be just a little bit miraculous) once the level in our bloodstream declines, some substances that make it into milk actually move out of the milk, back into our bloodstream. Even when something harmful does make it into your milk, your baby’s gut may destroy it or poop/pee it out before it can enter her bloodstream. Of course, these systems are not foolproof, and it’s important to emphasize that some harmful substances can enter milk can pose a threat to your baby. Much more on this topic can be found on Dr. Thomas Hale’s website.
6) Short of you being poisoned, breastfeeding is recommended. The CDC states: “Breastfeeding is still recommended despite the presence of chemical toxins. The toxicity of chemicals may be most dangerous during the prenatal period and the initiation of breastfeeding. However, for the vast majority of women the benefits of breastfeeding appear to far outweigh the risks. To date, effects on the nursing infant have been seen only where the mother herself was clinically ill from an toxic exposure.” The International Lactation Consultant Association states in their position paper (pdf) that, “with the exception of maternal poisoning, breast milk remains a safe, life-enhancing method to feed and nurture infants and young children.”
7) Concerned? Take action to protect your baby and the environment. We can take steps, in both personal and public spheres, to make ourselves and our milk freer of chemicals of concern. We can take a number of other simple steps, as outlined by Healthy Child, Healthy World, to reduce our exposure. We can selectively shop for pesticide-free produce (without breaking the bank) using the Environmental Working Groups Dirty Dozen list (available as an app), and use cleaner personal care products.
The solution is not to stop nursing, but to stop polluting. So finally, and most importantly, we can advocate for better regulation of chemicals in our environment, through many organizations working to make our world, and the lives of our children, healthier.
*Some content from in this post was originally published on the Motherwear Breastfeeding Blog.