Because of its high fat and protein content, breast milk attracts heavy metals and other contaminants, and shows the “body burden” a mother has been exposed to over her lifetime. Scientists test it periodically to measure the amount of chemicals in the average person.
The bad news is that we’re carrying around more chemicals than ever before. According to the “New York Times,” Swedish researchers first discovered flame retardants called PBDEs in pike fish in 1981. (PBDEs have been found to hinder development in animal studies.) They went on to study human milk and found that from the early 1970s, when PBDEs first appeared commercially, to 1998, levels in breast milk were doubling every five years. Worse, levels in American women were 10 to 100 times higher than European women.
The EPA is working to gradually reduce the production of PBDEs, but the concern doesn’t end there. Researchers have found a myriad of other chemicals in human breast milk, like DDT (the banned pesticide that still lives in our environment), PCBs (man-made compounds used in electrical equipment and as flame retardants), PVC (commonly known as vinyl), dioxin, mercury, lead, benzene, arsenic, and more-all dangerous chemicals that can affect the nervous, endocrine (hormone), and reproductive systems, and that may be carcinogenic. In other words, things we’re exposed to every day, like household cleaners, furniture, carpeting, paint, pesticides, fuel, preservatives, personal-care products, and smoke can all make their way inside us, and subsequently, inside our children.
“Children born to mothers with high PCB levels can have their IQ reduced by up to six points compared with those born to women with low PCB levels,” write Guy Dennis and Jonathan Leake of the British paper “Sunday Times.” These children may also have behavioral problems.
It’s true that scientists later reported that the levels of chemicals in these studies is actually lower than that found in the air most city dwellers breathe inside their homes. That doesn’t necessarily make moms breathe easier, however, particularly as reports roll in of indoor pollution and it’s potential affects on health. Do we want to be putting that toxic burden on our newborns?
“The question for me as a mother,” says Florence Williams, author of the “New York Times” article, “is not at what threshold of exposure will my baby be harmed, but why are we manufacturing common products made with these toxins at all?” Williams goes on to report that according to Sandra Steingraber, visiting scholar at Ithaca College, “There is almost no example of a toxic chemical in breast milk that doesn’t have a non-toxic substitute.”
Is the answer to stop breastfeeding? According to all reports, no. Breastfeeding Medicine says that despite the toxins, breast-fed babies scored significantly higher than formula-fed babies on tests of mental development. Apparently, the antioxidants and other nutrients in the milk are not only good for children, but seem to be at least partly protective against the effects of the chemicals. In addition, breast milk helps babies develop stronger immune systems. And formula, which has fewer PCBs than human milk, is no chemical-free alternative-it still has BPAs (used to line cans) and phthalates.
Of course, breast milk without chemicals would be better than breast milk with chemicals, and that’s why Stacy Malkan at “Not Just a Pretty Face” has launched a nationwide effort to get toxins out of breast milk, called “Making Our Milk Safe (MOMS).” The group is working to build a movement of mothers to speak out against toxins in an effort to encourage change.
In the meantime, you can take the following steps to protect you and your baby:
- Limit your exposure to paints, glues, furniture strippers, nail polish, and other products with fumes.
- Avoid having your clothes dry cleaned while you’re pregnant, or air out the clothes outside of the house.
- Eat organic whenever possible. Thoroughly wash and peel non-organic produce.
- Eat fresh rather than processed foods.
- Avoid fried foods. Remove skin and excess fat from meat and poultry.
What do you think of these studies on breast milk? Have you changed your habits to protect your children?
Photo courtesy MidniteSonnet via Flickr.com.