Contaminants in Breastmilk

I haven’t read this whole article, but thought it looked interesting. It begins with a laundry-list of benefits of breastmilk for the infant, then asks aloud whether these benefits are worth the risks of the possible contaminants and pollutants that may exist in breastmilk; the remainder is an attempt at answering that question. With sections on the history of anti-breastfeeding, “Human Milk: Its own Immune System,” and other sections specifically looking at particular types of contaminants, it presents a detailed look at what is known on the various subjects. The conclusion is “Net Gain”:

After having considered the problem of environmental contaminants in human milk, the WHO, the U.S. Surgeon General, and the American Academy of Pediatrics continue to recommend breastfeeding. “After three decades of study, there is now fairly good evidence that little if any morbidity is occurring from the more common and well-studied chemical agents found in human milk,” says Walter Rogan, a clinical investigator in the NIEHS Epidemiology Branch. “There are very few instances in which morbidity has been described in a nursling that was due to a chemical pollutant in milk.”

Labbok agrees. “To date, no environmental contaminant, except in situations of acute poisoning, has been found to cause more harm to infants than does lack of breast-feeding,” she says. “I have seen no data that would argue against breastfeeding, even in the presence of today’s levels of environmental toxicants.”

Still, Rogan cautions, human milk contains no proven antidote to contaminant exposure. “To the degree that the overall benefits from breastfeeding overlap with the deleterious effects of the chemicals, those benefits might appear to cancel out the harm, but this is hard to study epidemiologically,” he says.

Because of human milk’s nutritional, immunologic, anticancer, and detoxifying effects, Wang, Rogan, and other environmental scientists encourage women to continue the practice of breastfeeding even in the context of widespread pollution. “At the same time,” says Pronczuk, “breastfeeding mothers should be helped and advised on how to avoid alcohol and drugs and remove themselves from polluted environments, while also creating healthier, safer, and cleaner environments for themselves and their children.”


5 Responses

  1. Discussion of environmental contaminents in breastmilk always seems to assume that formula is produced in a contaminent-free environment. But cows (who produce the milk modified for formula) are also exposed to environmental pollution, so you would expect their milk to contain contaminents just like human breastmilk.

    • That’s what I would expect, too, but I didn’t have enough knowledge to say one way or another. I almost said it, but was afraid that someone would come back and say that the processing of formula either took out the contaminants (like pasteurization kills bacteria) or in some other way rendered it “less contaminated” than pure, fresh breastmilk. Didn’t seem likely to me, but I thought it possible. One would think that cows would be even more exposed to pollution, since they might be expected to be given food and water with lower standards than humans, but I don’t know.

      • There are a few studies, but you’d need to look at them carefully to see if they hold water

        One of the guilty pollutants found in breast milk are Brominated Flame Retardants and probably cows don’t have a whole lot of exposure to this.

        • That’s true — some contaminants may be higher in humans than in cows; the ingredients in Teflon spring to mind (just recently read some headline about it possibly causing thyroid problems). I wonder what the balance would be, though — for instance, I know they were still feeding cows DES “enhanced” feed into the 80s, although there was an FDA warning against it in the early 70s (but only for pregnant women, I guess?). Just an example — not saying that DES in cows actually did cause problems in humans who ate their meat or consumed their milk… although perhaps it did.

  2. “After three decades of study, there is now fairly good evidence that little if any morbidity is occurring from the more common and well-studied chemical agents found in human milk,”

    I wonder how much money they spent on that gem!

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