Toxic Chemicals in Breastmilk

World Breastfeeding Week As World Breastfeeding Week wraps up, I wanted to take a minute to talk about the pollution of our environments. I don't just mean the greater, global environment, I mean the personal environments of each one us. The environments in which we live our lives, our homes, our work space, our schools, our vehicles, our stores, etc.

I know in my mind, whenever I hear about pollution in the environment, I picture some place "away." The pollution of the oceans, the pollution of the rain forests, that sort of thing. I know it's bad and I do what I can to combat it, but still in my mind it's "away." So, when I read the study measuring toxic chemicals in breastmilk in the United States, I admit I panicked a little bit. I mean, of all the most wondrous, nutritious, magical foods I could nourish my baby with, I put breastmilk at the top. It's so freakin natural, after all!   It's safety and purity were a given! If there was ever a time to yell, "Whiskey! Tango! Foxtrot!" this was it.

It made me feel a little helpless and hopeless when I read:

Those studies that have focused on specific chemicals in breast milk, however, show cause for concern. Generally speaking, they have found that man-made chemicals referred to as persistent organic pollutants (POPs) invade the environment; spread through our water, air and soil; are taken in and stored by fish and animals; and eventually reach the top of the food chain -- humans. Once there, they seek out and attach themselves to our fat, which is critical to the production of nursing mothers' breast milk. As mothers breastfeed their babies, these pollutants enter their babies' systems. Source NRDC

Not only was I panicky about the babies I had nursed, but I was also panicky about my own breast health. Medscape reports that the "Lipophilic properties of certain chemicals allow these to be stored in the fat tissue of the breast for a long time." Many of these chemicals are known or suspected carcinogens.

So, what's a girl to do? Do we throw up our hands and reach for the can of formula? Not so fast, there are plenty of contamination concerns with formula, too. These studies shouldn't be your reason to choose to bottle feed. Do we accept that this is just the way the world is these days? I don't think so. I'm just not that kind of girl. Because, here is the good news. When governments and communities act to ban some of these dangerous chemicals, the effects are radical and fast. Just look at the studies in Sweden.

The following graph of breast milk levels of harmful chemicals illustrates Sweden's experience. Note that levels of PBDEs in breast milk increased markedly over the last quarter century, while levels of banned chemicals have gone down just as sharply. Women in Sweden have among the highest breastfeeding rates in the world, and the discovery of rising levels of PBDEs in breast milk did not make women stop breastfeeding. Instead, the discovery provoked a public outcry, and within one year the offending chemicals were banned in Sweden, resulting in the rapid decline of PBDEs in Swedish breast milk. Source NRDC

Chemical Exposure in Breastmilk in Sweden

See?! There is hope. We just need that public outcry. Environmental Working group also conducted a study of breastmilk and PBDEs. The results should inspire some public outcry.  So, in honor of World Breastfeeding Week, please call your representatives and tell them you want them to support the Safe Chemicals Act of 2011. It's time. Should only breastfeeding mothers be alarmed? I don't think so. If ever there was a canary in the coalmine, this is it.

What else can a breastfeeding mother do to minimize herr risk of exposure? Well, eat as much organic as she can, obviously. Reduce her exposure to flame retardants. But, in addition to the bioaccumulative and persistent toxins that were found in the breastmilk, there were also some more quickly metabolized chemicals including solvents and artificial fragrance ingredients. Avoiding products that contain these types of chemicals, may greatly reduce your baby's exposure not just in baby's home environment, but also in his primary food source. You know, you.

I just wish a couple of parents shared these same concerns and developed a line of completely safe but incredibly effective cleaning products... *cough*


oh look! There's one.

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