Despite flame retardant and other chemicals found in breast milk, breast is still best

Cross-posted at BlogHer

When I made the decision to breastfeed my children, I did so confident in the knowledge that I was doing the best thing for both their health and mine. After all, studies have consistently shown there are numerous health benefits to both mother and baby. What I didn’t consider was that by simply living in the United States, my breast milk might contain toxic chemicals like flame retardant, rocket fuel, Polybrominated Diphenyl Ethers (PBDEs), and pesticides. Indeed over the past several years, studies have come out to show that these chemicals have been found in the breast milk of American women. Yes, when my dear son nurses, he is getting all of the nutrients a growing boy needs, as well as flame retardant, in my milk. Gulp.

A study of the breast milk of American women published by the Environmental Working Group in 2003 found “unexpectedly high levels” of chemical fire retardants in every participant tested.

The average level of bromine-based fire retardants in the milk of 20 first-time mothers was 75 times the average found in recent European studies. Milk from two study participants contained the highest levels of fire retardants ever reported in the United States, and milk from several of the mothers in EWG’s study had among the highest levels of these chemicals yet detected worldwide.

Unfortunately, this is only one of many studies showing a variety of toxins in breast milk.

While the news of these chemicals in breast milk is shocking and disturbing to most moms, doctors and experts agree that the benefits of breastfeeding outweigh the risks and breast is still best.

breastfeedingThe Environmental Working Group notes that for mothers who are concerned about their exposure to toxic chemicals, it may be even more important to breastfeed. “In fact, careful study of babies’ toxic exposures indicates that it might be even more important for mothers who are concerned about their exposure to toxic chemicals to breastfeed their babies.”

Several long-term studies have followed groups of babies exposed to PCBs in-utero and found that the breastfed babies appear to be less impacted by the chemical exposures than their bottle-fed counterparts.

After growing concerned about the results found in another study regarding Polybrominated Diphenyl Ethers (PBDEs) in U.S. mothers’ milk, Libby at The Toxic Sandbox began to wonder if it was wise to breastfeed. She called Dr. David Carpenter at the University Albany School of Public Health to get some answers.

Q: Given everything we know about PCBs and PBDEs, should we breastfeed our babies?

DR. CARPENTER: There is overwhelming evidence that breastfeeding has important benefits, improving immune function in the child, protecting against chronic diseases even when the child grows to adulthood, and promoting bonding between the mother and the child. While the presence of these contaminants in breast milk is not a good thing, under almost all circumstances breastfeeding has greater benefit than risk.

Tanya, a mother and lactivist who blogs at The Motherwear Breastfeeding Blog, had the opportunity to ask Dr. Kathleen Arcaro, an environmental toxicologist from the University of Massachusetts, about environmental toxics in breast milk.

Q: You also study environmental toxics in breast milk. Can you describe any trends you’re seeing in the concentrations of toxics in breast milk?

DR. KATHLEEN ARCARO: 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. However, the levels of some other compounds used in household and personal care products including flame retardants and synthetic musks are increasing. In general, if a compound does not easily degrade, and accumulates in fatty tissue it is likely it will be in breast milk. But considering that the pollutants are widely distributed and therefore are in cow’s milk and formula, breast milk clearly remains the best food for most infants.

While the use of chemical fire retardants are widespread in the United States and are included in everything from furniture and mattresses, to computers and children’s pajamas, many have been banned in Europe and even in California, though “the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has set no safety standards or other regulations for their manufacture, use or disposal.”

Although the government is not placing any restrictions on the use of these chemicals yet, there are steps we can take to reduce our family’s exposure to these toxins.

Divine Caroline wrote a list of the top chemicals polluting our children and how to avoid them.

Amanda at Hippie Mommy quotes a study that show the levels of pesticides in vegetarian mothers’ breast milk is far less than average and advocates a vegetarian or vegan lifestyle.

I think that anything that we can do to improve the quality of our breastmilk (and our personal health) is fantastic, and these statistics are another great reason to consider a vegetarian or vegan diet.

Stacy Malkan at Not Just a Pretty Face writes about Mary Brune, who, when she heard about the study that found rocket fuel in breast milk, “didn’t just get mad; she got together with other new mothers and launched a nationwide effort to get toxic chemicals out of breast milk – called Making Our Milk Safe (MOMS).”

Making Our Milk Safe is “working to build a massive movement of mothers and others who will step out from behind the changing table and speak out against the presence of toxins in our environment, our bodies, and breast milk.” MOMS works through promoting precaution, supporting progressive legislation, changing corporate behavior, and educating consumers. They also have a list of tips that women can do both before and during pregnancy to limit their exposure to toxins.

Like it or not, for now these chemicals are out there in our environment. We can do our best to avoid them, and to support legislation to ban them, but in the meantime we should rest assured that by breastfeeding, we are still doing what’s best for our children.

Photo credit: More4Kids