A list of ghastly toxics known to be present in human breast milk—from pesticides and flame retardants to deodorizers and wood preservatives—is enough to make any new mom question the oft-heard refrain that “breast is best.”
Still, most experts still agree that breast milk is the healthiest choice for both moms and babies. That’s probably why parenting magazines and doctors’ office pamphlets rarely mention chemical contaminants in human breast milk: they want to encourage breastfeeding, rather than sow doubt about it. And as a result, moms are exposed to a lot of information on the health benefits of breastfeeding, yet hear little about the industrial toxics that contaminate human milk.
But as Sandra Steingraber (author, biologist, and breastfeeding advocate who’s written and lectured extensively on the subject) points out, breast milk commonly violates Food and Drug Administration levels for poisonous substances in food. She writes: “Were it regulated like infant formula, the breast milk of many US mothers would not be able to be legally sold on supermarket shelves.”
Yikes! Okay, so that information did not appear on the ubiquitous breastfeeding “pros and cons” lists in my baby books.
But even armed with this information, we face a tough choice. Just because the scales still tip toward breast milk in the bulk of available risk-benefit analyses, it doesn’t mean the risks from chemical contaminants go away. And rather than silence on the issue, our society desperately needs an open, public conversation about keeping breast milk safe—and about strong community standards that can prevent dangerous toxins from getting into our bodies in the first place.
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Unlike a lot of moms, I did know a bit about the industrial-age compounds that likely contaminate my own body—and that I would be feeding to my baby through my breast milk. I’d read Steingraber’s book. Sightline had conducted a study a few years back that found frighteningly high levels of PBDEs in northwestern moms’ milk.
Despite those risks, I decided to breastfeed my baby anyway. My rational side factored in the apparent much-lauded benefits of breastfeeding (and not just breast milk, but all that nursing entails, including physical contact between mother and baby), weighing them against the risks that I knew of. But, ultimately, it was far from a rational decision: I felt a deep, instinctual, emotional—and dare I say chemical—drive to breastfeed. It seemed as if there was really no other choice: nursing felt like sacred rite of motherhood that I was duty-bound to fulfill.
Okay, now that I just wrote that out (sounding like a bit of a militant “lactivist” myself), I begin to question how much of this is coming from my own “maternal instincts” and how much of it is manufactured by what a colleague here at Sightline calls the Cult of Breastfeeding—a.k.a. the prevailing societal force that insists that breast feeding is the “ultimate badge of responsible parenting” (and anything less is equivalent to feeding your newborn soda pop.) Either way, I shudder to think of how I would have reacted—hormones raging—if I were told that toxics levels in my milk were too dangerous to feed to my child!! What would other moms do if they were told that they shouldn’t nurse their babies? The image of all those bouncing babies ripped from their mothers’ arms underscores my belief that toxics in our bodies should never, ever become the deciding factor.
So, even if I admit the drive to nurse is complex, the benefits of breast milk are lauded as legion. According to Steingraber (based on her review of countless studies), “breastfed infants have fewer respiratory and middle-ear infections, are less prone to diarrhea, and are less likely to succumb to Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. Breastfed infants grow into children who suffer less than their bottle-fed counterparts from juvenile diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, obesity, dental malocclusions, and some leukemias. They respond more vigorously to vaccinations. They have better hearing and visual acuity. They develop balance and gross motor coordination more quickly. Some studies show higher IQs. Plus, breastfeeding may protect a woman against some breast and ovarian cancers.
On the flip side, some of the toxics that are found in our milk have been linked to cancer, behavioral disorders, learning disabilities, and a host of other serious health problems.
Again, what evidence there is seems to be stacked in favor of breast milk as a food source for infants. But, as a side note, it’s worth pointing out, as Hanna Rosin did in her—sobering and yet quite hilarious—article, “The Case Against Breast-Feeding,” in the Atlantic last year, that studies on breastfeeding, while profuse, do not always make the clear cut case for breast milk that pervades mainstream Baby Lit…for various reasons—a big one being the inability to have a control group due to obvious ethical concerns. Another one is that women who breastfeed are self-selecting and it’s hard not to confound factors in outcomes like a child’s health or IQ.
Rosin, among other breast is best skeptics, points to research that shows that breast feeding is probably just slightly better for the health of the child. That may be. But it’s also difficult to separate the physiological benefits of breast milk from benefits that are reaped from the physical and emotional act of breastfeeding itself—basic skin on skin contact and just plain dedicated time spent focused on the baby, for example. The distinction is worth making—benefits of milk as a food source aside, dangerous concentrations of toxics could discourage important physical and emotional bonding that’s difficult to quantify. I think of all the hours that I’ve already spent with my 4 month old, nursing her, but also singing, cooing, and talking to her, smiling at her, playing with her feet, rocking her, etc. Again, hard to quantify, but certainly of value in a child’s development.
(By the way, Rosin’s main argument is that our cultural insistence on breastfeeding has hobbled progress on women’s equality in marriage and in the workforce, but that’s a discussion for another time.)
Whew! So what it boils down to is that weighing all the potential risks against breastfeeding and breast milk’s many benefits is essentially impossible, even for an army of experts. It’s also beside the point. The choice is a personal one, but a choice there should be! And it should never be a question of choosing the lesser of two evils. We have a shared responsibility to safeguard the basic human right to grow up untainted by damaging chemicals. Put another way, chemical risks in today’s environment aren’t a matter of choice; they’re an assault on basic rights.
But if we’re silent about this chemical assault—if we hide facts about what’s in our bodies and our breast milk out of fear that weâ
€™ll turn some moms off from breastfeeding—we could simply hasten the day when breastfeeding simply isn’t safe (again, picture in your mind the babies being ripped from their mothers arms!). Steingraber says it best:
…I still felt strongly that we needed to have an informed public conversation about the presence of persistent toxic chemicals in breast milk. We cannot solve public health problems by keeping secrets.
The reason I believe that these kinds of risk-benefit analyses are an unhelpful approach to the problem of chemical contaminants in breast milk is that they offer no solutions. The usual recommendation that follows from them–“just keep nursing because the benefits outweigh the risks”–means that we nursing mothers should take no action until our milk becomes so contaminated as to pose as many risks to pediatric health as formula.
Risk-benefit analyses imply that as long as one danger (breastfeeding) is less than another (failure to breastfeed), we should accept the lesser danger—even though it still necessitates endangering our children. The narrow duality of the risk-benefit equation leaves no room for the proposition that the feeding of babies should be a risk-free activity. Period.
To move toward collective outrage that might lead to policy solutions, moms should be informed that human breast milk is contaminated with all kinds of stuff we’d never dream of feeding our babies: insecticides, PCBs, PBDEs, flame retardants, fungicides, wood preservatives, termite poisons, mothproofing agents, toilet deodorizers, dry-cleaning fluids, gasoline vapors, and dioxins. As Steingraber has written, “some of these are known human carcinogens; some are known immune suppressors; some are powerful endocrine disrupters. All are fat-soluble which means mother’s milk is a perfect carrier.”
As a nursing mother, I banished the ugly facts from my mind and did what felt right for me. I’m not in the camp that tries to make moms feel guilty if they don’t breastfeed. Not at all. I can list as many reasons to do it as there are not to! And, like Hanna Rosin wrote, I have no grandiose illusions that I’m making my baby that much leaner, healthier, and smarter with my milk, but as she so eloquently put it, “breast-feeding does not belong in the realm of facts and hard numbers; it is much too intimate and elemental.”
Whatever the benefits and risks wrapped up in my own choice, whatever sacrifices of time, money (because my time is money after all), and sanity I’m making to work and continue to breastfeed, I believe my baby has a right to breast milk that’s not laced with chemicals as well as a right to the comfort and psychological needs that nursing meets for her. Just as I have a right to choose to nurse her. So, I simply can’t say enough times that breastfeeding shouldn’t merely be the less risky choice. More alarmingly, if we don’t set higher community standards for pollution, to stop chemicals and toxics from getting into our food, water—our bodies—in the first place, there may not always be a choice. Breast milk could become too poisonous to feed to our babies.
At some point, it’s not a question of whether or not we can or should let that happen—but what it says about our society if we do.
Photo courtesy Flickr user fikirbaz under the Creative Commons license.
My decision not to breastfeed came with a diagnosis of bipolar disorder after my daughter was born. My medical advisors said the lithium I was prescribed could harm the baby, although who knew in 1983? The good news is that my kid grew up just fine. I totally agree that the real challenge is getting the toxins out of ALL food and according to the Organic Consumers Union, the most important food to always buy organic is BABY food.
Wise post, Anna! Nature’s Way (breastfeeding) should always be the BEST way to feed an infant, not the WORST! One wonders, though, if all the man-made toxic chemicals in the environment, that are now making their way into women’s breastmilk, are also making a strong case for birth control until we finally clean up the Earth? Is it ultimately coming to that??
I meant to mention legislation recently introduced that would require better safety standards for chemicals. I wrote about the Safe Chemicals Act last week: http://www.sightline.org/daily_score/archive/2010/04/20/getting-tougher-on-toxicsMore here:http://www.ewg.org/kid-safe-chemicals-act-blog/kid-safe-chemicals-act/
Great post, Anna. We’re breast-feeding our little one right now, and I’m comfortable with the risk/benefit, but it’s absolutely outrageous that there’s ANY risk of hazardous chemical exposure at all! I wonder what things would be like if it was easier/cheaper for women to test their breastmilk. Hmm… grassoots testing campaign, anyone?
What about all the environmental resources being used to make and transport formula – they aren’t contributing to the “toxic” environment?! Formula wasn’t initially invented for convenience or for us to have a “choice” – though isn’t it great that with formula, ANYONE can feed baby? There goes the attachment so vitally needed in the first 18 months of life (that comes naturally from breastfeeding, and allowing our bodies to nurture our babies the way nature intended). Too many choices and too much (mis)information have caused our society to just take the “easier” parenting road, which is leading to generations of detached kids who don’t feel any connection with their parents (because their parents listened to so-called parenting “experts”, and not themselves or their babies); therefore, these children have no empathy or accountability to anyone because they feel lost. There’s no way I would forgo the innumerable benefits of breastfeeding on the very slim, off-chance there are dangerous levels of toxins in my body. We absolutely know that breast is not just SLIGHTLY better for babies, but that comments like those are intended to make our society feel less guilty about using formula. I don’t see any statistics or interviews in this article from foremost lactation consultants, La Leche League, Attachment Parenting International, or the AAP. Alarmist? Just a bit… and only one side of the story, as we can see from the author using only the people and information that best suits her purposes.
And every study still shows that breastfeeding is super protective. Steingraber also says that the act of breastfeeding is actually protective against the toxins we are surrounded by. Do you think the cows are shielded from the envoronmental toxins? Breast is still the normal option, with formula being the risky option.Now, yes, I agree, we need legislation to lower our exposure to chemicals – outlaw the worst offenses so that our exposure will drop. But in the meantime, formula would only heighten our children’s levels (because a high level of exposure occurs in the womb) hey hey, maybe the solution is test tube babies! 😉 jkregarding LLLI – here is the LLL information with tons of references http://www.llli.org/NB/NBSepOct04p164.html – hopefully that is a helpful resource for the author and readers to get some more information on the matter.
When talking about toxic body burdens, it’s distressing but worth remembering that essentially our entire food system is drenched in stuff we don’t want to be eating: even organics often contain jet fuel, heavy metals like lead from old industrial pollution or more modern nastiness they encounter in processing and packaging. If you eat, or drink, or breathe or spend any time in poorly built homes or cars, you’re encountering toxic chemicals.You really can’t be perfect enough to be safe. Indeed, trying may even be part of the problem—reverse quarantine thinking (I’ll make my home/family/self a bubble of safety) is thought by many (like Szasz) to not only not protect us, but to contribute to our willingness to regard biosphere-wide pollution as a matter of consumer choice.Until green chemistry gets here, the best thing we can do is pretty much what we’re already doing: trying to push for laws to restrain the worst industrial and agricultural sources, push industrial design towards non-toxic components, and build compact cities with more greenery and many fewer cars (since the auto industry’s one of the prime culprits).I think the idea that we drop on new mothers the responsibility of “protecting” their babies from threats that are ubiquitous is somewhat tragic. You can’t have green babies in toxic cities.That said, when I have kids of my own, I’m sure I’ll freak out and become OCD about my paint choices and a breastfeeding zealot… ;)(PS: Keep up the awesome work, Anna – I’m really enjoying reading your pieces.)
Eric de Place
Sylva,You asked “Do you think the cows are shielded from the environmental toxins?”Yes, cows are, in fact, shielded from them. Unlike humans, cows are not at the top of the food chain. They eat grass; humans eat meat, fish, dairy and so on—and the most worrisome toxins accumulate as they move up the food chain. You can purchase certified organic formula at most grocery stores nowadays. That’s something you obviously can’t do with human breastmilk.Allison,Speaking as a new father, I think it IS really great that anyone can feed a baby. And I respectfully beg to differ that breastfeeding is a necessary condition of healthy emotional development for the first 18(!?) months of life. Anyhow, I think you’ve missed the point of Anna’s post. She not arguing against breastfeeding—she’s a staunch supporter—but rather arguing that it’s unconscionable that our society is largely unconcerned with the accumulation of toxic chemicals in what should by rights be a very pure and wholesome substance.
Eric,Most cows are fed corns, grains, and soy, not grass, and they drink a lot of water. Science will probably tell us in ten years that there’s a lot of bad stuff in their food and water that we never imagined being there, but I could be wrong.
Thanks, everybody, for sharing your take on this issue. There’s no doubt that this topic gets right to the very core of our values. It’s been a very emotional journey for me as a new mom. Not for anything would I trade all the lovely hours I’ve spent nursing my little baby girl. It’s a pretty amazing part of being a mother and has given me a deep sense of fulfillment that I never could have anticipated no matter how much I read about it beforehand.Andrea—thanks so much for sharing your story. Michelynne, Sylva, and Alex—Thanks! You’re so right. There’s a lot of cleaning up to do. Read my other posts in this series for more than you ever wanted to know (and probably stuff you already do know) about toxics in our bodies—and especially the harm they can do to developing fetuses in the womb. It’s definitely sobering. My family couldn’t believe I was writing the series while I was pregnant. But I guess it was partly an exercise in compartmentalizing…I also really recommend reading the Rosin article that I link to in the post. Even though I remain a tried and true Breast is Bester, it was an eye-opener for me about the science behind it (and not behind it). Jon—congrats! I didn’t know you had a little one too. Good for you for breastfeeding—I know now that it ain’t always easy.Allison—Whatever your feelings about formula, the point is that all of us who value breastfeeding—you and me both—and want to keep it safe should demand standards that keep our breast milk untainted. In fact, breastfeeding advocates more than anyone else should demand policies that safeguard this sacred act between mother and baby. It really isn’t a question of breast milk vs. formula. Not at all. It’s making breast milk a viable option on into the future.Eric—thanks. You’re right on. And thanks a million for all your help as I worked through the complexities of this issue to write the post in the first place.In an ideal world, we wouldn’t have to worry about toxics in cow’s milk either. Which brings me to the broader point: we’ve got to get a handle on chemicals. Period. It’s not just about breast milk—although that’s a good place to draw attention to a bigger problem because we tend to get fired up when it comes to tender, innocent babies and their health. It’s about all our food, water, air. It’s about curbing the steady stream of toxics getting into our bodies—baby, child, or adult (human, fish, or cow).AF
Eric de Place
Alex, yeah I know. I was just using a shorthand to respond to Sylva.But I think my point still stands. Certified organic products are subject to some meaningful degree of scrutiny with respect to toxics—as well they should be! Humans are also, just by the nature of what we eat and how long we live, far more susceptible to toxic accumulation than vegetarian animals raised on organic food.
Great post Anna—this is a difficult topic—I also wrestled with these issues and feelings when I was breastfeeding my son. I recently worked with the Washington Toxics Coalition, who did a study on the level of toxic chemicals in pregnant women. The women that I talked to tried really hard to remove BPA products, limit phthalates in fragrances, use non-stick cookware and eat only organic foods but STILL the study found that their body burdens of some of these toxic chemicals remained high. The study was an eye opener that these chemicals enter our bodies from so many unknown sources—something must be done at the federal level to prevent so many toxic chemicals from entering the bodies of our most vulnerable population—infants. I’m not saying that a mother’s individual choices won’t make a difference, but at some point people have to realize that they can’t shop their way out of the problem.
I have wondered how you get breastmilk tested – wouldn’t that be a wise step for mothers making the decision?
the us gov and evergreen aviation spray toxic edb,aluminum,barium,and many other poisons on us in the form of chemtrails(dont confuse with normal contrails)look up in the sky mommy and daddy you are being poisioned.shasta ca is testing over 4200 yes hundred times higher than max levels of aluminum in the soil,solar panels are 50%less effective.PLANETARY GEOENGINEERING TO SUPPOSEDLY STOP GLOBAL WARMING IS THE EXCUSE TO POISION YOU ME THE OLD AND THE CHILDRENthere is tons of credible proof ,so please wake up or look sonomaskywatch do youre part to stop this purposful destruction of our air.
Reality check: those toxins that are in breast milk got into the mother somehow. We live in a toxic environment, it’s really only a matter of time until the same toxins are in the baby anyways. Besides, there are thousands of documented cases of formula contamination from everything from lead to metal fragments. Breastfeeding is still the lesser of two evils.