Breast Milk


When a woman is exposed to environmental chemicals, some of these chemicals may build up in her body over time. This is especially true for chemicals that are lipophilic – meaning they bind to fat cells in the body. During lactation, the womna’s body calls on these fat cells to be used in breast milk production and these chemcials can then be passed to their infant through breastfeeding. The good news is that we have come a long way in reducing these chemicals in the environment and also in breast milk. Breast feeding is still considered the best food for infants and should be encouraged. Below are resources that describe the issue, provide suggestions on how to reduce exposures, as well how to get involed in adovocating for stronger government regulations so women don’t have to worry that there may be environmental chemicals in their breast milk.

Natural Resources Defense Council: Healthy Milk, Healthy Baby This website provides information on the chemicals found in breast milk, how these chemicals are getting into breastmilk, and provides information on how to reduce exposures.

Journal Article: Environmental Contaminants in Breastmilk by Krista Nickerson, CNM, MSN from the Journal of Midwifery and Women’s Health.

Abstract: Toxic environmental contaminants can be transferred from mother to infant via breastfeeding. Persistent organic pollutants (POPs) are a family of lipophilic stable chemicals that bioaccumulate in adipose tissue and create a lasting toxic body burden. Breastfeeding provides a significant source of exposure to POPs early in human life, the effects of which are unknown, and is the subject of a growing body of research. Despite the possibility of harm from environmental contaminants in breast milk, breastfeeding is still recommended as the best infant feeding method. This article reviews what is known about POPs in breast milk and their effect on infant development to inform clinicians about the issue, provide recommendations for practice, and promote environmental and public health policies that reduce human exposure to harmful pollutants.

Polybrominated Diphenyl Ethers (PBDE): This class of chemicals are used as flame retardents in consumer products like furniture and electronics. Studies have been showing an exponential increase of these chemicals in breastmilk in the US. The good news is that in countries where these chemicals have been banned, the levels of PBDEs in brestmilk quickly decline.

Journal Article: PBDEs in US mother’s breast milk by Schecter A, et al.

Abstract: No previous reports exist on polybrominated diphenyl ether (PBDE) congeners in human milk from individual U.S. mothers. This article on PBDEs is an extension of our previous studies on concentrations of dioxins, dibenzofurans, polychlorinated biphenyls, and other chlorinated organic compounds in human milk in a number of countries. PBDE commercial products are used as flame retardants in flexible polyurethane foam (penta-BDE), in acrylonitrile-butadiene-styrene resins (octa-BDE), and in high-impact polystyrene resins (deca-BDE). Their use is permitted in the United States but is banned in some European countries because of presumed toxicity, demonstrated persistence, and bioaccumulation. Different commercial products can be found in various consumer products such as television sets, computers, computer monitors and printers, carpets, and upholstery. Analyses of human levels of these compounds suggest low but rising levels in European human milk, which may have peaked, at least in Sweden, in the late 1990s. Very few data exist on levels of PBDEs in humans in the United States, and none from milk from individual nursing mothers. To address this issue, we analyzed 47 individual milk samples from nursing mothers, 20-41 years of age, from a milk bank in Austin, Texas, and a community women’s health clinic in Dallas, Texas. Up to 13 PBDE congeners were measured. The concentrations of the sum of PBDE congeners varied from 6.2 to 419 ng/g (or parts per billion) lipid, with a median of 34 ng/g and a mean of 73.9 ng/g lipid. The PBDE levels in breast milk from Texas were similar to levels found in U.S. blood and adipose tissue lipid from California and Indiana and are 10-100 times greater than human tissue levels in Europe. Their detection in breast milk raises concern for potential toxicity to nursing infants, given the persistence and bioaccumulative nature of some of the PBDE congeners. These results indicate a need for more detailed investigation of the levels of PBDE in people and food, as well as determining if animal fat in food is the major route of exposure of the general U.S. population. Other routes of intake may also be significant.