Nature created the perfect food for a growing baby. A mother's breast milk is chock full of the essential vitamins, fats, proteins and carbohydrates needed to best build the brain, fight infection and resist chronic disease. But as new research published on Thursday reminds us, a mother's milk today also contains a cocktail of industrial chemicals.
"It's really an absurd situation that women who are breastfeeding have to think about what chemical exposures they might contribute to their child," said Philippe Grandjean, an environmental health expert at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and author of the study. "Breast milk is supposed to be the best possible nutrition for the infant."
And it still is, Grandjean and other experts emphasize. It's just less pure and healthy than nature intended -- and than we previously believed. Researchers have already found that a number of fat-loving chemicals can hitch rides into newborns via breast milk. Flame retardants, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and pesticides, such as DDT, are just some of the known pollutants.
In the new study, Grandjean and his team tested the blood of 81 children born in the Faroe Islands between 1997 and 2000 for a class of chemicals that don't have the same affinity for fat: perfluorinated alkylate substances, or PFASs. For every month that a mom exclusively breastfed, they found her baby's blood levels of these common water- and stain-proofing chemicals increased by an average of 20 to 30 percent. Partial breastfeeding led to lower increases.
Researchers discovered that the children's levels of PFASs exceeded those Grandjean's previous research had deemed safe. That research found that higher exposure to PFASs can make childhood vaccinations less effective. The chemicals are also suspected of causing cancer and disrupting normal hormone functions, noted Grandjean.
You probably know PFASs as the stuff that protects your carpet from stains, keeps your food from sticking to packaging or pans, repels rain from your coat and prevents mascara from running down your cheeks. It likely even lines the waxy paper that held your morning pastry.
And your body has likely been acquainted with the chemicals since you were in the womb, or drinking breast milk. "These compounds stay in your body for years and years," said Grandjean.
He suggested that the new findings surprised him. How did these chemicals, as pervasive and long-lasting as they are, get into milk in such high quantities? In addition to having a high fat content, breast milk is also packed with protein. So protein may offer chemicals a similar "ride into the milk," Grandjean explained. Unfortunately, this implies that other, previously unsuspected toxins may also be contaminating breast milk.
"We happened to find this for perfluorinated compounds. Who knows when we'll find the next scandal like this?" he said. "For infants to be exposed at this early and vulnerable age is something that worries me greatly."
Still Breastfeed, If You Can
Asa Bradman, an environmental health expert at the University of California, Berkeley, underscored that mothers should not be fearful about breastfeeding. His own research has concluded that even among children whose mothers had high blood levels of DDT, those who were breastfed experienced healthier development than their formula-fed peers.
Given his findings, Grandjean suggests that the benefits of exclusive breastfeeding outweigh the risks, for at least a baby's first 3 to 4 months of life.
And the benefits of breastfeeding extend to the mother. Women who are able and choose to breastfeed may more quickly shed pregnancy pounds. The practice can improve a mother's bond with the baby, and can even save the family money. Breast milk, unlike formula, is free.
What's more, opting for formula doesn't necessarily protect an infant from dangerous chemicals, since community water supplies can carry high levels of PFASs. In a separate report also published on Thursday, the nonprofit Environmental Working Group found that even tiny concentrations of a PFASs chemical in drinking water can pose a serious threat to public health. The group refers to Grandjean's previous research, which concluded that the EPA's provisional drinking water limit for PFOA and PFASs, set in 2009, is between 100 and 1000 times too high.
And if all that isn't enough to encourage breastfeeding, experts note that the practice can also decrease a mother's own burden of toxic chemicals.
"Nursing a baby is the ultimate detox diet," writes Florence Williams in her book Breasts: A Natural and Unnatural History. As she explains, mothers who breastfeed for a year can "siphon off" to their infants 90 percent of their body burden of perfluorinated compounds, including PFASs.
In the new study, some of the children’s blood levels of PFASs exceeded that of their mothers' by the end of breastfeeding.
Of course, therein lies the irony -- and the trouble. Is breast milk just another way we pass our pollution problems on to the next generation?
'Kicking The Can Down The Road'
Bill Walker, an investigations editor for the Environmental Working Group, suggested PFASs are a "poster child" for what is wrong with current toxic chemical regulation in the U.S. While the EPA was first alerted in 2001 to the class of chemicals contaminating drinking water, he noted, the agency remains another six to seven years away from enacting regulations.
Experts raise similar concerns over the sources of these chemicals.
By the end of 2015, some of the most notorious PFASs will be fully phased out of production in the U.S. "These voluntary industry efforts have resulted in reduction of these substances in the environment," wrote Jessica Bowman, the executive director of the FluoroCouncil, an arm of the industry group American Chemistry Council, in an emailed statement to The Huffington Post. “To help support that phase-out, our member companies developed alternatives, based on short-chain PFAS. The alternatives are some of the most robustly-studied new chemicals introduced into the market."
But as HuffPost reported in May, experts worry this new group of PFASs may still share many of the same concerning characteristics as their predecessors. They also say this pattern of simply replacing known toxins with their chemical cousins, whose safety may remain largely unknown, is a result of the nation's outdated toxic chemical legislation, which allows chemicals to remain innocent until proven guilty.
"The way the Toxic Substances Control Act is set up now, it's a dangerous experiment being conducted on all of us," said Walker. "Chemical companies are allowed to expose us to their products without knowing whether or not they're safe."
"We're just kicking the can down the road. We're letting our children worry about it," added Tracey Woodruff, director of the University of California, San Francisco Program on Reproductive Health and the Environment.
The U.S. Senate will be reconvening to consider an update to the nearly 40-year-old TSCA this fall. The bipartisan proposal has faced stiff criticism from some environmental health advocates.
"The bill has not gone far enough in terms of protecting state preemption and really reflecting the state of the science on chemical risks," said Woodruff. "But there's a lot of pressure to make something happen."
While prospective and young mothers can take some precautions of their own, such as avoiding products that contain nonstick, stain-resistant, and waterproof coatings, their power to protect their progeny from tainted breast milk is limited. "You'd have to start as a teenager to prevent the buildup over time," said Grandjean. "That's not something that new moms can do much about."
"I'm calling for more research attention on the passage of industrial chemicals into human milk. We are not testing for that," he added, noting that the FDA requires drug companies to provide information about whether their products are safe for use during pregnancy and breastfeeding. "But with industrial chemicals, we assume that they are safe."
"Breasts, it turns out, are a particularly fine mirror of our industrial lives," Williams wrote in her book. And this fact may actually attract needed attention and drive change. It was after persistent organic pollutants began appearing in human milk, for example, that countries took steps to ban them.
"Breast milk carries some political weight," she wrote.