There has been a lot of press lately regarding toxins in breastmilk, with questions being raised by everyone from scientists to celebrities. In 2001, the noted author and biologist, Sandra Steingraber, wrote about environmental toxins and breastfeeding (as well as pregnancy) in her book, Having Faith: an Ecologists Journey to Motherhood. The second half of her book is devoted to weighing the risks and benefits of breastfeeding, as a first-time mother, and trying to decide if it is the best choice for her child.
A few months ago a new book by Florence Williams, Breasts: A Natural and Unnatural History, came out that explores, among other things, the link between toxins and breastmilk. In it Ms. Williams (a writer for the New York Times) states that,
“When we nurse our babies, we feed them not only the fats and sugars that fire their immune systems, cellular metabolisms and cerebral synapses. We also feed them, in albeit miniscule amounts, paint thinners, dry-cleaning fluids, wood preservatives, toilet deoderisers, cosmetic additives, gasoline byproducts, rocket fuel, termite poisons and flame-retardants.”
And then earlier this week, Fran Dreschler (a celebrity), was quoted on the Tommy Show stating that, “American women have the highest amount of flame retardant in their breast milk, we’re selling these women that breast milk is the second coming. Breasts are like big sponges.” She goes onto encourage nursing women to undergo a three-day test urine test to ensure they aren’t passing toxins onto their children.
Hearing and reading about chemicals and toxins in breastmilk can be very sobering to a new breastfeeding mother, and enough to make any mom wonder if she’s endangering her child by breastfeeding. And for mothers in the military who must work around HAZMAT and toxins as part of their duties, it can easily lead to the conclusion that one must wean immediately. But before you conclude that breastmilk is unsafe – and research does show that this kind of information does scare women into NOT breastfeeding – let’s review some facts that are specific for the military mother who works with hazardous materials:
1. Determine your level of exposure to HAZMAT at your workplace. Do you work on the flight line everyday for 12+ hours sucking down JP-8 exhaust fumes or are you participating in weapons quals on the range once a year? Do you occasionally get splashed by hydraulic fluid or are you working on the ship chipping lead paint? How you are exposed (inhalation, dermal, ingestion) and how often you are exposed (daily, weekly, quarterly) can make a big difference in the amount of toxins in your milk. Keep in mind that the military is required to keep your toxic exposure at safe levels, so you are not going to be exposed to poisonous levels. However, your levels may be at higher levels than is safe for your baby.
2. Not everything that you are exposed to makes it into your milk. The human body has a number of checks and balances and it does a pretty good job of screening out harmful substances. Toxins have to pass through digestive system, where they are either destroyed or eliminated, or they pass through the liver where they are filtered out before making it to the bloodstream. If the toxic substance makes to the bloodstream, the toxins have to be small enough to pass through the cell wall or fat-loving enough to slip through. Even if they do slip through and your baby ingests the toxin, it then has to make it through your baby’s digestive system where it may be destroyed or eliminated before ending up in his or her bloodstream. However, this system isn’t foolproof, so do be aware that there are plenty of chemicals and toxins in the military that can and do make it into breastmilk that could pose a threat to your baby’s health.
3. The vast majority of exposure to chemicals and toxins are passed to your baby during pregnancy, not breastfeeding. And once your baby is born, the most critical time for toxic exposure is during the newborn period when the cells in the breast are ‘leaky’ and toxins can cross over into the milk more easily. The age of your baby makes a difference in exposure levels in two ways: a 6 week old cannot metabolize toxins as easily and is also receiving a lot more breastmilk than a 6 month old or a 12 month baby. Keep this in mind if you request a job modification to another area. You may need to only be away from your usual workplace for 3-4 months rather than a full year once your baby is older and not taking in as much breastmilk (and is able to metabolize it better).
4. All the studies that have been done, showing the many benefits to breastfeeding…have been done with ‘contaminated breastmilk’. It is in the air we breathe, the water we drink, the cans and plastic our food is wrapped in, etc. We cannot get away from it. And yet even contaminated breastmilk still provides protection against so many illnesses and diseases while formula cannot. Furthermore, the cows and soybeans that formula is manufactured from are also exposed to many of the same environmental toxins (sometimes at higher rates). As pointed out in this Scientific American article, “Despite breast milk’s vulnerability to chemical contamination, the benefits of breast feeding – from the nutrition and important enzymes and antibodies it supplies to the mother/child bonding it provides – far outweigh the risks.” Ultimately it is a decision that you have to make, but make sure that you are not trading the known disease and illness fighting benefits of ‘tainted’ breastmilk for equally ‘tainted’ formula that has no disease and illness fighting properties.
5. Many reputable studies have shown that breastmilk counteracts the negative effects of toxins, especially long-term breastfeeding. In particular, a recent study found that a healthy bacteria in breastmilk called bifidobacterium can actually metabolize perchlorate (a rocket fuel), thereby reducing the risk of any negative developmental effects . We are only beginning to understand all the ingredients in breastmilk and how they interact with the baby’s body…it is not out of the realm of possibility that a similar effect might be seen with jet fuel or other similar military chemicals. It is worth trying to breastfeed as long as possible, even into your baby’s 2nd year, in order to better counteract the negative effects of toxins. Many of the protective effects of breastmilk are dose-dependent, meaning the more your baby receives, the more of a positive effect it has.
6. Take action to reduce your exposure. It seems like a no-brainer, but be sure that you are wearing your personal protective equipment while at work. Shower and change your work uniform before leaving your workspace and launder your uniforms separately from baby’s clothes. Take your work boots off before entering your home. Don’t smoke or overdo it on the alcohol as both have been shown to increase your toxic load. Reduce the environmental toxins in your home that you are exposed to so that you are not adding that to your toxic burden by following some simple steps, as outlined by Healthy Child, Healthy World. Shop for pesticide-free foods and use environmentally-friendly personal care and cleaning products.
7. Every major health organization (AAP, AAFP, CDC, WHO, U.S. Surgeon General) has come to the conclusion that breastmilk, even contaminated breastmilk, far outweighs the risks of formula and recommend breastfeeding. The International Lactation Consultant Association states in their position paper (pdf) that, “Breast milk remains a safe, life-enhancing method to feed and nurture infants and young children.” While the CDC states that: “Breastfeeding is still recommended despite the presence of chemical toxins. However, for the vast majority of women the benefits of breastfeeding appear to far outweigh the risks.“ I’ll say it again, there are no easy answers here, but do weigh your options, speak to your occupational health personnel, supervisor, and an IBCLC before making a decision.
If you want more information about toxins in breastmilk, including the everyday kind that we encounter in our homes, at the grocery store, in the water we drink and the air we breathe, then I encourage you to read this blog post, Science You Can Use: Worried about toxins in your breastmilk? Get the facts., at the Best for Babes website.
If you want more information about military HAZMAT in breastmilk and possible exposure as part of your MOS, I encourage you to go to this page, HAZMAT, here on the Breastfeeding in Combat Boots website.
How have you dealt with HAZMAT exposure? Are you concerned about toxins (both environmental and occupational) in your breastmilk? Do you feel that contaminated breastmilk is better than formula or not?