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- For decades, scientists have seen trace amounts of chemicals such as flame retardants and heavy metals in breast milk.
- These findings are particularly concerning since the chemicals can be transferred to infants, who haven’t built up immunity to environmental hazards.
- The overwhelming scientific consensus is that breast milk is still the healthiest food source for infants, despite any contaminants it may carry.
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Most people are exposed to toxic chemicals like BPA and phthalates every day. Though it’s common to find these pollutants in household items like plastic bottles and food packaging, they’re often present in such low doses that they don’t present a threat to human health.
But in recent years scientists have drawn particular attention to toxic chemicals in breast milk since it’s consumed by infants.
Infants are especially vulnerable to the effects of chemicals because their metabolic pathways haven’t built up immunity to environmental hazards. They also weigh less, so their exposure could be higher.
Here are some of the common pollutants found in breast milk, which is still the healthiest food source for babies.
Flame retardants in mattresses and sofas can leach into breast milk.
Sampling breast milk is often a good way to study contaminants since it’s non-invasive and can measure exposure in both mothers and infants. Breast milk also has a higher fat content than blood, so it attracts pollutants.
One class of pollutant found in breast milk all over the world (but particularly in the US) is flame retardants, or chemicals designed to keep items from catching fire. The chemicals have been linked to thyroid cancer, ADHD, and decreases in children’s IQs. They can be transferred from mother to child.
The European Food Safety Authority has determined that breast-fed infants consume up to 20 to 30 times more PBDEs (a type of flame retardant used in building materials, electronics, furniture, and textiles) than the general population.
Babies can ingest Bisphenol A (BPA) through breast milk, but they’re likely to ingest higher doses from canned food or plastic containers.
Most of the world’s population has had some exposure to bisphenol A (BPA), a chemical commonly found in plastics such as water bottles, food packaging, and paper receipts.
Numerous scientists have uncovered links between BPA and obesity, coronary artery disease, increased blood pressure, and issues with female reproductive development. BPA is also thought to inhibit lactation in breastfeeding mothers, but it only poses a small risk to infants.
Though several studies have detected BPA in mothers’ breast milk, studies have shown that the chemical doesn’t accumulate in the body. In fact, babies are likely to ingest higher doses of BPA from canned food or plastic containers (US manufacturers are now banned from using BPA in baby bottles).
Concentrations of pesticides in breast milk may decrease over time.
Scientists are still figuring out the link between pesticides and human disease, but studies have indicated that exposure to certain pesticides may cause cancers like leukemia and non-Hodgkin lymphoma. Pesticides have also been linked to autism risk in infants and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) in children and young teens.
Though many women in developing countries like Costa Rica and Zimbabwe are exposed to pesticides through agricultural work, a 2016 study published in the journal Nature found that the concentrations of pesticides in breast milk "decreased significantly" over time. The study also found that no significant relationship between an infant’s pesticide exposure through breastfeeding and their height, weight, or body fat.
For now, the evidence doesn’t suggest that infants will experience adverse health effects from consuming pesticides through breast milk. But the CDC has yet to determine how much pesticide exposure is safe for breastfeeding.
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