From time to time, the words ‘toxins’ and ‘breastmilk’, hit the headlines together, and unfortunately, everyone panics about the potential toxins in breastmilk.
Recently, a Harvard report was published about toxins in breastmilk. They tested for a widely used class of industrial chemicals called PFASs (perfluorinated alkylate substances). PFASs have been linked with cancer and immune function impairment.
However, the sample size included only 81 babies who were born in the Faroe Islands between 1997 and 2000, making it an unreliable study.
Unfortunately, news like this has a serious side effect of putting doubt into the minds of some breastfeeding mothers — and even healthcare professionals — about the quality or potential harm of breastmilk.
As scary as toxin riddled breastmilk might sound, there is so much more to it. After all, how can doing what leading health organisations around the world recommend lead to harm?
What, if anything, can be done about it? Would formula feeding be a better option?
These sorts of questions need to be answered in order for us to have a complete understanding of toxins and breastmilk.
Toxins In Breastmilk
Here are 6 facts you need to know about toxins in breastmilk.
#1: Any Toxins In Breastmilk Suggest Toxins In A Woman's Environment — Rather Than Being A Statement About Breastfeeding
Toxin levels in our body can be tested in various ways – for example in breastmilk, urine and blood.
Breastmilk just happens to provide scientists with an easy way to measure toxin levels in our bodies.
An unfortunate consequence of this is that, from time to time, it leads to alarmist media headlines about babies being exposed to toxins through breastmilk.
Any toxins in breastmilk are simply a reflection of the toxins a mother is exposed to in her environment. It's not a statement about breastfeeding.
#2: Toxins Have The Most Potential For Harm During Pregnancy
Babies’ exposure to toxins, via the placenta during pregnancy, poses a greater risk to their health than during breastfeeding. This is because:
- There is plenty of movement of substances, from a mother’s fat stores, that nurture her fast-developing baby (toxins are stored in maternal fat)
- Pregnancy is a period when critical stages of a baby’s development occur – including that of the brain and nervous system
#3: Leading Health Organisations Recommend Breastfeeding Despite Any Toxins
Leading health organisations from around the world recognise that breastfeeding is important for mothers and their babies, despite the presence of toxins in breastmilk. This is why they recommend babies be exclusively breastfed for about the first 6 months, and then for breastfeeding to continue, alongside suitable solid foods, to one year — or as long as the mother and child desire.
The World Health Organization (WHO) states, “The advantages of breastfeeding far outweigh the potential risks from environmental pollutants. Taking into account breastfeeding's short- and long-term health benefits for infants and mothers, WHO recommends breastfeeding in all but extreme circumstances.”
#4: Formula Is Not Toxin Free
This topic cannot be discussed thoroughly unless the risks of the breastmilk substitute, formula, are also examined.
There are many ways that not breastfeeding poses a risk to a mother’s and her baby’s health.
In addition, formula is not toxin free. For more information about toxins in formula read here.
#5: Breastmilk Can Help Counteract Negative Effects Of Toxins
If babies are to be exposed to toxins, taking away something that can help counteract the negative effects makes no sense.
Breastmilk has a host of anti-infective and anti-inflammatory factors as well as antioxidants. These factors can help to counteract negative effects of toxins.
According to the Environmental Working Group “Several long-term studies have followed groups of babies exposed to PCBs [Polychlorinated biphenyls] in-utero and found that the breastfed babies appear to be less impacted by the chemical exposures than their bottle-fed [formula-fed] counterparts. One study of Michigan babies found significant improvements in babies breastfed for at least 6 weeks. The researchers concluded that PCB exposures in the womb were responsible for the neurological impacts, and that breastfed infants showed fewer effects of PCB exposure.”
#6: There Are Ways To Minimise Toxins In Your Body
According to the WHO, levels of certain toxins in breastmilk have been falling since the 1980s and they continue to do so.
Obviously, where you live in the world can either increase or decrease your level of exposure to toxins. For example, if you live in a rural area away from waste incinerators you would have lower levels of toxin exposure than if you lived in a city area or near a waste incinerator.
There is much that needs to be done on a global level to reduce our level of exposure to toxins, rather than advise women not to breastfeed, based on shaky evidence.
Here are some things you can do to reduce the level of toxins in your body (and therefore in your breastmilk):
- Avoid smoking, and drinking alcohol
- Avoid pesticides and lead-based paints
- Reduce consumption of animal fats
- Increase consumption of fruits and vegetables
- Wash and peel fruits and vegetables to help eliminate pesticide residues
- Avoid eating any fish from waters reported by local health agencies as contaminated
- Limit exposure to common chemicals (e.g. paints, non-water based glues, nail polish and petrol fumes)
- Limit exposure to dry-cleaned clothes especially when you’re pregnant or breastfeeding. Remove the plastic cover from dry-cleaned clothes and air them outside
- Avoid eating shark, swordfish or marlin, due to their high toxin levels
Breastfeeding is important for the health of mothers and their babies. There is still a lot that needs to be done to reduce the amount of toxins in the world. We all have a role to play in this regard. It is equally important to recognise that in a world where exposure to environmental toxins is a reality, breastfeeding is even more important.