Breastfeeding and Contaminants

I have a general question about breastmilk. Over the past decennia, there have been alarming articles about pollution-related contaminants (from food and the environment) in mothers’ milk, implying it may be hazardous to breastfeed your child! My mother just recently mentioned something about the breastmilk of nursing mothers in Naples, Italy, being contaminated by a certain pollutant (I failed to find more accurate information about it) with the result that mothers may only feed their babies two times daily maximum, so as not to give their babies dangerous levels of the contaminant in the daily dose of their breastmilk. I am wondering if there is more accurate or researched information available on this subject (in general, and the Naples story) and how much we should believe in or take into account these stories and information. What is La Leche League’s and other breastfeeding organizations’ opinions on this issue?

I am a very happy breastfeeding mom, and my instinct tells me to feed my children my own adjusted-to-the-needs-of-my-baby breastmilk rather than artificial powder milk, which cannot be free of contaminants either, or the water with which it is being prepared.

I am concerned though for mothers who may live in areas where there may be a real or increased risk of producing contaminated breastmilk.

The question of contaminants in mothers’ milk has been recycled periodically since the 1960s. Some mothers panic and stop breastfeeding—almost always unnecessarily. Other mothers listen to their instincts and common sense, as you have, and continue breastfeeding because they are aware that no foods are entirely contaminant-free.

Mother’s milk has been used as a bio-monitoring tool for over half a century; it is a handy marker for the mother’s exposure to environmental contaminants (and by extension for the overall contamination of the environment), but it is often interpreted as a reason to stop or limit breastfeeding. These contaminants are much more likely to be a problem for the developing fetus than for the breastfeeding baby. There is some concern about extreme exposure, but even during the Vietnam War when there was massive exposure, there was no evidence that these babies came to harm while they were breastfeeding.

This is what a classic European book on drugs and breastfeeding reads:

“Average contamination of breast milk with persistent organochlorines does not seem to have to have detrimental effects on children’s development. If it is assumed that any toxic effect of organochlorines is associated with their plasma level, prenatal exposure would be more relevant than intake through breast milk. All in all breastfeeding has a positive and probably compensating, effect on psychomotor and cognitive development that outweighs potential toxic effects before birth and via breast milk.” Schaefer, Christof, Peters, Paul and Miller, Richard K. Drugs during Pregnancy and Lactation, 2nd edition (Academic Press), p. 815

Dr. Schaefer directs the teratology center in Berlin and this, in turn, is part of the European Network of Teratology Information Services (www.entis-org.com).

The La Leche League website (www.llli.org) has almost 20 articles on breastmilk and environmental contaminants. The International Lactation Consultant Association has a position paper on the topic (www.ilca.org/EnvironContPP.pdf), and on the International Babyfood Action Network website (www.ibfan.org) you will find articles on the multiple ways that artificial feeding can be contaminated—most of them ways in which mother’s milk cannot be contaminated.

Do we need to be worried about environmental contaminants? Of course we do, but stopping breastfeeding is not a useful strategy for dealing with this. Keep listening to your instincts on this.