(WOMENSENEWS)–An international chemical treaty signed last month will help eliminate and phase out some chemical pollutants in the air, water and food, contaminants that can build up in the body and work their way into nature’s first food–mother’s milk.
The treaty, known as the Stockholm Convention, does not specifically mention breast milk, although the Natural Resources Defense Council said that a cleaner environment means a safer and healthier environment for everyone, including mothers and the children they nurse. In the United States, 64 percent of mothers choose to breast-feed their children.
Christine Todd Whitman, administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, signed the treaty in Stockholm on May 22. President George W. Bush, who announced the United States would reject the Kyoto Climate Change Protocol, has said he would sign this treaty after it is ratified by the Senate. The treaty was signed by representatives of 120 countries; in order to take effect, it must be ratified by the national assemblies of 50 countries.
Three decades after Rachel Carson’s landmark book “The Silent Spring” first called attention to the hazards of the pesticide DDT, its lessons are the focus of an international effort to ban or phase out harmful organic chemical industry wastes which trespass in the environment and can turn up in breast milk.
Doctors, environmental scientists, the chemical industry and even the $8-billion baby formula industry all agree with the labels on bottles of formula: “Breast Milk Is Recommended.”
And, they also agree that there is no cause for panic, that the benefits of breastfeeding far outweigh the risks associated with environmental contamination and that women themselves can limit their risks.
U.S. Advocates: Monitor Breast Milk for Chemicals, as in Europe
In Sweden, where 98 percent of mothers breast-feed their newborns, and in Germany, governments regularly test breast milk to monitor changes in chemical levels. Scattered American programs that monitored contaminants in blood tests were abandoned during the Reagan administration for lack of funds and interest.
U.S. advocates of breastfeeding want the reestablishment of breast milk monitoring programs along the lines of those in Europe.
“We’re pushing for the U.S. to take off its blinders and begin again,” says Dr. Gina Solomon, a senior scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council and an assistant clinical professor of medicine at the University of California at San Francisco. She is an expert on chemicals in mother’s milk.
“What we find out may or may not hurt us,” she said, “but we have a right to know.”
Universally considered the superior nourishment for babies and regarded as a “perfect food,” breast milk contains nutrients that build the baby’s body plus proteins that transmit immunity to disease. Breast milk may contribute to lower incidence of diabetes, ear infections and cancer later in life. Pediatric studies indicate that breast-fed babies are less likely to get diarrhea as well as ear, respiratory and urinary tract infections than formula-fed infants. Other studies show that benefits to the mother may include reduced risk of breast cancer, osteoporosis and other diseases.
But in order to produce that perfect food, the mother’s body taps her own fat resources that may harbor harmful substances. It was in the early 1970s that a Swedish researcher exploring concentrations of environmental contaminants in fish and sediments happened to test his wife’s breast milk–and discovered high levels of the pesticide DDT, now widely banned.
Ingesting High Proportion of Body Weight, Infants Susceptible to Toxins
While toxins may be transferred from mother to fetus, it is after birth that babies are particularly susceptible to contaminants. Because infants develop so rapidly, they ingest such a high percentage of their body weight daily that their exposure to chemical contaminants is disproportionately high. Corrected for body weight, a bottle-fed infant’s consumption of water per day is equal to an adult drinking almost seven and a half quarts.
Subsequent studies revealed disturbing concentrations of other pesticides and chemicals as well as dioxins and other toxins called furans, the by-products of combustion in the presence of chlorine. All of these man-made chemicals are termed persistent organic pollutants because they fail to break down in the environment.
This generation’s grandmothers didn’t have to worry because these chemical pollutants have been developed in the last 60 years. They are used in pesticides and electrical insulation. They are also a product of combustion in incinerators, power plants, cement kilns and metal smelters. They can come into contact with humans through side effects of their intended use, such as waste disposal, or accidents, such as spills or explosions.
People can be exposed to potentially hazardous chemicals by driving a car, using plastics, working with chemical products on the job or in hobbies or inhaling emissions from incinerators.
Once accumulated, persistent organic pollutants can work their way up the food chain and lodge in body fat where concentrated deposits, or bioaccumulations, may cause such problems as neurological damage, learning disorders and endocrine disruption.
Already a Big Drop in Breast Milk Toxins Because of Regulations
During the last three decades, after toxin levels peaked in the late 1960s and 1970s, some countries unilaterally took steps to significantly reduce toxin levels. Studies show a 50- to 70-percent decline in monitored levels of dioxins and chlorine contaminants in breast milk, attributable to bans on toxic chemicals and improved manufacturing methods, the phaseout of leaded gasoline, advances in emissions controls and prohibitions on open burning.
Environmental experts want to see the bans extended to protect Americans from contaminants found in imported foods and wind drifts.
“We don’t want these toxins in the food supply and raining down on us,” cautions Dr. Solomon of the Natural Resources Defense Council.
The Stockholm Convention calls for a universal ban on polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, and nine specific pesticides. It also would mandate new manufacturing methods that reduce byproduct dioxins and toxins produced by combustion involving poisonous chlorine.
“These substances need to be managed,” said Clifford T. Howlett Jr., executive director of the Chlorine Chemistry Council, “especially those with a propensity for global transport.” The treaty provides for future identification and prohibition of other toxins, such as currently suspect brominated flame retardants (polybrominated diphenyl ethers).
Nursing Mothers Should Take Steps to Further Protect Their Infants
Formula, which can be made with contaminated water and can carry traces of toxic metals, bacteria and other environmental toxins, has its own risks. Additionally, contaminants may be carried in the baby bottles and nipples.
Concerned mothers can take steps to help protect their bodies and their babies from the invasion of persistent organic pollutants.
Nursing mothers should neither smoke nor drink alcohol. They should avoid contact with solvents such as paints, thinners, glues and dry-cleaning fluids. The safest diet concentrates on organic fruits and vegetables. Fish with high mercury levels such as swordfish, shark and tuna steaks should be avoided, and women should heed advisories on local fish from nearby bodies of water. Whole milk, cheeses and other fatty dairy products may harbor chemicals and should be eaten with caution.
Nursing mothers who see signs of jaundice in their infants or who suspect possible exposure to toxic chemicals should consult their doctors for recommended testing methods.
In the meantime, such disparate groups as the La Leche League, the American Chemistry Council, formula manufacturers and the Natural Resources Defense Council all concur.
“The message we are trying to send is not to switch to formula, but to keep a cleaner environment,” said Dr. Solomon of the Natural Resources Defense Council. “It would be a terrible shame if women stopped breast-feeding; it’s still the best choice.”
Sharon King Hoge is a free-lance writer in New York.
For more information, visit:
Natural Resources Defense Council:
World Alliance for Breastfeeding Action:
Chlorine Chemistry Council:
Information on Persistent Organic Pollutants:
La Leche League:
American Academy of Pediatrics: