A list of ghastly toxics known to be present in human breast milk—from pesticides and flame retardants to deodorizers and wood preservatives—is enough to make any new mom question the oft-heard refrain that “breast is best.”
Still, most experts still agree that breast milk is the healthiest choice for both moms and babies. That’s probably why parenting magazines and doctors’ office pamphlets rarely mention chemical contaminants in human breast milk: they want to encourage breastfeeding, rather than sow doubt about it. And as a result, moms are exposed to a lot of information on the health benefits of breastfeeding, yet hear little about the industrial toxics that contaminate human milk.
But as Sandra Steingraber (author, biologist, and breastfeeding advocate who’s written and lectured extensively on the subject) points out, breast milk commonly violates Food and Drug Administration levels for poisonous substances in food. She writes: “Were it regulated like infant formula, the breast milk of many US mothers would not be able to be legally sold on supermarket shelves.”
Yikes! Okay, so that information did not appear on the ubiquitous breastfeeding “pros and cons” lists in my baby books.
But even armed with this information, we face a tough choice. Just because the scales still tip toward breast milk in the bulk of available risk-benefit analyses, it doesn’t mean the risks from chemical contaminants go away. And rather than silence on the issue, our society desperately needs an open, public conversation about keeping breast milk safe—and about strong community standards that can prevent dangerous toxins from getting into our bodies in the first place.
Unlike a lot of moms, I did know a bit about the industrial-age compounds that likely contaminate my own body—and that I would be feeding to my baby through my breast milk. I’d read Steingraber’s book. Sightline had conducted a study a few years back that found frighteningly high levels of PBDEs in northwestern moms’ milk.
Despite those risks, I decided to breastfeed my baby anyway. My rational side factored in the apparent much-lauded benefits of breastfeeding (and not just breast milk, but all that nursing entails, including physical contact between mother and baby), weighing them against the risks that I knew of. But, ultimately, it was far from a rational decision: I felt a deep, instinctual, emotional—and dare I say chemical—drive to breastfeed. It seemed as if there was really no other choice: nursing felt like sacred rite of motherhood that I was duty-bound to fulfill.
Okay, now that I just wrote that out (sounding like a bit of a militant “lactivist” myself), I begin to question how much of this is coming from my own “maternal instincts” and how much of it is manufactured by what a colleague here at Sightline calls the Cult of Breastfeeding—a.k.a. the prevailing societal force that insists that breast feeding is the “ultimate badge of responsible parenting” (and anything less is equivalent to feeding your newborn soda pop.) Either way, I shudder to think of how I would have reacted—hormones raging—if I were told that toxics levels in my milk were too dangerous to feed to my child!! What would other moms do if they were told that they shouldn’t nurse their babies? The image of all those bouncing babies ripped from their mothers’ arms underscores my belief that toxics in our bodies should never, ever become the deciding factor.
So, even if I admit the drive to nurse is complex, the benefits of breast milk are lauded as legion. According to Steingraber (based on her review of countless studies), “breastfed infants have fewer respiratory and middle-ear infections, are less prone to diarrhea, and are less likely to succumb to Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. Breastfed infants grow into children who suffer less than their bottle-fed counterparts from juvenile diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, obesity, dental malocclusions, and some leukemias. They respond more vigorously to vaccinations. They have better hearing and visual acuity. They develop balance and gross motor coordination more quickly. Some studies show higher IQs. Plus, breastfeeding may protect a woman against some breast and ovarian cancers.
On the flip side, some of the toxics that are found in our milk have been linked to cancer, behavioral disorders, learning disabilities, and a host of other serious health problems.
Again, what evidence there is seems to be stacked in favor of breast milk as a food source for infants. But, as a side note, it’s worth pointing out, as Hanna Rosin did in her—sobering and yet quite hilarious—article, “The Case Against Breast-Feeding,” in the Atlantic last year, that studies on breastfeeding, while profuse, do not always make the clear cut case for breast milk that pervades mainstream Baby Lit…for various reasons—a big one being the inability to have a control group due to obvious ethical concerns. Another one is that women who breastfeed are self-selecting and it’s hard not to confound factors in outcomes like a child’s health or IQ.
Rosin, among other breast is best skeptics, points to research that shows that breast feeding is probably just slightly better for the health of the child. That may be. But it’s also difficult to separate the physiological benefits of breast milk from benefits that are reaped from the physical and emotional act of breastfeeding itself—basic skin on skin contact and just plain dedicated time spent focused on the baby, for example. The distinction is worth making—benefits of milk as a food source aside, dangerous concentrations of toxics could discourage important physical and emotional bonding that’s difficult to quantify. I think of all the hours that I’ve already spent with my 4 month old, nursing her, but also singing, cooing, and talking to her, smiling at her, playing with her feet, rocking her, etc. Again, hard to quantify, but certainly of value in a child’s development.
(By the way, Rosin’s main argument is that our cultural insistence on breastfeeding has hobbled progress on women’s equality in marriage and in the workforce, but that’s a discussion for another time.)
Whew! So what it boils down to is that weighing all the potential risks against breastfeeding and breast milk’s many benefits is essentially impossible, even for an army of experts. It’s also beside the point. The choice is a personal one, but a choice there should be! And it should never be a question of choosing the lesser of two evils. We have a shared responsibility to safeguard the basic human right to grow up untainted by damaging chemicals. Put another way, chemical risks in today’s environment aren’t a matter of choice; they’re an assault on basic rights.
But if we’re silent about this chemical assault—if we hide facts about what’s in our bodies and our breast milk out of fea
r that we’ll turn some moms off from breastfeeding—we could simply hasten the day when breastfeeding simply isn’t safe (again, picture in your mind the babies being ripped from their mothers arms!). Steingraber says it best:
…I still felt strongly that we needed to have an informed public conversation about the presence of persistent toxic chemicals in breast milk. We cannot solve public health problems by keeping secrets.
The reason I believe that these kinds of risk-benefit analyses are an unhelpful approach to the problem of chemical contaminants in breast milk is that they offer no solutions. The usual recommendation that follows from them–”just keep nursing because the benefits outweigh the risks”–means that we nursing mothers should take no action until our milk becomes so contaminated as to pose as many risks to pediatric health as formula.
Risk-benefit analyses imply that as long as one danger (breastfeeding) is less than another (failure to breastfeed), we should accept the lesser danger—even though it still necessitates endangering our children. The narrow duality of the risk-benefit equation leaves no room for the proposition that the feeding of babies should be a risk-free activity. Period.
To move toward collective outrage that might lead to policy solutions, moms should be informed that human breast milk is contaminated with all kinds of stuff we’d never dream of feeding our babies: insecticides, PCBs, PBDEs, flame retardants, fungicides, wood preservatives, termite poisons, mothproofing agents, toilet deodorizers, dry-cleaning fluids, gasoline vapors, and dioxins. As Steingraber has written, “some of these are known human carcinogens; some are known immune suppressors; some are powerful endocrine disrupters. All are fat-soluble which means mother’s milk is a perfect carrier.”
As a nursing mother, I banished the ugly facts from my mind and did what felt right for me. I’m not in the camp that tries to make moms feel guilty if they don’t breastfeed. Not at all. I can list as many reasons to do it as there are not to! And, like Hanna Rosin wrote, I have no grandiose illusions that I’m making my baby that much leaner, healthier, and smarter with my milk, but as she so eloquently put it, “breast-feeding does not belong in the realm of facts and hard numbers; it is much too intimate and elemental.”
Whatever the benefits and risks wrapped up in my own choice, whatever sacrifices of time, money (because my time is money after all), and sanity I’m making to work and continue to breastfeed, I believe my baby has a right to breast milk that’s not laced with chemicals as well as a right to the comfort and psychological needs that nursing meets for her. Just as I have a right to choose to nurse her. So, I simply can’t say enough times that breastfeeding shouldn’t merely be the less risky choice. More alarmingly, if we don’t set higher community standards for pollution, to stop chemicals and toxics from getting into our food, water—our bodies—in the first place, there may not always be a choice. Breast milk could become too poisonous to feed to our babies.
At some point, it’s not a question of whether or not we can or should let that happen—but what it says about our society if we do.
This post originally appeared at Sightline’s Daily Score blog.