Issues: Health

Healthy Milk, Healthy Baby
Chemical Pollution and Mother's Milk

Main Page
Chemicals in Mother's Milk
The Cycle of Hazardous Chemicals
Problems with Infant Formula
Benefits of Breastfeeding
What Mothers Should Do
What Governments Should Do
Ask Dr. Gina
The Chemicals
En Español

We live every day with pollutants. Products of the chemical industry are in the water we drink, the air we breathe, the food we eat. They're in our homes and workplaces, and in the places our children learn and play. In fact, studies over the last 25 years have proved that as polluting chemicals have built up in the environment they have even invaded the most natural of all sources of nourishment -- mother's milk.

Because of the way some chemicals bind to fat in our bodies, measurable concentrations can build up and eventually work their way into mother's milk when the body calls on fat supplies during lactation. It is a phenomenon of the chemical age, something our grandmothers never had to face.

The good news is that we've come a long way in reducing harmful chemicals in the environment, and therefore, in breast milk. PCBs, DDT metabolites and dioxin levels have all decreased over the years in many countries. But many of these chemicals, called persistent organic pollutants, persist in our environment and in breast milk. Other chemicals are not so long lasting, but people are exposed to them frequently enough that they may be a concern in breast milk. The bottom line is that any level of chemicals in breast milk is a potential health concern -- for both mother and child.

That said, nursing mothers should be encouraged by the news that the world community is taking effective action on some of the worst pollutants. An international treaty signed in Stockholm on May 22, 2001, by the United States and 119 other nations puts many of these chemicals on the road to extinction, and creates an avenue by which other chemicals could eventually be banned.

That's particularly significant for two reasons. First, the evidence proves that banning chemicals does in fact result in dramatic reductions in the levels of pollution in the environment, and in breast milk in particular. Second, the treaty bans several harmful chemicals and establishes a process to add others to its list of banned pollutants. In short, action to reduce levels of some of these chemicals has been effective in the past, and the Stockholm Convention creates a way to address these chemical hazards worldwide in the future.

The Stockholm Convention entered into force in May 2004 without the participation of the United States. The U.S. Senate has not yet ratified the treaty, even though it has been ratified by more than 50 other nations. Worse still, the ratifying legislation introduced by the Bush Administration would undercut many of the important provisions of the treaty, especially including the ability to subject additional chemicals to its provisions in the future. The proposed legislation could also undermine some important provisions of U.S. environmental laws. So, although it is good news that the world is moving forward against the chemicals that can contaminate breast milk, the bad news is that the United States is undermining this global effort.

These pages are intended to help parents sort through the information quickly and easily, so that they can make informed, healthy decisions. This collection functions as a gateway to the findings of studies on various aspects of the problem, and a source of advice on how to keep your baby healthy. You'll also find suggestions for actions you can take to help ensure that your children's children won't face concerns about chemical hazards in the future.

FOLLOW THE LINKS BELOW to learn more about chemicals in mother's milk, problems with infant formula and the advantages of breastfeeding.

Chemicals in mother's milk. Persistent organic pollutants (POPs) are pollutants that linger in the environment, eventually working their way into human bodies. Nursing mothers can pass these pollutants on to their children in concentrated doses. Learn more about the problem.

The cycle of hazardous chemicals. Some chemicals travel a slow but persistent path to human breast milk. Read how chemicals get into the body.

Formula not usually a better choice. Infant formula isn't usually a better choice. It has pollution problems of its own, and it lacks important nutrients that can only come from breast milk. Learn more about formula.

Breastfeeding is best for you and your child. Nursing is a better choice than formula for most mothers and children. Learn about the health benefits for your baby in the short and long term, the health benefits for the mother and the economic benefits for the family.

Mothers can limit chemicals in their milk. You can reduce the potential hazards from pollution in breast milk. Learn how.

What we need to do as a society to fix the problem. Current efforts to prevent pollution from working its way into mother's milk are inadequate; more must be done. Learn about what governments should do, and get tips on urging them to act.

A conversation with Dr. Gina. Dr. Gina Solomon, M.D., M.P.H., is a senior scientist at NRDC and an assistant clinical professor of medicine at the University of California at San Francisco. She's an expert on chemicals in mother's milk, and you can read an interview with her.

The chemicals, one by one. Which chemicals are we talking about? How do they get into the environment? And how do they get into mother's milk? Start with an overview of the chemicals that are cause for concern in breast milk, then read on for detailed descriptions of each polluting chemical or compound: chlordane; DDT; dieldrin, aldrin and endrin; hexachlorobenzene; hexachlorocyclohexane; heptachlor; mirex; toxaphene; dioxins and furans; PBDEs; PCBs; lead, mercury, cadmium and other metals; chemicals from cosmetics in breast milk; and solvents.

Links. We've pulled together an annotated list of useful websites to help you learn more. Visit these other sites, too.

Glossary. A short list of definitions of key terms used throughout these pages.

Credits and Acknowledgements | Notes

last revised 3.25.05

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