Issues: Health

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

Problems with Infant Formula

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

The infant formula industry is an $8 billion per year business. Across the globe, huge advertising budgets are spent to convince women that it is better and more convenient to bottle-feed their babies. With increased focus on pollution in breast milk, an obvious question arises: is formula a better choice than breastfeeding? The answer is almost always no. Although the choice should be made by mothers and their families in consultation with their health-care provider, it is clear that, as a rule, if mothers can breastfeed, their babies' health will be better served by breast milk than formula.

It is true that infant formula contains far lower quantities of dioxins, PCBs and organochlorine pesticides than breast milk. However, formula has serious drawbacks that tip the scale against it.

Health concerns for the formula-fed infant include the risk of contaminated water, potential contaminants in bottles and nipples and contaminants in the formula itself. In many parts of the world, water is polluted with high levels of microorganisms that can cause diarrhea and other serious infectious diseases. Even in developed countries, contamination of water supplies by parasites (cryptosporidium and giardia) and bacteria (such as e coli) can be very dangerous for an infant whose undeveloped immune system cannot tolerate exposure to these disease-causing invaders. As a result, infants can become ill, even die, from formula reconstituted (or diluted) with water.

Other common contaminants in water include chlorine byproducts, weed killers, insecticides, solvents, lead and arsenic. In rural areas, nitrates from fertilizer runoff into water have caused the sometimes fatal "blue baby syndrome."

Bottled water may also contain contaminants. Even where no contaminants are in the water, formula that requires diluting has caused health problems in babies when the formula is either over-diluted or under-diluted.

The aggressive marketing of infant formula in developing countries is directly related to an epidemic of infant death from malnutrition and diarrheal illness, a result of the contaminated water used to dilute or reconstitute formula. An international effort is under way to force these companies to market their products responsibly.

Formula itself may have contaminants introduced in the manufacturing process. In the past, recalls have been ordered because of contamination with substances such as broken glass, fragments of metal and salmonella and other bacteria. The fungal toxin aflatoxin has also been detected in some commercial formulas. Although detected levels were very low, this toxin is known to cause cancer and is not present in breast milk. Infant formulas also may contain excessive levels of metals, including aluminum, manganese, cadmium and lead. Soy formulas are a particular concern due to very high levels of plant-derived estrogens (phytoestrogens) in soy products. In fact, the concentrations of phytoestrogens detected in the blood of infants fed soy formula were 13,000 to 22,000 times greater than the concentrations of natural estrogens.

Some formula companies have been affiliated with pesticide or chemical companies that make hazardous chemicals. Others make products out of polyvinyl chloride plastic, which when thrown away and burned in incinerators releases some of the same chemical contaminants that can eventually get into breast milk.

Finally, baby formula is the product of a large, and for most mothers, unnecessary industrial process, all of which adds to pollution in a variety of ways large and small. The list includes production plants that pollute, trucks that burn polluting diesel fuel, the use of harmful pesticides and genetically modified organisms to grow soy and cattle fodder, packaging that contributes to deforestation and pollution and more -- all in service of a product that is both nutritionally and developmentally inferior for infants.

Related Information on the Web

  • Baby Milk Action is a nonprofit organization that works through a global network to strengthen independent, transparent and effective controls on the marketing of the baby-feeding industry.

  • NRDC's website provides good information on water contamination.

Back to Top | Next: The Benefits of Breastfeeding

last revised 3.25.05

Get Updates and Alerts

See the latest issue >

NRDC Gets Top Ratings from the Charity Watchdogs

Charity Navigator awards NRDC its 4-star top rating.
Worth magazine named NRDC one of America's 100 best charities.
NRDC meets the highest standards of the Wise Giving Alliance of the Better Business Bureau.

Donate now >

Share | |