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

What Governments Should Do to Protect Breast Milk

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Unwelcome chemicals in breast milk are symptomatic of a much more pervasive problem. Environmental pollution is so widespread that hundreds of toxic chemicals have invaded the environment and, in turn, the bodies of every single human on the planet. This is a problem of recent vintage: the man-made chemicals in question were not to be found in our grandparents' bodies. In fact, most were developed and released into the environment only in the last 60 years. Despite ample reason for concern, information about what these chemicals do to our health, and to the health of our children, is incomplete. Indeed, most of the chemicals produced today and used in large quantities have never been tested for potential health effects, including their impact on breast milk.

The simple truth is that no matter what a mother does, her baby will have been exposed to many of these chemicals in utero, as toxins in the mother's blood are transferred via the placenta. In fact, the evidence suggests that these prenatal exposures pose the greatest risk to the child. In that sense, knowing what chemicals are in breast milk is important because it is an indication of what babies are exposed to in the womb. Beyond that, however, sensitive developmental stages occur after birth, making exposure from breastfeeding a genuine concern in its own right.

For all these reasons, chemicals in breast milk are an important problem. But even beyond the implications for nursing mothers and their babies, the issue should give us all pause. After all, if "nature's first food" is contaminated by man-made pollutants that work their way up the food chain and then burrow their way into people's bodies and transmit themselves to newborns, we must confront an inescapable conclusion: it is past time to reduce or eliminate human exposures to these chemicals by reducing, and eventually eliminating, their creation and introduction into the environment.

A Call for Breast Milk Monitoring

One barrier to protecting mothers and their babies from persistent organic pollutants is the paucity of reliable and comprehensive studies on the subject. Some very useful studies have been conducted, enough to identify and call attention to the problem. But a quarter century after scientists first recognized the problem, well-designed breast milk monitoring studies are still relatively rare.

A few countries, Sweden and Germany chiefly, have systematic breast milk monitoring programs that have tested considerable numbers of women over time using a fairly consistent sampling method. But many countries have done little or no testing for pesticides, metals or industrial chemicals in breast milk. Scientists are left with insufficient or out-of-date data for many geographic areas. In addition, many studies have focused on only a small number of POPs. Many chemicals have been shown to get into mother's milk in animals, but no studies have even looked to see if these chemicals are a problem also in humans. Chemicals that can enter maternal milk in animals include phthalates, which are used in plastics and cosmetics; organophosphate insecticides; and perchlorate, a common drinking water contaminant.

The United States is an example of the problem, with no program in place to test breast milk for substances that don't belong in it. Some studies have been done in the United States over the past few decades, but they offer only snapshots of particular regions at a given point in time. They also fail to investigate many chemicals that may be problems or that we have reason to suspect may be in breast milk. More consistent research is needed to demonstrate trends over time and to detect substances that may pose a concern.

More and better research in the United States is easily within the nation's reach, but the absence of a national testing program is a huge barrier. One answer would be for the federal government to take up the challenge, establishing a testing program with dedicated funds for breast milk monitoring under the auspices of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's National Environmental Health Laboratory. There is a program that tests blood and urine samples from a representative subset of the U.S. population, looking for various contaminants, including many of the ones discussed here. But the program does not include breast milk, and its future is in jeopardy due to funding constraints and a shift in federal priorities. State governments could also establish biological monitoring programs that include testing of breast milk, but none have done so to date.

That can change, however, with a concerted grassroots effort. One way for parents to help make sure their descendants won't face similar concerns about breast milk when it's their turn to have children is to encourage Congress or state legislatures to hold hearings on the issue, aimed at providing funding for more and better government-sponsored research.

Banning Chemicals in Breast Milk

Another area where federal involvement is called for has to do with chemicals still used in the United States that have been shown to accumulate in breast milk. Examples of these problem chemicals include PBDEs, perchlorate, nitro musks and musk xylenes. PBDEs are environmentally persistent, accumulate in fat and resemble the PCBs and dioxins. Animal studies show that these chemicals interfere with brain development, and scientists have found PBDEs in house dust, indoor air, fish in the Great Lakes and marine mammals in San Francisco Bay. Perchlorate is a chemical used in rocket fuel, fireworks and road flares that is now a drinking water contaminant in many parts of the country. It is known to block the normal function of the thyroid gland and may interfere with normal brain development in the infant. The nitro musks and musk xylenes are used as artificial fragrances in cosmetics, perfumes and consumer products. European studies have shown that they accumulate in breast milk, but no studies have been done in the United States. There is also very little information available on the toxicity of these chemicals. The Environmental Protection Agency needs to act to ban or severely regulate all chemicals in this class. Join NRDC's Earth Activist Network to stay informed about urgent environmental issues needing your immediate help.

The Need for Consistent Monitoring Standards

Many of the research problems stem from the lack of a standardized protocol for conducting breast milk monitoring programs. Many scientists have called for the adoption of a consistent method based on the World Health Organization's protocol.

Just as important, breast milk monitoring must be expanded worldwide. It is only with more information from many women and in many locations that scientists will be able to track trends, identify potential hazards and protect future generations.

The Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants

The Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants was signed on May 22, 2001. It is a United Nations treaty to eliminate persistent organic pollutants, or POPs. The treaty is designed to phase out an entire class of chemicals because of their effects on human health and the environment.

The treaty calls for the international ban or phaseout of PCBs and nine organochlorine pesticides, including aldrin, chlordane, DDT, dieldrin, endrin, hexachlorobenzene, heptachlor, mirex and toxaphene. It also works toward a goal of eliminating dioxin formation worldwide. The treaty also establishes a process to identify and list additional POPs for eventual phaseout. The main provisions of the treaty:

  • Ban eight organochlorine pesticides

  • Prohibit new production of PCBs and phase out their remaining uses by 2025

  • Limit DDT to use against insects that carry human disease, while setting a long-term goal of total elimination of DDT. Developing countries may use DDT against malaria until safe and affordable alternatives are available.

  • Promote action to minimize the release of industrial such by-products as dioxins and furans

  • Employ a precautionary approach to identify and take action against additional POPs. The treaty establishes a scientific POPs Review Committee to evaluate additional chemicals for inclusion in the treaty, based on the criteria of toxicity, persistence, bioaccumulation and long-range transport.

  • Channel funds and technical assistance from developed countries to developing countries to enable all countries to comply with the treaty

  • Emphasize preventive measures to address POPs at their source by helping to prevent the development of new chemicals with POP characteristics, and by promoting changes in industrial processes that can create POPs

The Stockholm Convention is an important landmark in the battle to protect mother's milk from pollution. Countries that have banned certain POPs have been rewarded with much lower levels of pollutants in mother's milk, and scientists have every reason to expect that the treaty will extend those success stories to more countries and more chemicals. In addition, the treaty establishes a process to add to its current list of banned chemicals. Because the treaty does not currently cover a dangerous group of flame retardants called PBDEs, or the pesticide lindane and related chemicals, all of which are persistent and toxic to the brain, that provision will be important in the future.

The Stockholm Convention was ratified by over 50 countries and went into force in May of 2004. The United States is among the countries that has signed, but not ratified, the Stockholm Convention. Before the United States can join the convention, Congress must adopt, and the president must sign, amendments to the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) and the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA) to bring U.S. domestic law into compliance with the convention, and the Senate must give its "advice and consent" to the treaty, which requires a two-thirds majority vote.

Legislation developed by the Bush Administration ostensibly to implement the Stockholm Convention flouts one of the key parts of the treaty: its science-based process for adding additional, dangerous chemicals. The proposed legislation would allow the EPA to ignore an international decision to list a chemical under the treaty, effectively giving the EPA complete discretion to ignore an international commitment of the United States and to take no action toward regulating or banning a POP chemical, even if the United States has agreed to the international listing decision. If the EPA chooses to regulate, it could do so only by using existing cumbersome cancellation procedures, which take years before even the most dangerous pesticides or industrial chemicals are removed from the market.

Worse still, the implementing legislation introduces new, onerous cost-benefit analysis, "peer review" and "generally accepted scientific principles" requirements. As inoffensive as these terms sound, the underlying intent of these provisions would be to make it more difficult for U.S. administrative agencies to protect the environment and the health and safety of Americans. Such an approach would directly contradict the precautionary terms of the Stockholm Convention.

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last revised 3.25.05

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