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

What Mothers Should Do

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Although not the only means of exposure, your diet is an important factor in protecting your infant from chemicals in breast milk. You can avoid some -- but not all -- chemicals by being careful about what you eat.

Despite the problems with persistent organic pollutants, nursing is still a better option than formula for the vast majority of women. Of course, it is important to consult with your doctor about your individual health needs. Generally speaking, however, women who are pregnant, who plan to become pregnant or who are breastfeeding, should:

  • Quit smoking or never start, and keep others from smoking in your house or car

  • Avoid alcoholic beverages

  • Avoid use of pesticides in the home and garden or on pets

  • Avoid exposure to solvents, such as paints, non-water-based glues, furniture strippers, gasoline fumes, perfume and nail polish

  • Avoid dry cleaners and recently dry-cleaned clothes

  • Eat a balanced diet low in animal fats and high-fat dairy products

  • Avoid fish that may have high mercury or PCB levels, such as swordfish, shark, tuna and locally caught fish (see NRDC's guide to Mercury Contamination in Fish for more information)

  • Eat organically grown food, if available

Women who may be exposed to chemicals in the workplace have special concerns. For example, women exposed to solvents or other chemicals need to determine if these chemicals could be entering their bodies -- through inhalation or through the skin -- and then if they can get into breast milk. It is also important to know if the chemicals may be hazardous to their babies' health. These types of questions often require the attention of a medical specialist. Women who have questions about special exposures and breastfeeding, should contact a Pediatric Environmental Health Specialty Unit.

Women who are considering whether or not to breastfeed, should:

  • Read the information on these pages and check out our links to organizations that promote breastfeeding

  • Remember that chemicals in breast milk are a problem that demands social action but not panic -- the levels in most people are not high enough to outweigh the hazards of infant formula

  • Check with your health-care provider if you have questions about your personal situation

Some Explanation

As noted, diet plays a major role in the accumulation of persistent, bioaccumulative chemicals in breast milk -- in particular, fatty foods from animals or fish. The accumulation of such chemicals in a person's body is a long process, so small or temporary changes in diet may have no effect on the levels found in breast milk. Becoming a vegetarian or lowering consumption of animal products during short periods (i.e., during or before pregnancy) has minimal effect on the levels of these chemicals in the short term.

Not every chemical that enters a woman's body will persist. Many are attracted to water rather than fat and will exit the body through breath, urine or feces. Chemicals that bioaccumulate up the food chain, however, have very few exit routes from the body; indeed, for many of these chemicals, the only real exit is via the fat in which they are stored. Breast milk is rich in that "fat."

Of course, breastfeeding lowers the levels of chemical contaminants found in a woman's body and in later samples of breast milk. So with every child a woman breastfeeds, her levels decrease, meaning that subsequent children will receive lower levels of chemicals. In addition, the duration of breastfeeding affects the levels found in breast milk: the longer a woman breastfeeds, the more her body burden of chemicals decreases, and the lower the level in her milk.

Chemicals that are not persistent and bioaccumulative are easier to avoid because avoiding exposure for several hours or days allows the chemicals to be eliminated from our bodies, thereby decreasing or eliminating their presence in breast milk.

Many of the contaminants in breast milk cannot be removed by short-term lifestyle changes. For example, a short-term switch to a low-fat, organic diet will likely not affect levels of DDT, dioxins and other persistent chemicals in a woman's breast milk. These chemicals must be addressed by stopping pollution at the source. Some of the contaminants, however, can and should be avoided by women -- mercury-contaminated fish and solvents in household products, for example.

Weighing all factors, scientists and medical professionals recommend a diet low in animal fats and high in organic fruits, vegetables, and grains. Such a diet is preferable for two reasons: first, supporting organic agriculture and eating less meat will help protect the environment and decrease the chemical load we impose on our children's children; second, pesticides and other chemicals that we do not currently even test for in milk could pose a risk to a breastfeeding mother and her child.

Related Information on the Web

  • The World Alliance for Breastfeeding Action (WABA) is an advocacy group that believes that breastfeeding is the best route for mother and child. This site is about WABA, its mission and its position on different issues related to breastfeeding.

  • La Leche League International's mission is to help mothers worldwide to breastfeed through mother-to-mother support, encouragement, information and education, and to promote a better understanding of breastfeeding as an important element in the healthy development of the baby and the mother.

Back to Top | Next: What Governments Should Do to Protect Breast Milk

last revised 3.25.05

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