Every so often when I’m reading the newspaper I come across a headline something like this: Breast Milk Now Plagued with Poisons. It makes me cringe, because I believe strongly in the benefits of breastfeeding. I worry that headlines like these will cause women to doubt the safety of their own breast milk, or maybe even discourage them from breastfeeding altogether.
I tackled this question in Attack of the Toxic Breastmilk. I learned that there are higher levels of chemicals like DDT, PCBs and PDBEs in human milk than in formula. Most humans consume animal products. Anyone who’s ever been cautioned against eating tuna knows that many harmful chemicals accumulate in fatty tissue. When one animal eats another animal, they ingest more chemicals than if they ate plants. Humans are at the top of the food chain and so we generally accumulate more chemicals than grass-eating cows, from whose milk formula is manufactured. The fact that infant formula contains vegetable oil as its fat source (see one ingredient list) further reduces the levels of some toxic chemicals.
La Leche League has addressed the issue of toxins in breast milk, and they say that while it’s true that breastfed infants are exposed to higher levels of some chemicals than their formula-fed counterparts, not breastfeeding will not protect babies. Our infants are also exposed to chemicals in the womb, and so the entire chemical burden is not attributable to breastfeeding alone. But more to the point, breastfeeding appears to have a protective effect against toxins. Human milk contains high levels of antioxidants including substances like conjugated lineolic acid, which have anticarcinogenic effects.
Breastfeeding my daughter Hannah at 7 months old
In fact, breastfeeding appears to reduce cancer rates. Women who were breastfed as infants have lower breast cancer rates as adults. One study found that there is a lower rate of childhood cancers amongst infants who were breastfed for 6 months or longer, as compared to those who were not. And one Swedish researcher found that human milk can actually kill cancer cells.
In another breast milk as cancer fighter tidbit, I had to share this one. Human milk is sometimes used as a cancer therapy. Apparently, the milk can have healing properties for people who are ill. I’m not sure that it’s strictly applicable to this discussion, but how could I pass up a headline as juicy as that one? Answer: I could not.
My point here is actually not that breast is best. When it comes to feeding our babies we are all just doing the best we can, and I am not trying to cause guilt in moms who didn’t breastfeed. Instead, my point is that we are subjected to a very wide array of environmental toxins in our daily lives. They are in the air we breathe and the water we drink. These toxins accumulate in our bodies, and the World Health Organization believes that the worldwide increase in the cancer rate is related in some way. Many chemicals that we come into regular contact with are suspected carcinogens. One of the easiest ways to measure the chemical load in our bodies is through human milk. It’s painless and easy to collect, and so researchers collect it and juicy headlines that make us fear for our babies follow.
Breastfeeding my son Jacob at 8 months old
Knowing that there are toxins in breast milk should not discourage us from breastfeeding, but it should spur us to action. Because if these chemicals are in my breast milk, they are also in my body, and my husband’s body, and my neighbour across the street’s body. Organizations like Making Our Milk Safe are pushing for actions to reduce our chemical load and thereby reduce the toxins found in breast milk. They suggest taking steps, like eating organic fruits and veggies whenever possible, not smoking, choosing nontoxic cleaning and personal care products, eating fewer animal products, and most importantly advocating. If enough of us opt to buy products that aren’t doused in PDBEs, and let our politicians know about our concerns, change can happen.
No matter how you feed your baby, no matter what you feed your baby, my take-away message is that things don’t have to be the way they are. It can be discouraging to learn that our bodies are all harbouring heavy metals and flame retardants, and that we are passing that burden on to our children. But there is hope, and we can help that hope to grow into real progress. After all, no one should have to be afraid that their precious newborn is getting a dose of suspected carcinogens with their mother’s milk.
I wrote this post for the Green Moms Carnival, which is all about environmental links to cancer this month. To read some more thoughts on how toxins are increasing cancer rates visit Nature Moms on March 8.