Breastfeeding in a Contaminated Environment

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It is critical that chemical residues be reduced in the environment to reduce both the prenatal and postnatal health risks they pose to infants, children and the general public. Environmental activists, breastfeeding groups and health advocates worldwide are calling for the elimination of toxic chemicals in the environment.

If we were to test infants born today, anywhere in the world, we would find in them a body burden of industrial toxins including dioxins, PCBs, mercury, phthalates, pesticides, flame retardants, bisphenol A and other dangerous substances. These chemicals pass through the placenta and into the fetus during pregnancy, and through breast milk after birth. Babies and toddlers continue to be exposed to hazardous chemicals through contact with air, water, soil and everyday products such as carpets, clothing, furniture and household products.

Many chemicals have the capability to travel far from their sites of origin or use, polluting the air we breathe, the water we consume, the food we eat and the everyday products (such as cosmetics and certain plastics) we touch and use. Some of these chemicals do not breakdown in the body and are not excreted, or break down into harmful derivatives that accumulate mainly in our body fat, becoming part of our chemical body burden. Some chemicals also damage the reproductive system.

No matter where we live or how we live, none of us can avoid being exposed to a wide variety of chemicals and we pass on this chemical body burden to the next generation. Children are at higher risk than adults because they are undergoing rapid development and consuming more food in relation to their body weight compared to adults. The only way to reduce their body burden is to eliminate hazardous chemicals from production and use, replacing them with less hazardous chemicals and products.

Children’s Exposure to Toxic Chemicals
Children’s exposure to toxic chemicals starts before birth and comes from everything their parents were exposed to – the air they breathed, the food they ate, the products they used and the water they drank. After birth, a child continues to be exposed to chemicals through contact with air, water, soil, food and household items. Even toys and pacifiers may contain harmful chemicals.

But the biggest impact of pollutants occurs prenatally when the fetus is passing through critical stages of development. Tiny doses of chemical residues can have a dramatic effect on the developing fetus. Levels of mercury that would have little or no impact on an adult can harm the developing fetal brain. Tiny amounts of dioxins and PCBs can damage the developing immune and nervous systems; the phthalate DEHP can disrupt the development of the male reproductive system. Pollutants and heavy metals readily cross the placenta, and some also enter breast milk.

Breastfeeding -- Is it Safe?
Chemicals accumulate in different body parts including adipose (connective) tissue, brain, bone, blood, liver, placenta and semen, and are also found in breast milk. Chemical residues accumulate in the body fat that is used to produce breast milk. Because breast milk is convenient and inexpensive to test for those contaminants stored in body fat, it is often used to monitor human exposure to chemicals that should not be in our bodies. Chemical residues found in breast milk are like the messenger, the canary in the mine, telling us about the body burdens found in everyone.

However, the existence of chemical residues in breast milk is not a reason for limiting breastfeeding. In fact, it is a reason to breastfeed because breast milk contains substances that help the child develop a stronger immune system and gives protection against environmental pollutants and pathogens. Breastfeeding can help limit the damage caused by fetal exposure to these substances.

Most health effects on the infant from chemical residues are associated with exposure before conception from damage done to fathers’ semen, or when the baby is in the womb, rather than from breast milk. Most of the damage is done by the time the infant is born.

Studies have shown that breastfeeding, even in a contaminated environment, has a positive impact on the development of children as compared to children fed with commercial baby milks. Commercially prepared baby milks are not a safer option or free of risks. Heavy metals and chemical residues have also been found in these products in both industrial and developing countries. Also, the use of genetically engineered ingredients, such as soy in soy milk formulas present new and unknown risks.

Breastfeeding on the other hand, for those who are able, provides a vast array of physical and psychological benefits to mothers and babies not available to infants fed on commercial products. While there are few health risks from the average levels of chemical residues in breast milk, lower levels of exposure to toxic chemicals would benefit everyone, especially the developing fetus and the breastfeeding infant.

Monitoring Breast Milk
Breast milk testing is not necessary unless a mother has been exposed to excessive amounts of chemicals during an industrial accident, or during long periods of workplace exposure involving the mishandling of pesticides, for example. In the case of industrial accidents, public health officials would provide instructions about the best way to minimize risks. Thus, individual testing of breast milk should never be used as a basis for making decisions about breastfeeding, except in the rare case of an emergency short-term response to an industrial accident.

Some communities monitor the changing amounts of chemical residues in breast milk as part of the process of protecting the community. Such monitoring can indicate the need for better protective regulation and indicate the efficacy of previous legislation. For example, contaminants appearing in breast milk at high levels 20 to 30 years ago alarmed activists and politicians. The regulations and legislation that followed resulted in slowly diminishing the amount of these chemical residues in our bodies. This clearly shows the benefits and necessity for strong protective laws and regulations, and for their enforcement and monitoring.

Monitoring may also reveal the presence of toxic chemicals not previously considered to be capable of lodging in human tissue. In some communities, mothers may provide breast milk as part of an effort to provide accurate information to guide environmental policy. Other communities encourage different means for testing for the presence of chemicals, such as using blood, urine, semen, hair or ear wax.

Action for the Future
As with other public health problems such as epidemics and infectious diseases, it is a government’s responsibility to protect the health of families and their children, and not the responsibility of the individual alone. Communities can mobilize to ensure that governments regulate the industries that pollute, and do not compromise the health of their citizens for the interests of business and industry. Successful interventions to reduce pollution occur at the community, national and global levels, when citizens concerned with women’s health, children’s health and environmental health and justice band together and work collaboratively to take action against the polluters. As consumers, we can change our buying habits and lifestyle choices, and choose not to use or buy products whose production or waste disposal may further pollute the environment.

But the blame for this chain of contamination which produces chemical body burdens in us all must be placed on the sources of contamination – the chemical industries responsible and the governments who fail to regulate them or who fail to enforce and monitor protective laws and regulations.

Governments have to be sensitized to the importance of the issue and urged to act in the best interests of children. Some countries have taken positive steps. In Europe, strong governmental programs to eliminate persistent organic pollutants like DDT, dieldrin, PCBs and dioxin have resulted in dramatic decreases of these residues in breast milk. As a result of controls, Sweden has seen a decline in breast milk PBDE levels. In the United States, bans on lead in gasoline and smoking in public places have resulted in dramatic decreases in the levels of these dangerous substances or their by-products in the blood of young children. In Canada, several local governments have banned the use of pesticides for cosmetic use on lawns.

These public health achievements show that reductions in the production, use and disposal of toxic chemicals along with the destruction of toxic chemical stockpiles and reservoirs, can all decrease the body burden of noxious materials in our children and in us. Regulatory frameworks by governments and international organizations are important to minimize and eliminate exposure to harmful contaminants.

All of these efforts deserve our energetic and sustained support. Breast milk is the most ecologically sound and complete first food available to infants. It is the foundation of food security for all children in the first six months of life, and is one of the world’s most valuable renewable natural resources. Breastfeeding is a basic human right of every mother, and is essential to fulfill every child’s human right to adequate food and to the highest attainable standard of mental and physical health.

Penny Van Esterik, Professor of Anthropology at York University, with the National Network on Environments and Women’s Health and Baby Milk Action (UK); Commonweal/IPEN Working Group on Community Monitoring (US); IBFAN-GIFA (Switzerland); Initiativ Liewensufank (Luxembourg); INFACT (Canada); La Leche League International; the World Alliance for Breastfeeding Action


This article was based on an FAQ, "Towards Healthy Environments for Children," available online at: or in hard copy from the National Network on Environments and Women’s Health, (416) 736-5941.


Websites on breastfeeding and environmental health:

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