The old adage, “Breast is Best” may soon become an anachronism of medicine and midwife’s across the planet as environmental pollution extends its toxic reach. Researchers at Toxic-Free Future, Indiana University, the University of Washington, and Seattle Children’s Research Institute studied 50 samples of breast milk from American women from all over the country, representing a range of socioeconomic backgrounds.
All 50 samples of breast milk contained per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) at levels nearly 2,000 times the amount considered safe for drinking water. According to the study authors;
This is the first study in the last 15 years to analyze per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) in breast milk collected from mothers (n = 50) in the United States, and our findings indicate that both legacy and current-use PFAS now contaminate breast milk, exposing nursing infants.
Erika Schreder is the science director at Toxic-Free Future and a co-author of the study, which was published Thursday in the journal Environmental Science and Technology. In a statement following the paper’s publication, she stated;
“We now know that babies, along with nature’s perfect food, are getting toxic PFAS that can affect their immune systems and metabolism. We shouldn’t be finding any PFAS in breast milk and our findings make it clear that broader phaseouts are needed to protect babies and young children during the most vulnerable stages of life. Moms work hard to protect their babies, but big corporations are putting these, and other toxic chemicals that can contaminate breast milk, in products when safer options are available.”
What are safe levels? On April 27, 2021, EPA Administrator Regan called for the creation of a new “EPA Council on PFAS” that is charged with building on the agency’s ongoing work to better understand and ultimately reduce the potential risks caused by these chemicals. According to the EPA website’s statement on safe levels of PFOA and PFOS
To provide Americans, including the most sensitive populations, with a margin of protection from a lifetime of exposure to PFOA and PFOS from drinking water, EPA has established the health advisory levels at 70 parts per trillion.
Concentrations of PFAS discovered in the breast milk sampled were up to 2000 times higher than these levels.
What are PFAS, where do they come from, and how do they affect us?
According to the EPA, per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) are a group of man-made chemicals that includes PFOA, PFOS, GenX, and many other chemicals. PFAS are found in a wide range of consumer products that people use every day such as cookware, pizza boxes, and stain repellants. Most people have been exposed to PFAS. Certain PFAS can accumulate and stay in the human body for long periods of time.
There is evidence that exposure to PFAS can lead to adverse health outcomes in humans. The most studied PFAS chemicals are PFOA and PFOS. Studies indicate that PFOA and PFOS can cause reproductive and developmental, liver and kidney, and immunological effects in laboratory animals. Both chemicals have caused tumors in animals. The most consistent findings are increased cholesterol levels among exposed populations, with more limited findings related to:
- low infant birth weights,
- effects on the immune system,
- cancer (for PFOA), and
- thyroid hormone disruption (for PFOS).
PFAS can be found in:
- Food packaged in PFAS-containing materials, processed with equipment that used PFAS, or grown in PFAS-contaminated soil or water.
- Commercial household products, including stain- and water-repellent fabrics, nonstick products (e.g., Teflon), polishes, waxes, paints, cleaning products, and fire-fighting foams (a major source of groundwater contamination at airports and military bases where firefighting training occurs).
- Workplace, including production facilities or industries (e.g., chrome plating, electronics manufacturing or oil recovery) that use PFAS.
- Drinking water, typically localized and associated with a specific facility (e.g., manufacturer, landfill, wastewater treatment plant, firefighter training facility).
- Living organisms, including fish, animals and humans, where PFAS have the ability to build up and persist over time.
For more detailed information on PFAS and how the EPA is addressing them, visit the EPA’s page on Per- and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances
A final word from Laurie Valeriano, executive director of Toxic-Free Future.
“If a harmful chemical can end up in breast milk due to its persistence or ability to bioaccumulate, it should be prohibited in everyday products we are constantly exposed to. It’s time for more states and the federal government to follow the lead of Washington state and ban PFAS and other equally dangerous classes of chemicals in products, especially when safer alternatives are found. Prevention-based policies are critical to ending this harmful and unnecessary contamination of our most precious resources — from breast milk to drinking water.”