New research published this week is shedding light on some of the risks and dangers associated with breastfeeding in the modern world, pulling back the curtain on just what chemical contamination is doing to our society.
The study comes from Philippe Grandjean, an environmental health expert at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, as the Huffington Post reports. Grandjean and his team examined a class of chemicals known as perfluorinated alkylate substances, or PFASs, specifically looking into the ways that they can be transmitted from a mother to a child during the act of breastfeeding. Researchers have previously known that certain chemicals which display an affinity for attaching themselves to fat cells can be transmitted this way, including flame retardants, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and DDT.
As we have previously discussed here on the Green Conscience blog, many of these chemicals are known to build up in the human body over time, disrupting hormones and helping to cause a host of medical problems. A wide variety of these compounds are known carcinogens, and have been linked to health issues which tend to develop their own complications in one fashion or another.
PFASs are, in many respects, no different than pesticides or PCBs when it comes to how they relate to the human body. A class unto themselves, PFASs are the chemicals responsible for non-stick coatings on pans and packaging, as well as the outer layers of raincoats that repel water. Though they have a host of other industrial uses, PFASs build up in the human body, and just like PCBs or other chemicals, they can be passed on through breast milk.
Grandjean's team observed a group of children born in the Faroe Islands between 1997 and 2000, testing the blood of 81 individuals and specifically looking for PFASs. They found that over the course of a month of exclusive breastfeeding, the amount of the chemical showing up in a baby's system would jump by between 20 and 30 percent. Partial breastfeeding would cause a smaller jump in levels, showing that the two factors were directly connected. The levels that were detected in the children participating in the study were also shown to exceed safe levels.
While researchers had previously focused on fat cells as the vector through which potentially dangerous chemical compounds were entering breast milk, the team behind the new study believes that its protean content might also offer a method of transmission. Though perfluorinated compounds like PFASs were focused on and detected in this study, Grandjean notes that future research may turn up other chemical compounds that pose just as great a risk to infants.
Despite the revelations offered by Grandjean's work, researchers still advocate that mothers breast feed their children, citing a variety of factors. They note that the process, since it is completely natural and has been perfected through eons of evolution, is still the best way to care for your child. Feeding children purely on formula doesn't guarantee that they will be risk-free when it comes to PFASs and other chemicals either, as community water supplies often carry high levels of the chemicals, among other compounds. Human bodies are likely first exposed to many of these chemicals while in the womb, or shortly after birth, and they remain in our systems for years at a time.
A host of other positive factors are aligned with breastfeeding, including the bond that is fostered between child and mother. According to Grandjean, his study suggests that children who are nursed this way are exposed to benefits that outweigh the risks presented by chemical compounds, at least for the first few months of their lives.
Legislation is scheduled to soon be considered that would help to regulate many of these harmful chemical compounds. This fall, congress will debate updating the Toxic Substances Control Act, a 40-year-old law that governs industrial chemicals. Critics of the proposed updates, however, say that they don't go far enough. Some of the most well-known PFASs are set to be phased out of production by the end of the year, though experts have voiced their concerns regarding the chemicals set to replace them. This practice of substituting an unknown chemical for one with known dangers presents its own intrinsic risks, they assert.
There are some actions that mothers can take when it comes to limiting exposure to PFASs and their like, particularly by avoiding any items that utilize non-stick coatings. The prevalence of these chemicals in our society, however, means that that it is a particular challenge for anyone to limit their exposure. Mothers who choose to breastfeed their children can take solace in the fact that there is growing political pressure to make a change regarding industrial chemicals.
Images by Aurimas Mikalauskas - Own Work | CC BY-SA 2.0
Pete unseth - Own work | CC BY-SA 4.0
Hi! I'm Karen Totino, owner of Green Conscience Home. I'd love to hear your thoughts on any of our posts, so comment away! One of my goals is to get the community discussing some of these eco topics, and hopefully help each other out!