19 Jun

Toxic Milk

This week, The Guardian continues it’s one-newspaper ‘backlash’ against breastfeeding with an article from Florence Williams about The Wonder of Breasts.

Williams starts with some really interesting stuff about the changing components of breastmilk and how they act to protect and nourish the developing infant. But then halfway down she launches into a terrifying rant about how every chemical with which you have ever had contact has accumulated in your body and is poisoning your baby through your milk.

She then makes the fascinating, many-layered statement:

The breastfeeding lobby is sometimes reluctant to highlight breast-milk contamination because they don’t want women to have another excuse not to breastfeed.

From where I’m sitting in my comfy seat in the breastfeeding lobby, I am blissfully ignorant that most women want an excuse not to breastfeed. For one thing, I don’t see it as my job to gatekeep the information, just as I don’t deliberately protect women from the risks of formula feeding, on which more later. If you will forgive me for mentioning it yet again, parents need to be able to make an informed choice that suits their circumstances and their inclinations. This article undermines informed choice by scaremongering and not giving the entire picture, and it insults women who want to breastfeed, especially those who are finding it hard, or who have given up after a struggle, and did not have the luxury of needing an excuse.

I’m no chemist so I don’t have a clear answer to this, but the first thing I would want to know in order to feel fully informed is whether the chemicals found in breastmilk, at those doses, is harmful. ‘PCBs,’ she says, ‘at elevated levels […] can interfere with thyroid function.’ Are these elevated levels? I do know that the UK government monitors the chemical levels in breastmilk (purely as an environmental pollution measure) and that they are decreasing, and this is supported by this excellent article from Best For Babes.

I would also want to see a straight comparison with the chemical levels in formula milk, which for those of you who did not know is made out of cows’ milk. Cows, which arguably have a more restricted diet than humans, are also subject to environmental pollution. The nutrient balance in cows’ milk is significantly different from that in human milk and lacks many of the interesting ingredients discussed by Williams in the first part of her article.

Then I would want to consider the potential for pollution or contamination during manufacture, storage, and making up of formula milk, which in its powdered form is not sterile. And finally, I would compare the relative risk of exposure to these chemicals with the risk of not breastfeeding, for both mother and baby.

That, then, would be an informed decision.

BabyCenter has a nice Q&A on toxins in breastmilk written by former NCT Breastfeeding Counsellor Caroline Deacon; and an article published in 2008 in the journal Environmental Health gives some interesting perspective on communicating about the presence of chemical substances in breastmilk.