Chemical Contaminants in Breast Milk and Their Impacts on Children's Health: An Overview. (Chemical Contaminants in Breast Milk: Mini-Monograph)

By Landrigan, Philip J.; Sonawane, Babasaheb et al. | Environmental Health Perspectives, June 2002 | Go to article overview

Chemical Contaminants in Breast Milk and Their Impacts on Children's Health: An Overview. (Chemical Contaminants in Breast Milk: Mini-Monograph)


Landrigan, Philip J., Sonawane, Babasaheb, Mattison, Donald, McCally, Michael, Garg, Anjali, Environmental Health Perspectives


Human milk is the best source of nutrition for infants. Breast milk contains the optimal balance of fits, carbohydrates, and proteins for developing babies, and it provides a range of benefits for growth, immunity, and development. Unfortunately, breast milk is not pristine. Contamination of human milk is widespread and is the consequence of decades of inadequately controlled pollution of the environment by toxic chemicals. The finding of toxic chemicals in breast milk raises important issues for pediatric practice, for the practice of public health, and for the environmental health research community. It also illuminates gaps in current knowledge including a) insufficient information on the nature and levels of contaminants in breast milk; b) lack of consistent protocols for collecting and analyzing breast milk samples; c) lack of toxicokinetic data; and d) lack of data on health outcomes that may be produced in infants by exposure to chemicals in breast milk. These gaps in information impede risk assessment and make difficult the formulation of evidence-based health guidance. To address these issues, there is a need for a carefully planned and conducted national breast milk monitoring effort in the United States. Additionally, to assess health outcomes of toxic exposures via breast milk, it will be necessary to examine children prospectively over many years in longitudinal epidemiologic studies that use standardized examination protocols that specifically assess breast milk exposures. Finally, current risk assessment methods need to be expanded to include consideration of the potential risks posed to infants and children by exposures to chemical residues in breast milk. Key words: breast milk, breast-feeding, children's health, chemical contaminants.

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Human milk is, without question, the best source of nutrition for infants. Breast milk contains the optimal balance of fats, carbohydrates, and proteins for developing babies, and it provides a range of benefits for growth, immunity, and development (1). Breast milk contains powerful immune factors that help infants fight infections (2), and it contains growth factors that appear to influence brain development and increase resistance to chronic diseases such as asthma, allergies, and diabetes. Breast-feeding builds a powerful bond between a mother and her child, and this bond enhances health and well-being across the generations. Recognition of the manifold benefits of breast milk has led to the adoption of breast-feeding policies by numerous health and professional organizations (3-9) and stimulated development of the recent "Blueprint for Action on Breastfeeding" by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (10).

Unfortunately, breast milk is not pristine. Contamination of human milk is widespread and is the consequence of decades of inadequately controlled pollution of the environment by toxic chemicals. Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), DDT and its metabolites, dioxins, dibenzofurans, polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs), and heavy metals are among the toxic chemicals most often found in breast milk (11,12). These compounds are encountered to varying extents among women in industrially developed as well as in developing nations. Some of the highest levels of contaminants are seen among women in agricultural areas of the developing world that are extensively treated with pesticides (13) and among women in remote areas, such as the Canadian Inuit, who eat a diet rich in seal, whale, and other species high on the marine food chain that accumulate heavy burdens of persistent organic pollutants (POPs) (14).

The finding of toxic chemicals in breast milk raises a series of important issues for pediatric practice, for the practice of public health, and for the environmental health research community.

Lack of data on contaminants. Although much information has been generated on the types of chemicals likely to be found in breast milk, this database is scattered and incomplete. …

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