Searching for the truth about toxins in breast milk


Uninformed observers are inclined to naively conclude that if there is any possible danger whatsoever of environmental pollutants in breast milk, thank goodness that “safe” infant formula will always be there to carry the day without sacrificing much at all in terms of children’s health and development. Reports in the popular media exacerbate this delusion while stirring passions, generating anxiety and contributing to a spike in infant-formula use. Sadly, based on formula’s firmly fixed “good enough” position in the collective consumer consciousness [see here], the message is subtle and insidiously effective.

A major article like “Toxic breast milk?” appearing in a prestigious general news medium like the Sunday New York Times Magazine is a good example of this kind of report. From a journalistic and, I assume, scientific standpoint, it seems to be an excellent piece in every way. However, notwithstanding the author’s generally enthusiastic endorsement of breastfeeding, my problem with articles like this one (and there are many) is that they rarely, if ever, help readers understand what is really going on and what in fact is being compared. The reality is that frequent media reports about pollutants in human milk prove nothing more than the fact that breast milk is a convenient non-invasive means of detecting environmental pollutant load for populations as a whole. Restricting the issue of toxins to the medium of breast milk acts as a red herring, masking the important question, which Jack Newman not so rhetorically asks: Why would everything else on Earth be polluted, even in the far reaches of the Arctic, but not infant formula?

Indeed, according to a US Senate committee report, contamination with perchlorate, which is the explosive ingredient in solid rocket fuel, has been found in 34 states. Perchlorate is a thyroid toxin, and animal tests show that even small amounts can disrupt normal growth and development in fetuses, infants and children; according to the Environmental Working Group, it has been found in cow’s milk (from which formula is made), produce and many other foods and animal feed crops from coast to coast. Meanwhile, the White House Office of Science & Technology Policy was reported to be pressuring CDC to delay the release of the study prepared at the Committee’s request, which was said to describe levels that “leave no margin of safety” compared to the current risk limit.

Jack Newman also makes these essential points. Toxins raise concern that the baby’s cognitive ability will be affected – yet breastfed babies do better in almost every study ever published and the longer they are breastfed the better they do; and in the few that don’t show better results for breastfed babies, they do at least as well. Toxins raise concern that they may affect the baby’s immune system – yet breastfed babies have a better immune system and a more mature one. Toxins raise concern that they increase the risk of cancer in the baby – yet breastfed babies have a lower risk. Acclaimed biologist Sandra Steingraber agrees. She concludes that despite being exposed to contaminants, “breastfed children are healthier, less prone to cancer, and smarter”.

The World Health Organization summarizes the situation this way: “The advantages of breastfeeding far outweigh the potential risks from environmental pollutants. Taking into account breastfeeding’s short- and long-term health benefits for children and mothers, WHO recommends breastfeeding in all but extreme circumstances.”

My take? Many observers don’t yet appreciate that a nutritional silk purse, even a somewhat tattered one due to low concentrations of pollutants, still trumps an emergency nutrition-intervention sow’s ear every time. The answer is to stop polluting the environment, not to stop mothers breastfeeding their children.


James Akre prepared this post for The Alpha Parent. It is adapted from his book “The problem with breastfeeding. A personal reflection” (Hale Publishing, 2006). As founder, chairman and CEO of the International Breastfeeding Support Collective, James focuses on the sociocultural dimension of the universal biological norm for feeding infants and young children, and on pathways for returning breastfeeding to the realm of the ho-hum ordinary everywhere. He is a member of the editorial board of the International Breastfeeding Journal and of the Scientific Advisory Committee of La Leche League France, and past member of the board of directors of the International Board of Lactation Consultant Examiners (IBLCE).