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Breast-feeding Still Best Despite Environmental Chemicals In Human Milk

September 23, 2005
Penn State
The presence of environmental chemicals in human milk does not necessarily indicate health risks for infants, according to researchers.

The presence of environmental chemicals in human milk does notnecessarily indicate health risks for infants, according toresearchers.

"We strongly emphasize that the mere presence of an environmentalchemical in human milk does not indicate that a health risk exists forbreast-fed infants," said Cheston M. Berlin, Jr., M.D., Penn StateUniversity professor of pediatrics and pharmacology. "All informationgathered to date supports the positive health value of breast-feedingfor infants."

Few, if any, adverse effects have been documented as beingassociated with consumption of human milk containing background levelsof environmental chemicals, and none have been clinically orepidemiologically demonstrated, adds Judy S. LaKind, Ph.D., adjunctassociate professor of pediatrics, Penn State College of Medicine, PennState Children's Hospital at Penn State Milton S. Hershey MedicalCenter.LaKind, Berlin and Michael Bates, University of California at Berkeley,published an overview article of findings from The Second Workshop onHuman Milk Surveillance and Biomonitoring for Environmental Chemicalsin the United States in the September issue (volume 68, number 20) ofJournal of Toxicology and Environmental Health-Part A.

At the workshop, experts from academia, industry, nonprofitorganizations and the federal government explored issues related to theuse of human milk biomonitoring for environmental chemicals (includinga wide range of chemicals to which women may be exposed - industrialchemicals, chemicals in personal care and home/yard products,pharmaceuticals, and recreational and illicit drugs) for understandinghuman exposure and health, and evaluating and communicating possiblehuman health risk.

Four areas were explored: human milk research designed toanswer questions about health; exposure assessment issues; human healthrisk assessment; and methods for facilitating human milk research.

"Breast-feeding is widely accepted internationally as the goldstandard for infant feeding and has unparalleled advantages for bothinfants and mothers," said Berlin, chair of the workshop and co-authorof the journal article. "Advantages for infants include protection frominfectious disease, optimal growth including neurodevelopment, andpossible protection from certain diseases later in life. It isimportant to preserve breast-feeding as the best nutrition forinfants."

LaKind, guest editor and president of LaKind Associates, LLC,said, "Because human milk provides information on exposures of both themother and infant, studies on associations with health outcomes forboth the mother and infant are possible. One of the points we've triedto make clear is that you cannot present risk-benefit information in avacuum. That's why we also recommend looking at infant formulas and thechemicals in the water used to make the formulas. An example of this isthe potential effects on infants from phytoestrogens - plant compoundswith estrogenic activity - in soy-based formulas. In addition, thefocus of most human milk biomonitoring studies has been on persistent,bioaccumulative compounds such as PCBs. Little work has been done onshorter-lived chemicals such as volatile chemicals or on chemicals inpersonal care products."

The panel identified a number of recommendations for future surveillance and research, including:

  • Determining levels of environmental chemicals found inhuman milk and infant formula (including water used to prepare formulasand chemicals from synthetic nipples and bottles), with specialattention given to those women who may have greater than backgroundexposure;
  • Identifying human biomarkers of exposure,susceptibility, and effects to predict potential human health risksassociated with specific environmental chemicals in human milk andinfant formula;
  • Developing methods to analyze the risks and benefitsto infants and children exposed to environmental chemicals andendogenous chemicals via breast-feeding and/or formula-feeding;
  • Evaluating the usefulness of human milk biomonitoring in identifying agents most likely to be associated with breast disease;
  • Researching levels of environmental chemicals in human milk that may occur through occupational exposures;
  • Creating an Internet-based database for recordinglevels of environmental chemicals reported in human milk and infantformula in a standardized manner, with interpretation.

    The workshop was supported by the American Chemistry Council; theCenters for Disease Control and Prevention; the Department of Healthand Human Services Health Resources and Service Administration; HealthCanada; 3M Corporation; Penn State College of Medicine; ResearchFoundation for Health and Environmental Effects; the U.S. EnvironmentalProtection Agency Office of Children's Health.

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    Penn State. "Breast-feeding Still Best Despite Environmental Chemicals In Human Milk." ScienceDaily. (accessed April 27, 2017).