Breastfeeding is the best source of nourishment for your baby and provides a host of other benefits for mom and baby. While most mothers can work and live their day to day life while successfully breastfeeding their baby. However, women living in more heavily polluted areas or working in areas where exposure to chemicals is commonplace may have concerns.
Is my baby at risk due to exposure to chemicals and toxins while I breastfeed? Breastfeeding provides protection against environmental toxins and chemicals. It also provides certain immune factors to your baby which can lessen the harmful effects of certain toxins your baby may be exposed to.
It is not during breastfeeding but more at the time of pregnancy that your baby would be at a higher risk of the harmful effects of toxins and chemicals. After birth, breastfeeding is the best protection that can be given to your baby. Breast milk provides superior nutrition and is the most suitable milk for a baby for her normal growth and development. However, we will have a closer look at the different types of chemicals and toxins that you may be exposed to while you are breastfeeding your baby. Some of these include those that you may be exposed to at your place of work.
The World Health Organization states:
“The advantages of breastfeeding far outweigh the potential risks from environmental pollutants. Taking into account breastfeeding’s short and long-term health benefits for infants and mothers, WHO recommends breastfeeding in all but extreme circumstances.”
Here is a comprehensive review of the chemicals that could possibly pass through breast milk:
Heavy metals like lead, mercury, arsenic, and cadmium:
Heavy metals like lead and cadmium are a significant source of environmental pollution and an occupational hazard that can pass through breast milk and the placenta when the baby is in the womb. If a lactating mother feels she may have high levels of lead in her body, it is essential that she contact her doctor to have levels assessed. The CDC (Center for Disease Control and Prevention) advises on safe lead levels for a mother to breastfeed her baby.
An article from NCBI ( National Center for Biotechnology Information ) states that there is sufficient evidence to state the case that with the above contaminants, breast milk is a source of potential risk to infants in certain populations. More research needs to be done to determine the exact impact these have on a growing baby. It concludes that breastfeeding should be encouraged under most circumstances
Toxins accumulate in a mother’s body over a period of time due to exposure and can pass into breast milk. Toxins like Polychlorinated Biphenyls (PCBs) which are found in electric devices, transformers, paints, and sealing materials accumulate in the food chain and through the environment can pass through into breast milk. Another study by NCBI examined high breast milk levels of PCBs in four women living near a PCB-contaminated waste site. This study along with other case studies concluded that there is limited evidence of significant developmental toxicity associated with the transmission of moderate PCB concentrations through breast milk. Advice is that the benefits of breast milk outweigh the negative effects of PCB.
The good news is that fumes that are exposed to a mother either through the skin or inhaled are rarely absorbed in large enough amounts to reach breast milk. However, it’s always wise to try to minimize your exposure. If you are exposed to a lot of fumes like cleaning products, volatile solvents, gasoline fumes, paint and paint fumes, always wear gloves and ensure there is adequate ventilation. Keep doors and windows open for air to circulate through a room. (6,7)
BPA or Bisphenol A
BPA is a synthetic material used in polycarbonate plastics like baby bottles, reusable water bottles, food, and other storage containers. It is rarely passed into breast milk. Infants who take breast milk have less exposure to BPA compared to those who are formula fed. This is due to the fact that baby bottles and infant formula in tinned cans contain BPA. To limit exposure to BPA, nursing women should avoid using canned foods and other plastic materials. (10,11)
Although mercury passes into breast milk, the amount absorbed by the baby depends on the form of mercury. A mother’s diet which may include fish is the primary source of mercury in breast milk. Exposure to industrial mercury like methyl mercury and ethyl mercury found in pesticides can also be a source in rare cases. Another source is cow’s milk-based formula. Generally, breastfeeding in all the above circumstances appears to be safe. However, care should be taken not to overconsume and to minimize time exposed to these pesticides. (8)
Inhaling chemicals while breastfeeding
Mothers should feel assured that chemicals inhaled from whatever source are unlikely to pass through a mother’s bloodstream in large enough quantities to actually enter breast milk. A breastfeeding mother would need to first feel very unwell herself before having any effect on her baby. Giving your baby breast milk will in fact provide a greater level of protection, particularly airborne pollutants such as gasoline fumes.
Exposure to pesticides and breastfeeding
Unless there has been a high degree of exposure, pesticides and herbicides are not a significant concern for the nursing mother. Different types of pesticides will pass into breast milk at different rates. The level of exposure can depend on a few factors. Breast milk volume and fat content can determine the number of chemicals passing into breast milk. Pesticides may also pass through at a higher rate in the early postnatal stage, and more care should be taken during this time. (4)
Arsenic in breast milk
Arsenic is classed as a carcinogen that can also have an effect on the cardiac, respiratory and immune systems. Children can be exposed to higher levels of arsenic. However, this article (4) concluded that arsenic exposure via breast milk is relatively low throughout the first year of life. They also mention that the transition to solids at approximately 6 months can present an additional source of exposure to infants with foods such as baby rice and cereal containing elevated concentrations of arsenic. They state that more research is needed to quantify daily arsenic intake in an infant.
If your occupation involves working with any chemical that you feel would be harmful to your baby when breastfeeding the first port of call is to speak with your employer to discuss ways to minimize your exposure. They will be able to give you the necessary equipment such as PPE (personal protective equipment) such as gloves, protective clothing or a respirator if inhalation of chemicals is a concern. You and your baby’s health always comes first and with the right protection, you can continue to give your baby the best nourishment of all.
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- RA, L. (2004). Breast milk and infection. – PubMed – NCBI. [online] Ncbi.nlm.nih.gov. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/m/pubmed/15325535/#
- Cdc.gov. (2019). Contraindications to Breastfeeding or Feeding Expressed Breast Milk to Infants | Breastfeeding | CDC. [online] Available at: https://www.cdc.gov/breastfeeding/breastfeeding-special-circumstances/environmental-exposures/lead.html
- Carignan, C., Karagas, M., Punshon, T., Gilbert-Diamond, D. and Cottingham, K. (2015). Contribution of breast milk and formula to arsenic exposure during the first year of life in a US prospective cohort. Journal of Exposure Science & Environmental Epidemiology, [online] 26(5), pp.452-457. Available at: https://geiselmed.dartmouth.edu/molecepi/news-and-publications/.
- Salama, A. (2017). Lactational Exposure to Pesticides: A Review. Toxicology: Open Access, [online] 03(01). Available at: https://www.omicsonline.org/open-access/lactational-exposure-to-pesticides-a-review.php?aid=85482.
- The Transfer of Drugs and Other Chemicals Into Human Milk. (2001). PEDIATRICS, [online] 108(3), pp.776-789. Available at: https://pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/108/3/776.
- Australian Breastfeeding Association. (2019). Breastfeeding and environmental toxins. [online] Available at: https://www.breastfeeding.asn.au/bfinfo/breastfeeding-and-environmental-toxins [Accessed 21 Apr. 2019].
- Cdc.gov. (2019). CDC – Reproductive Health – What You Should Know about Breastfeeding and Your Job – NIOSH Workplace Safety and Health Topic. [online] Available at: https://www.cdc.gov/niosh/topics/repro/breastfeeding.html [Accessed 21 Apr. 2019].
- Somogyi, A. and Beck, H. (1993). https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1519940/. Environmental Health Perspective Supplements, [online] 101(Suppl. 2): 45-52 (1993). Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1519940/ [Accessed 21 Apr. 2019]
- Cdc.gov. (2019). Environmental Exposures/Toxicants | Breastfeeding | CDC. [online] Available at: https://www.cdc.gov/breastfeeding/breastfeeding-special-circumstances/environmental-exposures/index.html [Accessed 21 Apr. 2019].
- Mendonca, K., Hauser, R., Calafat, A., Arbuckle, T., and Duty, S. (2014). Bisphenol A concentrations in maternal breast milk and infant urine. Int Arch Occup Environ Health, [online] 2014 January; 87(1), pp.13–20. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4381877/pdf/nihms505064.pdf [Accessed 21 Apr. 2019].
- Health.ny.gov. (2019). Bisphenol A. [online] Available at: https://www.health.ny.gov/environmental/chemicals/bisphenol_a/ [Accessed 21 Apr. 2019].