In the 20th century, scientists developed a group of complex, manmade chemicals called per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS). In the past decade, researchers have found these chemicals contaminating drinking water and the environment. Current research measures them at alarming rates in breast milk.
The properties of these substances include oil and water repellency, temperature resistance, and friction reduction. Experts estimate there may be up to 10,000 of these forever chemicals, the full effects of which aren’t yet known.
The most widely recognized PFAS are perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS), both associated with kidney and testicular cancers. This family of chemicals is also linked to endocrine disruption and a host of other problems in people who live in communities that have heavily contaminated drinking water.
Out of the 10,000 forever chemicals, 3M agreed to stop making PFOS in 2002 and DuPont began phasing out PFOA in 2005. Yet, with just a chemical tweak, companies began marketing a new generation of PFAS with similar chemical structures.
The properties of PFAS have made them useful in aerospace technology, photography, construction, and everyday items such as paper products and nonstick cookware.
Ubiquitous use, delays in reducing use, and the known bioaccumulative and persistent effects of the chemicals have generated an environmental problem, largely because some of these forever chemicals can take up to 1,000 years to degrade.
Frightening Levels of Forever Chemicals Found in Breast Milk
A new study was published in Environmental Science and Technology—which researchers say is the first study in 15 years to analyze PFAS in a group of breastfeeding women in the United States—gathered data from a cross-section of socioeconomically and geographically diverse groups of women and found PFAS contamination in all 50 samples tested.
In some samples, the levels were nearly 2,000 times higher than what is recommended safe for drinking water. There are no set standards for PFAS found in breast milk.
However, as a comparison, the Environmental Working Group (EWG) advises a target for drinking water at 1 part per trillion (ppt) and the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry recommends 14 ppt in children’s drinking water.
The researchers found levels ranging from 50 ppt to more than 1,850 ppt in women’s breast milk. Evaluating the effects of high amounts of PFAS in infants is difficult. Dr. Sheela Sathyanarayana, a co-author of the study and pediatrician with the University of Washington, spoke with a reporter from The Guardian.
Studies in older children and adults have shown the presence of these chemicals damage the immune system and create hormonal disruptions, she said. This is particularly problematic for infants, as their immune system isn’t yet mature.
Erika Schreder, a co-author of the study and science director with Toxic Free Future in Seattle, told The Guardian, “The study shows that PFAS contamination of breast milk is likely universal in the U.S., and that these harmful chemicals are contaminating what should be nature’s perfect food.”
The results of the study counter the industry claim that the new generation of PFAS don’t bioaccumulate in humans. The researchers also evaluated international breast milk data, finding in comparison to the current data that older chemical concentration is declining, while newer chemical concentration has doubled every 4.1 years.
Evidence from this study has also suggested the challenge with PFAS bioaccumulating in people is getting worse. When data from the current study were compared to a study spearheaded by the EWG in 2005, the researchers found there was an increase in the amount of new-generation PFAS found in breast milk.
Additionally, while manufacturers have phased out some older compounds, they were still present in breast milk, and some were found at high levels. Schreder believes the best solution is banning the entire class of chemicals.
“The study provides more evidence that the PFAS that companies are currently using and putting into products are behaving like the ones they phased out, and they’re also getting into breast milk and exposing children at a very vulnerable phase of development,” she said.
Polluting Infants Likely Has Lifelong Consequences
More than 15 years ago, the EWG found 287 chemicals in umbilical cord blood that pass between mother and baby. Of these, 180 are known to cause cancer in humans and animals, 217 are known toxins to the brain and nervous system, and 208 are known to cause abnormal development or birth defects in animal models.
There is substantial scientific evidence that demonstrates exposure in the womb may be dramatically more harmful because the baby is developing. Exposure during childhood also increases vulnerability related to the rapid development and incomplete defense systems of a child.
Many of these PFAS chemicals can potentially leach from food packaging, causing one group of 33 scientists to write a consensus statement pleading with lawmakers “to take swift action to reduce exposure” to plastics in food packaging.
Pete Myers, founder of Environmental Health Services and publisher of Environmental Health News, was also a contributor to the statement. In an editorial on the consensus statement, he wrote:
“Hazardous chemicals can transfer from food contact materials into food, and some are known endocrine disrupting chemicals, or ‘EDCs.’ EDCs are associated with chronic diseases such as diabetes, obesity, cancer, and neurological disorders like ADHD.
“The authors say while there is a great amount of information for some of the most well-studied food contact chemicals, such as bisphenol A (BPA) and phthalates, many of the 12,000 reported food contact chemicals lack data on their hazardous properties or level of human exposure. This suggests that the human population is exposed to unknown and untested chemicals migrating from food wrappings, with unknown health implications.”
Increasing amounts of data have demonstrated that PFAS chemicals have a lethal effect on human health and the environment. After years of mounting evidence, the EPA revealed its PFAS Action Plan in February 2020, in which it states that the “agency has multiple criminal investigations underway concerning PFAS-related pollution.”
“Since 2002, the agency has initiated 12 enforcement actions, including four since 2017.”
Breastfeeding Supports Brain and Gut Development
When women choose not to breastfeed, the only other option is bottle feeding with lab-produced formulas mixed with drinking water, some of which have tested positive for toxic chemicals across the United States. But while PFAS chemicals were found in breast milk, that doesn’t negate this food’s important benefits for babies.
Just as the food you eat impacts your gut microbiome and consequently your immune system, so does the food that infants and children eat. In one study published in the Journal of Pediatrics, researchers looked at how bacteria in an infant’s digestive system affect the burning and storage of fat, and how the infant body uses energy.
Information was gathered from 1,087 infants. Mothers reported how long infants were breastfed, when formula was introduced, and when solid food was introduced. Stool samples were collected at 3 to 4 months of age and again at 12 months and tested for gut bacteria.
Data revealed the highest level of beneficial bacteria at three months and one year was in infants who were exclusively breastfed. Infants who were exclusively formula-fed had the least variety of bacteria and nearly double the risk of becoming overweight.
Several studies have also demonstrated that breastfeeding benefits a baby’s brain. Data from Brown University used magnetic resonance imaging to watch brain growth in children under age 4. They discovered that babies who were exclusively breastfed for the first three months had “enhanced development in key parts” of the brain as compared to those who were fed formula or a combination of formula and breast milk.
Published in the journal Breastfeeding Medicine, one review of the literature concluded there was compelling evidence in both full-term and preterm infants that breastfeeding benefits a child’s neurodevelopment.
“Overall, available evidence regarding neurodevelopmental benefits supports existing recommendations that infants should be breastfed exclusively for six months and that hospitalized preterm infants should receive fortified maternal milk,” the authors wrote.
A third study released from Children’s National Hospital in Washington, D.C., demonstrated how breast milk can increase biochemicals important for brain growth and development. The researchers studied extremely premature babies in the neonatal intensive care unit. They discovered “significantly higher levels of some key [natural] biochemicals in breast-fed babies, compared to those who had been fed formula milk. Namely, there were increased amounts of inositol (a molecule similar to glucose) and creatine (a molecule which helps to recycle energy inside cells). The percentage of days that babies were fed breast milk was also linked to higher levels of a vitamin-like nutrient called choline.”
More Amazing Benefits of Breastfeeding
If you’re making a decision about breastfeeding, it’s helpful to know the benefits to both baby and mom.
Benefits for Babies
The breastfeeding benefits for babies range from long-term health gains to lower mortality rates.
Natural immunity: Breastfeeding initially provides passive immunity as antibodies from the mother are passed through breast milk to the infant. Researchers have also found breast milk has a unique capacity to stimulate the infant’s immune system with long-term positive effects.
Reduction of blindness: Retinopathy of prematurity causes blindness in 10 percent of severe cases occurring in premature infants. Breastfeeding reduces this risk.
Reduction in SIDS: In one study, breastfeeding reduced the risk of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS) in children by 50 percent at all ages through infancy.
Benefits for Mothers
Breastfeeding isn’t only beneficial to children. It’s also very much in the interest of mothers, with wide-ranging health and wellness benefits.
Quicker recovery from childbirth: The release of oxytocin during breastfeeding helps the uterus return to a normal size and reduces postpartum bleeding.
Faster weight loss after childbirth: During pregnancy, the mother’s body automatically stores extra fat to provide food for the baby. Producing milk burns 480 extra calories each day, which helps mobilize visceral fat stores.
Reduced rates of breast cancer: Breastfeeding may cut the risk of breast cancer in women who have had children.
Reduced risk of postpartum depression: The release of prolactin and oxytocin while breastfeeding produces a peaceful and nurturing sensation. Women who breastfeed enjoy a reduced risk of developing postpartum depression in the first four months of their infant’s life.
Dr. Joseph Mercola is the founder of Mercola.com. An osteopathic physician, best-selling author, and recipient of multiple awards in the field of natural health, his primary vision is to change the modern health paradigm by providing people with a valuable resource to help them take control of their health. This article was originally published on Mercola.com.