Bad News: Your 'Liquid Gold' Breast Milk Might Contain Liquid Chemicals, Too

One benefit offered by breastfeeding, according to proponents, is that breast milk is a naturally chemical-free food. That may not be exactly the case, though, according to a new study that shows that a particular kind of man-made chemical may build up in the bodies of breastfed children.


The chemicals in question are called perfluorinated alkylate substances, or PFASs, if you prefer less of a tongue-twister; they're involved in the manufacture of waterproof and stain-resistant products. And like lots of chemicals, they have a tendency to hang around in the human body.

PFASs haven't been studied much, but we do know that they have some effects on the human body. They might mess up some hormones, play merry hell with the developing reproductive tract, and they might even interfere with vaccines, so that a child's immunization winds up not being effective. All those shots, and still susceptible to measles and mumps? No bueno.

So we know PFASs aren't exactly something you'd pour in your kid's sippy cup, and we know they build up in the human body, including breast milk. But how much of a problem is that, really? Let's get the scary part out of the way first, but stick with me through the end, because it's really not as scary as it sounds on the face: Every extra month a child was exclusively breastfed, his blood levels of PFASs went up 20–30 percent.

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I know, that doesn't sound good, but here's the good news: Formula supplementation kept the numbers from climbing quite as high, and once the child weaned, his blood PFAS level went way down. And the even bigger good news (or at least the "we don't know what kind of news this is yet" news) is the enormous asterisk on all these findings. This study only looked at the PFAS levels of 81 children, which in the grand scope of scientific research is not very many children at all. And all of these children were living in the Faroe Islands (that little island chain in the middle of the ocean between Iceland and Scandinavia), which has a very different diet compared to what we eat, one based mostly around fish and meat, including whales. Ocean animals have a tendency to build up funky chemicals in their bodies, so how much of this PFAS spike is because Mom chowed down on a bunch of pilot whale steaks that might have contained a weirdly high concentration of PFAS?

The takeaway here shouldn't be that breastfeeding is bad (it's not), but that it isn't always the perfect and completely flawless option that it's sometimes portrayed to be. If you want to breastfeed, you should be doing it because it's the right choice for you; not because a lactivist told you that nothing bad could ever happen to a breastfed baby. There is a perfect food for you to give your baby ... and it's whatever food you choose to give her.

Unless you're from the Faroe Islands, in which case you might want to give formula a shot.


Image © Elizabeth Brixton / Flickr

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