Post updated 12.12.2013
I reviewed Tainted Milk, in which Maria Boswell-Penc investigates why so little attention has been paid to the contamination of breast milk in the U. S. with dangerous chemicals such as endocrine disruptors.
After assessing the data, Boswell-Penc concludes that breast feeding is still the best way to nourish your baby, especially since organic formula is lacking immune factors passed on in mother’s milk. And since this book came out, even some “organic” formula has been found to have been processed with a toxic chemical. Moreover, today (September 21) the Washington Post reported that the EPA has bowed to White House and Pentagon pressure in its likely decision to fail to regulate perchlorate in drinking water. This chemical, which causes irreversible thyroid damage in some infants, will be delivered at fifteen times the body weight safety limits to infants fed formulas mixed with drinking water from many municipal systems.
Breast milk is not only environmentally friendly (no packaging, no processing), but distribution friendly. When I was nursing my daughter, I could not believe formula makers could get away with marketing their product as more “convenient”. I didn’t have to buy, prepare and heat my milk in the middle of the night-or ever.
A recent study peer-reviewed by 14 scientists indicates the contrasting effects of a healthy nutrient in human milk versus its unhealthy variant– at least to infants– in certain cow’s milk. The presence of variants of this peptide or protein fragment is implicated in the fact that cow’s milk formula fed babies are ten times more likely to experience psychomotor developmentally delay than breastfed babies.
Soy milk formulas that are not organic are also problematic. They are poorly digested, are missing essential nutrients and contain high levels of “proto-estrogens” or false estrogens that mimic hormones of adult women. Inorganic soy is laden with pesticides (some of which are also estrogenic). Moreover, current inorganic soy products are overwhelmingly genetically engineered.
Formula is important for mothers unable to nurse. Boswell-Penc suggests a network of breastmilk banks to support such mothers. She gives examples of successful breastmilk banks-and in fact, this is the ancient human solution for tribal peoples who classically nursed one another’s babies to provide mothers with newborns the chance to sleep through the night or go on extensive gathering trips without their babies. Here is a link to one such bank.
For now, however, I would suggest that mothers who cannot breastfeed– or do not have access to breastmilk from any other source at least use organic formula.
Altogether, the fact that relatively few US women breastfeed as a matter of course has other repercussions. The facts about breast milk contamination spread rapidly in the European Union where the large majority of women do breastfeed. This led Sweden to prohibit the manufacture of the toxic chemicals found in their breast milk-and thus to make their breast milk supply safe very quickly. The REACH program in the European Union, based on the precautionary principle, has resulted in the pulling from the market a large number of chemicals. And it was put into practice partly because of the evidence for contamination in breast milk.
This is a matter of environmental justice to the vulnerable among us. It goes without saying that the relative concentration of toxic chemicals has a greater potential for harm in small and developing human bodies. Not incidentally, such contamination has been found in the wombs of pregnant women throughout the U.S.
There is pragmatic logic as well as justice here. Contamination in breast milk is another of those canaries in the coal mine: it signals the body burden of toxic chemicals we all bear. Indeed, as Tainted Milk notes, testing breast milk turns out to be a simple, non-invasive way to test for more general chemical contamination in human bodies.
REACH regulations have led to some interesting responses on the part of manufacturers in the U.S. Because the European Union will not accept toys made with particular hazardous chemicals, for instance, some US toy makers currently have two assembly lines. In one they make goods for the European market using EU standards. In the other, anything goes-and they sell toys made that way within the U.S.
Tainted Milk makes the case that one of the reasons we haven’t cleaned up our breast milk supply is the misconception that its contamination is limited to particular “hot spots” of environmental contamination, like superfund sites. It is certainly true that those living in areas of particular chemical contamination suffer more body burdens of these chemicals. But modern contamination is a systematic rather than an individual “trouble spots” issue-as the quick curative action on the part of Sweden indicates.
Chemical pollution travels: mercury from coal burning in China can be found on the Pacific Coast of the U.S. And chemicals we dumped on third world countries when we outlawed them here are still found today in the U.S., partly because such chemicals, like DDT, are persistent in the environment, partly because they have come back to us on imported foods-but also because they have spread to us on natural systems. Thus the air in the White Mountains of New Hampshire tests positive for chemicals produced decades ago in the U.S. and sold to and used in Mexico.
Shouldn’t our alarm bells be going off concerning this? Why isn’t the U.S. expressing leadership in this arena rather than lagging behind the European Union? Why are we still allowing the manufacture and sale of chemicals like the dangerous ones found in breast milk-many of which are on the same list as those 7 chemicals which the National Marine Fisheries Service tells might well cause the extinction of endangered salmon species in Oregon?
We could use some national leadership on this issue.
Ultimately, we all swim in the same waters and breathe the same air, and so the fate of the salmon-or the polar bear or the wolf-or the third world countries to which we import certain of our chemicals and from which we buy cheap goods- is the fate we all share.
Concerned about this? Here are some things you can do:
1. Don’t use pesticides on your lawn and garden. For alternatives, see the site and newsletter of the Northwest Coalition for Alternatives to Pesticides. http://www.pesticide.org/
There are other consumer products to avoid here.
They also have a program to stem the use of pesticides in parks and playgrounds.
Support the Safe Chemicals Act.
2. If you want to spread the word to your neighbors, the City of Eugene Stormwater Division has a great postcard with the heading, “Is your lawn pesticide free– maybe it should be”. If you don’t live in Eugene, get a copy and see if you can get your municipality to print and distribute it.
3. Support any of the suits brought by earthjustice against the sale and use of dangerous chemicals.
4. If you are in the Willamette Valley, use the detailed map developed by the Corvallis Environmental Center detailing toxic discharge sites along the Willamette River to clean up the river.
Update: there was formerly a petition for you to sign letting US health officials know that breastfeeding should be supported as the healthiest alternative for our babies. However, that petition has since been sent on. If you live in Canada, however, here is a current petition you can sign on the same topic.
Moreover, here is the UN program linking child health with infant formula issues from the site of the “International Baby Food Action Network.”
One thing NOT to do is give to the following charities, which have listed by investigative reporters of the Tampa Bay Times as on the list of the 50 worst charities (they are on that list because they spend the vast majority of their money on their own administrators and on professional fund raising rather than on actual help for breast cancer victims or breaset cancer research).
Links to legitimate charities that support women’s healthcan be found on our links page.
Milk sharing networks for mothers unable to breastfeed their babies:
Valerie Fowler provided this link to “milk sharing” (rather than milk banking which can, in the US be very expensive). Erica Henderson has provided us with links to another milk sharing network noted above. Thanks to both of you!
Filed under: Ecofeminism, environmental philosophy, Environmental psychology, Health, Our Earth and Ourselves, Working for justice | Tagged: breast milk contamination, Ecofeminism, Environmental psychology, toxic chemicals, Working for justice |