August 11, 2003
Chemical Pollution Series (Part 3) - Our most precious natural resource is being threatened - why?
In 2002, a series of seven, one-page articles appeared in the New York Times.
The primary goal behind them was to alert people to the types of threats we all face
from environmental pollution - specifically from a group of compounds called Persistent Organic Pollutants or POP's.
Since the collection of data on the distribution and concentrations of POP's (also known as EDC's, BPT's and organohalogens)
in the world's oceans is a focus of our work - it seems fitting to present another take on this issue.
We are grateful to the authors and sponsors of these articles for permission to include them here.
For more information and to view all of the articles go to www.childenvironment.org.
Toxic chemicals are being
passed on to infants in
We've never created a product with the
effectiveness of breast milk. Breast milk
is a unique source of nourishment and
protection against disease. But the
chemical industry has created a myriad
of toxic synthetic chemicals that
ultimately collect in breast milk and
are passed to infants. Some of these
chemicals can pose risks to the health
and neurological development of our
As pediatricians and scientists, we are
convinced that breast milk is still the
best choice for mother and child.
However, we see disturbing evidence
that in the future, breast milk may not
be as effective as it once was in
guarding children against disease.
Unless classes of chemicals that
accumulate in breast milk are phased
out, we believe the health risks to our
children could increase.
What We Know
From DDTs first appearance in the
1950s to PCBs in the 1960s to
pesticides on sale today, persistent
organic chemicals find their way into
the fatty tissue of women's breasts.
And they stay there for years until
passed to infants during breast-feeding.
Today's breast milk still contains
toxic remnants of DDT, passed from
grandmother to mother to child.
Though DDT has been banned,
today's persistent organic pollutants
accumulate in a similar way. A breastfed
infant can absorb in one year thirty
to ninety percent of the maximum
recommended lifetime dose of dioxin,
a chemical known to be both
hormonally-active and carcinogenic.
Other toxic chemicals - heptachlor,
chlordane, mirex, dieldrin, aldrin,
benzene, and chloroform - are also
finding their way into breast milk.
So are perchloroethylene, the main
chemical used to dry clean clothes,
and polybrominated flame retardants.
We know that during gestation and
in the early months after birth, an
infant's brain is particularly susceptible
to harm from toxic chemicals. We
don't know what the minimum safe
levels of exposure are. It may be that
no exposure is safe.
Although there is only limited research
on how chemicals in breast milk
affect children, the available facts are
disturbing. A North Carolina study
of 800 nursing mothers showed that
as PCB levels in breast milk increase,
children have poorer motor
coordination. Even more disturbing,
several studies in the Netherlands
show that as levels of PCBs in breast
milk increased, infants had more
immune impairment, evidence that
toxic pollutants in breast milk can
negate the milk's immunologic benefits.
There is some good news as well:
a Swedish study showed that as
government efforts severely limited
maternal exposure to PCBs and other
toxic chemicals, the levels of these
chemicals in breast milk decreased.
What We Can Do
Pregnant women and those who are
nursing should limit their exposure
to pesticides, lead, and mercury. Fish
species known to be contaminated by
mercury and PCBs should be avoided.
Dry cleaning should be aired out
before it is brought into the house.
Nursing mothers should choose a wise
diet. There are more suggestions on
But more needs to be done.We must
phase out chemicals that pose a risk to
our health, especially to our children's
health, beginning with the toxic
chemicals which have been detected
in breast milk. We should demand that
new chemicals undergo the same
rigorous testing as medicines before
allowed on the market. There can be
no more important public health
mission than ensuring the safety of
A summary of the supporting
scientific evidence, and a list of
scientific endorsers, can be found
- To download a PDF version of this article - click here
- Read previous reports from this series on chemical pollution - part 1 & part 2.