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August 11, 2003
Chemical Pollution Series (Part 3) - Our most precious natural resource is being threatened - why?

Log Transcript

Editor's Note:
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

Toxic chemicals are being passed on to infants in breast milk.

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 children.

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 our website.

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 mother's milk.

A summary of the supporting scientific evidence, and a list of scientific endorsers, can be found at


  • To download a PDF version of this article - click here
  • Read previous reports from this series on chemical pollution - part 1 & part 2.

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