Recently, a study came out finding alarming amounts of chemicals called PFAS in human breast milk. The study, published in Environmental Science and Technology, was small and location-specific, examining the breast milk of 50 different breastfeeding parents from the Puget-Sound area in Washington state. Still, very high levels of PFAS were found in their milk, which is extremely concerning for both parents and their breastfed babies.
This isn’t the first time PFAS were detected in breast milk, either; a 2018 study also found PFAS concentrated in breast milk. And PFAS are not something to just brush off as “no big deal.”
According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, PFAS have been associated with increased cholesterol levels, increased rates of thyroid disease, as well as reproductive, kidney, and liver problems. They may also be implicated in weakening our immune systems and increasing our risk of cancer. PFAS are often referred to as “forever chemicals” because they’re heat resistant, durable, and can live in soil and water for enduring periods of time.
It’s no wonder that PFAS were found in breast milk, because they are basically everywhere. As Toxic Free Future explains, PFAS are synthetic chemicals found in “food packaging, stain-resistant carpet and fabrics, water-repellent outdoor gear, firefighting foam, waxes and sealers for flooring and other building products, nonstick cookware, and household items like makeup.”
PFAS are also part of our land, our soil, and water. “PFAS are released into air and water by manufacturers and escape from products while we use them, contaminating our air, soil, food, water, homes, and workplaces,” Toxic Free Future adds. “They also leach out of products discarded in landfills.”
As such, Toxic Free Future explains, PFAS have basically contaminated most of our freaking drinking water. JFC. Can humanity get a break here?
Okay, deep breaths. I know that when I hear about studies like this, my first instinct is to panic. As a mom who breastfed her kids, stuff like this makes me anxious. I mean, from what I’ve read, I’m sure that my breast milk had PFAS floating all over the place in it. And I breastfed each of my kids for years.
But here’s why I’m not freaking out (too much) about this all, though—and why I don’t think breastfeeding parents need to freak out, either.
First, major health organizations, including the CDC and Academy of American Pediatrics (AAP), say that the benefits of breastfeeding outweigh the risks of any potential chemicals that may be found in milk.
“There is no medical reason to stop breastfeeding due to PFAS concerns,” the AAP explains. “The advantages of breastfeeding for mom and baby outweigh potential risks of exposure to PFAS through breast milk.”
The CDC has a similar statement about toxins in general in breast milk, stating that the advantages of breastfeeding outweigh any threat from chemical toxins found in milk. They also point out that chemical toxins in breast milk are likely most dangerous to infants during pregnancy and when breastfeeding is first initiated.
Additionally, the CDC points out, the only times there have been detrimental effects on breastfed babies was when moms themselves have become “critically ill from a toxic exposure.”
I think it’s also important to point out that the alternative to breastfeeding—formula feeding—isn’t without potential harmful ingredients. High levels of arsenic, lead, and BPA have been found in infant formula. As the AAP points out, if you use drinking water to mix your baby’s formula, you are also exposing them to PFAS (they recommend using pre-mixed formula instead).
So basically, you can’t get away from PFAS in pregnancy, and however you feed your baby, you are likely exposing them to harmful chemicals. Oh, and the world is on fire with PFAS and other contaminants. Got it?
As far as I’m concerned—and again, both the CDC and AAP are with me on this—there is no reason to stop breastfeeding or not initiate breastfeed or freak out about your past breastfeeding experience, just because of a study like this.
That being said, none of this means we should just sit back and let ourselves and our kids grow up drenched in chemicals. Some of the leakage of toxic chemicals into our environment is out of our control (I’m going to go ahead and blame consumerism and capitalism for this). But there are some things we can do to minimize PFAS getting into our bodies, our kids’ bodies, and into our breast milk.
The AAP has some excellent tips, including:
- Inquire about your community water levels of PFAS
- If there are high levels of PFAS in your water, filter your water with a filter that’s been certified to remove PFAS
- Use filtered water when mixing formula or preparing your baby’s foods (pre-mixed formula could work too)
- Check your local fish advisories for PFAS contamination before eating locally-sourced seafoods or fish products
- Stay on top of dust in your home, as PFAS tend to build up in dust
- Stop using Teflon products and non-stick pans, especially if they are chipped
- Avoid microwave popcorn, as the bags have high levels of PFAS
- Decrease your use of takeout containers, as many are coated with PFAS
- Don’t buy stain-resistant carpets, fabrics, and upholstery, since many are high in PFAS
It feels good to know there are little things we can all do to reduce our exposure to PFAS, right? As for what to do if you are breastfeeding your baby now, and you are concerned about their exposure to PFAS, you can take heart in knowing that there are still so many benefits to breastfeeding, and no medical organization is encouraging weaning because of PFAS. That being said, if you have any concerns about your own health or your baby’s health, be sure to reach out to your doctor. That’s what they are there for.