… The breastfeeding lobby is sometimes reluctant to highlight breast-milk contamination because they don’t want women to have another excuse not to breastfeed. But despite the reassuring arguments to keep breastfeeding, I find myself unsettled. The amount of chemicals infants suckle through milk is not insignificant. Recent studies show that lactating mothers offload about 2%-3% of their total PBDE body burden per month to their offspring, or about 30% if they nurse for a year. I nursed both my kids for 18 months, and now I can’t help but wonder if that was such a great idea. For other chemicals, the dump rate is even higher, with a range of up to 14% per month for dioxins, and up to 8% per month for PCBs.
Mothers who breastfeed for a year also pass to their infants 90% of their body burden of perfluorinated compounds, known as PFCs. Used in the manufacture of products such as Scotchgard, Gore-Tex and Teflon, PFCs have spread across the globe, even ending up in polar bear tissue, and virtually never break down in the environment. An EPA panel said one type of PFC called PFOA was “likely to be carcinogenic in humans”.
The Norwegian Scientific Committee for Food Safety is debating the country’s breastfeeding recommendations, which would have been unthinkable a decade ago. “I don’t think it will change the current recommendations [to breastfeed for a year], but maybe there’s no benefit to breast-feeding after six months,” says Cathrine Thomsen of the Norwegian Institute of Public Health. Consider the gravity of this statement. Norway has the single highest breastfeeding rate in the world, with 99% of new mothers doing it. At six months, more than half of all babies are still nursing. The country has banned advertising by formula companies. It grants paid maternity leave for 42 weeks. It is a country deeply committed to breastfeeding. And now it is rethinking it.
This is an edited extract from Breasts: a Natural and Unnatural History by Florence Williams, published by Norton, available for £13.59 on guardianbookshop.co.uk