Mothers' breast milk filled with 'forever chemicals', finds one US study

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"The study also analysed breast milk data worldwide and found that PFAS detection frequency is increasing." Photo: Getty Images
"The study also analysed breast milk data worldwide and found that PFAS detection frequency is increasing." Photo: Getty Images

A peer-reviewed study published in the United States has found that American mom's breastmilk is contaminated by toxic chemicals known as Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS).  

Both chemicals are very persistent in the environment and in the human body - meaning they don't break down and they can accumulate over time - and exposure to PFAS could lead to adverse human health effects. 

After testing 50 samples, the substances were found at levels nearly 2000 times higher than recommended by health advisers. 

The authors of this study say that these 'forever chemicals' cause concern as they threaten newborn health. They're also linked to cancer, birth defects, liver disease, plummeting sperm count and a range of other serious health problem.

Erika Shreder, a co-author and science director with Toxic-Free Future, a Seattle-based non-profit that pushes the industry to find alternatives to the chemicals told The guardian that these chemicals contaminate what should be nature's perfect food.

Shredder explains that the chemical giants may have hidden the dangers of forever chemicals in food packaging.

These substances are a class of about 9,000 compounds that are used to make products like food packaging, clothing and carpeting water and stain resistant, she explains. 

Read: 'It carries no risk': Local dietitian dispels Covid-19 myths around breastfeeding

The co-author of the study and paediatrician based at the University of Washington, Sheela Sathyanarayana, told The Guardian that even though the findings are clear about these chemicals, it is challenging to study newborns and so there is no thorough analysis of how PFAS affects newborns yet. 

She added that the studies conducted on older children and adults linked the chemicals to hormonal disruptions and suggested that PFAS damages the immune system, which could be problematic for infants because breast milk bolsters their immune system.

Sathyanarayana mentioned, "although the study checked a relatively small sample size, the contamination cut across socioeconomic and geographic groupings, which is what makes the issue so difficult on an individual level."

She added that this means that the chemicals are so ubiquitous that they cannot predict who will have the highest exposure to the chemicals.

This study is the first of its kind since 2005 to check breastmilk samples, and found a newer generation of PFAS. The study also analysed breastmilk data worldwide and found that the PFAS detection frequency is increasing.

The authors recommend that pregnant women and mothers who are breastfeeding should protect themselves by avoiding greaseproof carryout food packaging, stain guards, waterproof clothing that uses PFAS and cooking products with non-stick properties.

This is difficult, though, as some companies do not disclose that they used these toxic chemicals.

Still, Schreder suggests that the best solution is a virtual ban to the entire chemical class, including those that the chemical industry claims do not accumulate as much in humans.

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