Contaminants in human milk

An overview of studies on environmental pollutants in human milk has found that not breastfeeding an infant typically poses more of a threat than does exposure to any of the chemical agents measured in human milk, as reported in the 11th Annual Children's Health Issue of Environmental Health Perspectives (EHP).

Given the tendency for persistent organic pollutants (POPs), pesticides, heavy metals, and other contaminants to accumulate in human milk, researchers and parents alike are asking whether the nursling's exposure to these pollutants might reduce or even override the health benefits.

Yet, even in highly polluted areas, author M. Nathaniel Mead indicates a better outcome for breastfed infants. Numerous studies strongly indicate significantly decreased risks of infection, allergy, asthma, arthritis, diabetes, obesity, cardiovascular disease, and various cancers in both childhood and adulthood among those people breastfed as infants.

Because of human milk's nutritional, immunologic, anticancer, and detoxifying effects, scientists encourage women to continue the practice of breastfeeding even in the context of widespread pollution. Breastfeeding mothers should also be educated on the negative effects of alcohol and drugs, and be advised on how to create a healthier, safer, and cleaner environment for themselves and their children.

EHP editor-in-chief Hugh A. Tilson, PhD said, "The collaborative message from the World Health Organization (WHO), the Surgeon General, and the American Academy of Pediatrics is clear: breastfeeding remains the recommended best practice for infants, even in the presence of today's potential levels of environmental contaminants."

Today, the prevalence of initial breastfeeding among U.S. mothers is about 71%, according to a report in the 3 August 2007 Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, but only 11-14% of infants are exclusively breastfed (i.e., consume nothing else, including water) in the first six months, as recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics and the WHO. Only 16% of U.S. infants are still breastfeeding at one year of age; probably far fewer go on to breastfeed for the two years recommended by the WHO.

The article is available free of charge at http://www.ehponline.org/members/2008/116-10/focus.html.

EHP is published by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS), part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. EHP is an Open Access journal. More information is available online at http://www.ehponline.org/. Brogan & Partners Convergence Marketing handles marketing and public relations for the publication, and is responsible for creation and distribution of this press release.

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