By Dr. Mercola
The average US baby is born with 200 industrial chemicals and other pollutants in its umbilical cord blood.1 Among them are poly- and perfluoroalkyl substances (PFASs), which are widely used in non-stick cookware, stain-, and water-repellant clothing, carpets, fabrics, and more.
A baby's umbilical cord blood will typically have one-third the PFAS concentration of its mother, but the levels increase significantly as the child is breastfed, new research shows. The study is the latest to show that common consumer chemicals are now contaminating what would otherwise be the healthiest food for babies on the planet.
Breastfeeding Leads to Increased Levels of PFASs in Infants
Research published in the journal Environmental Science & Technology revealed that a baby's blood concentration of PFASs increases by 20 percent to 30 percent each month they're breastfed.2
Earlier research has also found the chemicals may decrease the effectiveness of vaccines. Among 7-year olds with the highest concentrations of PFASs, levels of tetanus and diphtheria antibodies were about half those found in children with average PFAS levels.3
Study co-author Dr. Philippe Grandjean, an adjunct professor of environmental health at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health in Boston, told Medicine Net:4
"This is absurd. We're trying to prevent diseases by vaccinations, and we also are encouraging mothers to breast-feed because human milk is the ideal nutrition for the child, and the child's immune system is also stimulated by components of human milk…
And now we're finding that there are contaminants in the milk that have the opposite effect of breast milk that are decreasing the impact of childhood immunizations."
Unfortunately, Dr. Grandjean's proposed solution to the problem is a disaster in the making. After declaring there's "no way that young women can actively prevent" exposures to PFASs (which is true to some extent since the chemicals are so pervasive, but there are some steps you can take), he then suggests breastfeeding guidelines should be re-visited.
Rather than recommending women breastfeed exclusively for six months, and continue for two years or more, as is advised by the World Health Organization (WHO), Dr. Grandjean recommends exclusive breastfeeding for just three or four months!5
How about getting these toxic chemicals out of consumer products instead, so women don't have to worry that their breast milk is becoming contaminated? Encouraging women to cut back on breastfeeding is misguided, as breast milk still remains the best food for most babies, period. This isn't to say that PFASs aren't dangerous, however.
PFASs: What Risks Do They Pose to Developing Babies?
The featured article focused on the finding that PFASs may reduce the effectiveness of childhood vaccines. However there are many other risks that deserve mention. PFASs are fluorinated chemicals. It's the fluorine atoms that provide that hallmark slipperiness.
When heated, non-stick cookware becomes a source of perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), a long-chain perfluorinated chemical linked to a range of health problems, including thyroid disease, infertility in women, and organ damage, and developmental and reproductive problems in lab animals.
The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has ruled perfluorinated compounds (PFCs) as "likely carcinogens."6 The chemicals are also known as endocrine disrupters, and birth defects, reproductive problems, and other serious health problems have also been linked to their use. According to the Agency for Toxic Substances & Disease Registry (ATSDR):7
"Once in your body, perfluoroalkyls tend to remain unchanged for long periods of time. The most commonly used perfluoroalkyls (PFOA and PFOS) stay in the body for many years. It takes approximately four years for the level in the body to go down by half, even if no more is taken in."
With the known health risks mounting, the EPA launched the 2010/15 PFOA Stewardship Program, and companies agreed to voluntarily reduce the use of PFOA and related chemicals by 95 percent by 2010, with the aim to eliminate them by 2015.
Unfortunately, the chemicals targeted for phase out are being replaced with another group of PFASs that share many of the same problems as the ones being eliminated.8
For instance, a Danish study looking into the health effects of PFASs, including the newer short-chain versions that are replacing the older long-chained ones, found that women with higher blood levels of PFASs had a 16-fold increased risk for miscarriage.9
The Madrid Statement, signed by more than 200 scientists from 40 countries, presents the scientific consensus on the harms of PFAS chemicals, old and new. Among them:10
Liver toxicity Disruption of lipid metabolism, and the immune and endocrine systems Adverse neurobehavioral effects Neonatal toxicity and death Tumors in multiple organ systems Testicular and kidney cancers Liver malfunction Hypothyroidism High cholesterol Ulcerative colitis Reduced birth weight and size Obesity Decreased immune response to vaccines Reduced hormone levels and delayed puberty
How to Lower Your Exposure to PFASs
When researchers analyzed data for more than 160 chemicals in 2011, perfluorinated compounds like PFASs were among those chemicals found in 99 to 100 percent of pregnant women.
There are scientific data that prenatal exposure to certain industrial chemicals is associated with abnormal fetal and child development, diminished intelligence, behavior problems, infertility, abnormal sexual maturation, metabolic dysfunction, and cancers later in life.
Some of these chemicals can cross the placenta, enter the womb, and have effects at incredibly tiny doses. So if you're a woman who's pregnant or planning to be, it's very important to minimize your exposure as much as possible.
While you may not be able to eliminate your exposure entirely, there are several steps you can take, starting with avoiding the products where PFASs are most likely to be found. This includes:11,12
- Takeout containers such as pizza boxes and sandwich wrappers
- Non-stick pots, pans, and utensils
- Popcorn bags
- Outdoor clothing
- Camping tents
- Stain-repellant or water-repellant clothing
- Stain treatments for clothing and furniture
- Carpeting and carpet treatments
- Certain cosmetics, particularly eye shadow, foundation, facial powder, bronzer, and blush
The chemicals migrate out of consumer products into air, household dust, food, soil, and ground water, and they make their way into drinking water. So in addition to avoiding such products, it's a good idea to filter your home's drinking water as well as vacuum and wet mop often to remove household dust.
Scientific Panel Links PFOA to Cancer, Pregnancy-Induced Hypertension, High Cholesterol, and More
PFOA, perfluorooctanoic acid (also called C8), was an essential ingredient in DuPont's non-stick cookware for decades. The chemical is now the subject of about 3,500 personal injury claims against DuPont, the first of which are scheduled for September 2015.
The legal process has uncovered hundreds of internal documents revealing that DuPont knew of the chemical's danger to the public and employees, yet continued using it, despite the known risks. In fact, 10 years ago, the US EPA fined DuPont $16.5 million for withholding decades' worth of information about health hazards associated with PFOA.
In 2005, a panel of three scientists was ordered as part of a settlement in order to determine the chemical's effects on people. After seven years of research, the panel linked PFOA to ulcerative colitis, high cholesterol,13 pregnancy-induced hypertension, thyroid disease, testicular cancer, and kidney cancer. Its health effects were deemed to be widespread and occurred even at very low exposure levels. As reported by The Intercept:14
"A man-made compound that didn't exist a century ago, C8 is in the blood of 99.7 percent of Americans, according to a 2007 analysis of data from the Centers for Disease Control, as well as in newborn human babies, breast milk, and umbilical cord blood… Although DuPont no longer uses C8, fully removing the chemical from all the bodies of water and bloodstreams it pollutes is now impossible. And, because it is so chemically stable — in fact, as far as scientists can determine, it never breaks down — C8 is expected to remain on the planet well after humans are gone from it."
PFOA Potentially 'Unsafe at Any Level'
A new report by the Environmental Working Group (EWG) suggests PFOA falls into the realm of substances like asbestos and lead – those we know are toxic at virtually any level. EWG's report found the EPA's current safety guideline for PFOA in drinking water – 0.4 parts per billion – may be more than 1,000 times too high to protect public health.15
The EWG report states the safety level should be 0.0003 parts per billion. It builds on earlier research that found PFOA levels in human blood above three tenths of a nanogram — a billionth of a gram — per milliliter could be harmful. That level is already 400 times lower than the EPA's current safety level, VICE News reported. EWG's Bill Walker, who wrote the report, told VICE News:16
" … [T]he truth of the matter is that it [PFOA] appears to be hazardous at very, very, very low levels of exposure… In practicality, when you're talking about these very, very tiny levels, there just may not be a safe level of exposure."
Meanwhile, he highlighted how broken the system is to regulate chemicals in the US. VICE News continued:17
"'They did phase it [PFOA] out over a period of time, but in the meantime they've been introducing replacements for it which are chemically related and which appear to have some of the same health effects,' Walker said. Current US law allows companies to introduce chemicals into the market 'without any assurance to consumers that they're safe,' he said."
The Benefits of Breastfeeding Outweigh the Risk of Contaminants
It's disconcerting that breast milk is becoming a reservoir for industrial chemicals, but the solution is not to stop breastfeeding infants; it's to stop putting these chemicals out into our food, water, air, and household products. Barring extreme exceptions such as certain transmittable diseases or drug use, breast milk is the best food for babies, even if it may be contaminated with traces (or more) of environmental chemicals. Switching to formula is not the answer, as even milk-based infant formulas have been found to be contaminated with chemical additives (including some that are "organic"!).
Meanwhile, breastfeeding offers life-long benefits to both mother and baby that cannot be replicated with any man-made food. According to WHO:
"If every child was breastfed within an hour of birth, given only breast milk for their first six months of life, and continued breastfeeding up to the age of two years, about 800,000 child lives would be saved every year."
They note multiple reasons why breastfeeding is one of the most effective ways to boost and support your child's health, including:18
- Breast milk contains antibodies to protect your baby from childhood illnesses, including diarrhea and pneumonia
- Promotes sensory and cognitive development
- Lowers the risk of overweight and obesity into adolescence and adulthood
- Lowers the risk of type 2 diabetes
- Improves performance on intelligence tests
One study even estimated the increased medical costs of diseases caused by a lack of breastfeeding infants in their first six months of life to be $13 billion each year in the US alone. Breastfeeding also helps ensure that your child's gut flora develops properly right from the start, as breast milk is loaded both with beneficial bacteria and nutrient growth factors that will support their continued growth. It also has powerful components that will inhibit the growth of pathogenic bacteria and yeast. Studies have also shown that breastfed babies gain added protection against:
Sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS) Eczema Respiratory, ear, and other types of infections Heart disease Obesity Type 1 and type 2 diabetes Bowel diseases such as Crohn's disease Asthma and allergies Necrotizing enterocolitis among premature babies
Breastfeeding offers benefits to mom, too, including a natural method of birth control (about 98 percent effective for the first six months). Women who breastfeed also have a lower risk of breast and ovarian cancer, as well as lower rates of obesity and are more likely to return to their pre-pregnancy weight faster.
How to Minimize Your Chemical Exposures
If you're a mom-to-be, please don't be discouraged from breastfeeding due to findings of PFASs and other chemicals in breast milk. Instead, take action to minimize your chemical exposures as much as possible, starting by paying careful attention to what you eat. Eating organically grown, biodynamic whole foods is a primary strategy and, as an added bonus, when you eat properly, you're also optimizing your baby's growth and development.
When your diet is mostly fresh foods, you'll also avoid exposure to PFASs common in take-out containers. From there, simply leading a healthy lifestyle will help you to have as minimal a chemical exposure as possible. This includes the following:
- As much as possible, purchase organic produce and free-range, organic foods to reduce your exposure to pesticides, growth hormones, GMOs, and synthetic fertilizers.
- Rather than using conventional or farm-raised fish, which are often heavily contaminated with PCBs and mercury, supplement with a high-quality purified krill oil, or eat fish that is wild-caught and lab tested for purity.
- Eat mostly raw, fresh foods, steering clear of processed, prepackaged foods of all kinds. This way you automatically avoid artificial food additives, including dangerous artificial sweeteners, food coloring, and MSG. Freshly grown sprouts are particularly nutritious, especially watercress, sunflower, and pea sprouts.
- Store your food and beverages in glass rather than plastic, and avoid using plastic wrap and canned foods (which are often lined with BPA- and BPS-containing liners).
- Have your tap water tested and, if contaminants are found, install an appropriate water filter on all your faucets (even those in your shower or bath).
- Only use natural cleaning products in your home.
- Switch over to natural brands of toiletries such as shampoo, toothpaste, antiperspirants, and cosmetics. The Environmental Working Group has a useful database to help you find personal care products that are free of PFCs, phthalates, and other potentially dangerous chemicals.19 I also offer one of the highest quality organic skin care lines, shampoo, and conditioner, and body butter that are completely natural and safe.
- Avoid using artificial air fresheners, dryer sheets, fabric softeners, or other synthetic fragrances.
- Replace your non-stick pots and pans with ceramic or glass cookware.
- When redoing your home, look for "green," chemical-free alternatives in lieu of regular paint and vinyl floor coverings.
- Replace your vinyl shower curtain with one made of fabric, or install a glass shower door. Most flexible plastics, like shower curtains, contain dangerous plasticizers like phthalates.
- Limit your use of drugs (prescription and over-the-counter) as much as possible. Drugs are chemicals too, and they will leave residues and accumulate in your body over time.
- Avoid spraying pesticides around your home or insect repellants that contain DEET on your body. There are safe, effective, and natural alternatives out there.