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Understanding the Risks of PFAS

What new moms need to know about toxins in breast milk

Published on: September 28, 2021

closeup of a baby nestled to mom's chest

If you’ve heard or read about the recent Seattle-area study on toxins in breast milk, you might be worried about nursing your baby. Although it is alarming to learn that chemicals called perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) were found in the breast milk samples tested, experts say that breastfeeding is still the healthiest option for both babies and moms. Here is what new moms need to know.

What are these toxins? 

PFAS are chemicals that have been used for decades in fast-food wrappers, nonstick pans, firefighting foam, rain gear, cosmetics, and stain-proofed textiles used on couches and carpeting.

These substances are nicknamed “forever chemicals” because of the strong bonds between their atoms that keep them from breaking down. PFAS persist in the environment and accumulate in our bodies.  Studies have shown that these chemicals are linked to cancers, a weakened immune system, increased cholesterol and thyroid problems.

What did the study find?

This is the first study conducted in 15 years to see if PFAS are present in breast milk. Breast milk samples from 50 women in the Seattle area were tested for 39 different PFAS and were found to contain 16 of these chemicals. One hundred percent of the samples contained some level of PFAS.

ParentMap spoke with Sheela Sathyanarayana, M.D., associate professor of pediatrics at the University of Washington and Seattle Children’s Research Institute, to learn more about the study’s findings.

What should parents take away from this study? Should moms be afraid to breastfeed?

I don’t think that moms should be afraid to breastfeed. It is good to generally be aware of the environmental contaminants that can be out there, both from a public health perspective and from an individual perspective, in terms of thinking about your own life and how you can reduce exposures overall. 

We know that PFAS can affect immune function, specifically antibodies. What we know about breast milk is that it contains antibodies, but it also has a lot of other immune factors as well. While these chemicals could potentially reduce the baby’s immune function, they certainly won’t take away the protective effects of breast milk altogether. Breast milk contains [immune factors such as] cytokines and interleukins that protect against respiratory infections and other infections. 

If these chemicals build up in our bodies over a lifetime, does it help to reduce exposure now?

I think so. As you said, these build up over your lifetime, so a brand-new baby has their whole life ahead of them, too, and a lifetime of exposures as well. I do think that reducing exposures around the household as much as possible will help improve the future health of anyone’s child. 

Overall, we live in an industrialized society, so there are going to be chemical exposures. There’s no way to get to zero exposure. But what we can do is try to reduce the exposures as much as possible — in your own home, lifestyle and daily life.

There are simple things we talk about [to help avoid exposure to chemicals] that aren’t specific to PFAS, like removing your shoes when you enter the household, cleaning windowsills, keeping your carpets well vacuumed, eating fresh foods and vegetables when possible, and trying to avoid processed foods as much as possible.

What are some of the benefits of breastfeeding?

It’s been estimated that you could reduce respiratory infections in children by 50 percent if you can breastfeed for four months and [the percentage is] even higher for six months. And there is evidence for reduced gastrointestinal infections as well. There are also benefits in neurodevelopment and bonding.

Latch onto this 

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, babies who are breastfed have a lower risk of asthma, Type 1 diabetes, ear infections, obesity, severe lower respiratory tract infections and gastrointestinal diseases. Moms who breastfeed have a lower risk of developing high blood pressure, Type 2 diabetes, and breast and ovarian cancers. 

Tips for reducing exposure to PFAS

Reduce your consumption of foods that might be packaged in wrapping or containers that contain PFAS, such as oily foods, takeout foods and microwave popcorn. 

When cooking, don’t use nonstick cookware; if you do, throw out the pan when the coating gets chipped or scratched. (The chemicals don’t leach out from the coating when it is intact.) 
If you are purchasing new carpets or furniture, ask the manufacturer not to apply stainproof coatings on the items. 

Check the listed ingredients or components of your personal care products for the words “fluoro” or “perfluoros,” and avoid products that contain these chemicals. Some products, such as certain makeup and dental floss brands, contain PFAS. 

A bit of good news

Since 2018, states and companies have been working to prevent PFAS pollution. Some companies, such as Whole Foods and McDonalds, are moving away from using PFAS in food packaging, and many U.S. companies that manufacture the chemicals are voluntarily phasing them out as a component of food packaging by 2024. Many states have also banned PFAS in firefighting foam, because it is a major contributor to water contamination. 

How you can help 

Check out these two organizations to find out how to make your voice heard by elected officials and retailers. 

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