Contaminants in Human Milk: Weighing the Risks against the Benefits of Breastfeeding

Mead MN.
Environ Health Perspect 116:A426-A434. doi:10.1289/ehp.116-a426; 2008

When it comes to feeding the newborn, human milk is, from an evolutionary perspective, the biological norm, the time-tested standard of care. The health benefits to the infant of breast-feeding have been amply documented; 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 the more fundamental disadvantages of not being breastfed is a loss of immunologic protection afforded by maternal colostrum, a “pre-milk” fluid secreted only during the first days after delivery, as well as numerous other bioactive factors that help protect the infant through the first two years of life, when the immune and nervous systems are incompletely developed. Nevertheless, 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.

Throughout primate evolution and pre-industrial human history, breastfeeding was the rule: the mother carried her baby and breastfed on demand. According to nutritional anthropologist Daniel W. Sellen in the 2007 edition of the Annual Review of Nutrition, breastfeeding beyond age 2 years was typical in 75–83% of hunter–gatherer societies, with the average age at weaning approximately 30 months. Moreover, copious data now support the hypothesis that humans evolved to begin consuming foods besides mother’s milk at approximately 6 months of age (Sellen also notes humans are the only primates that wean their infants before they can forage for themselves). This pattern was probably the norm for 200,000 years of human evolution and some 7 million years of nonhuman primate evolution.

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