“I would like you to show me, if you can, where the line can be drawn between an organism and its environment. The environment is in you. It’s passing through you. You’re breathing it in and out.” –Wendell Berry, author, poet, environmental activist
We cannot separate ourselves from our environment. From the first breathe as a newborn, to our last breathe on this earth; we are one with our environment. We breath in gasoline fumes at our local gas station or the fresh paint fumes of a newly painted room; and our lungs, blood, and cells must process those chemical toxins. Breakfast, lunch, and dinner reflect the environment of where our foods are grown, processed, and packaged. With the global food economy, it is very likely that what we eat reflects the global rather than local environment. Our skin protects our internal organs from the environment but it also absorbs and transfers chemicals in our environment into our blood stream. As Wendell Berry so eloquently says, “The environment is in you. It’s passing through you.”
The burden of chemical toxins in our environment is also passed onto the next generation. The fetus lives for months inside the mother’s womb. The womb does not provide a barrier against many chemical toxins but rather transfers them to the fetus. If the mother in her pregnancy is in contact with toxins in her environment; she transmits those toxins to her fetus. Scientists believe that exposure prenatally and during infancy can be more harmful than later in life. It is also believed that the first born baby receives substantially more toxins in utero than subsequent siblings. Mother’s milk reflects the mother’s environment; passing on the chemicals the mother encounters to her offspring. While mother’s milk reflects the mother’s environment it also is the mechanism in which newborn’s are protected from pathogens (bacteria, viruses, fungi, and parasites) in the mother’s environment. The mammary gland creates antibodies to the pathogens in the mother’s environment. Some toxic chemicals (PFAS, forever chemicals for example) attack the human immune system, suppressing the antibody response.
US newborns/babies are fed a variety of ways and exposed to a variety of food and environmental products. Studies that actually define breastfeeding categorize breastfeeding into 2 groups: exclusive breastfeeding and partial breastfeeding/mixed feeding. Exclusive breastfeeding is usually defined as babies given no foods/solids, water, or liquids, only breastmilk. Partial breastfeeding/mixed feeding is often defined as babies given infant formula, as well as solids/foods, water, or other drinks. These definitions do not categorize babies that are fed human milk in a bottle either exclusively or partly. In the US about 20-30% of infants are never breastfed. Of those babies, some are exclusively formula fed, and some also receive food/solids and drinks besides their formula. While some 70-80% of mothers exclusively breastfeed in the early weeks postpartum, only 30% are exclusively breastfeeding at 3 months postpartum. US infants are exposed to a variety of foods, baby formulas, and drinks in their first year of life. How researchers define the way babies are fed is critically important to our understanding of which babies are more at risk to exposure of toxic chemicals. Yet environmental studies usually do not define breastfeeding or breastmilk feeding. Studies on infant feeding that totally focus on environmental toxins in breast milk without defining breastfeeding or also measuring toxins in infant formula, do not give a clear or actual picture of the risks of toxic chemicals to infants. And when these studies are broadcast in the media, are they helpful to parents? Or do these media reports create more harm than good? Why are researchers focused on human milk and its contamination; rather than looking at the broad spectrum of feeding methods and products given to US newborns and babies? US media headline’s scream toxic, contaminated breast milk, but have no apparent interest in why most scientists aren’t researching toxins in baby formula. [US CDC data on exclusive breastfeeding] https://www.cdc.gov/breastfeeding/data/nis_data/results.html
FOREVER CHEMICALS, PFAS IN HUMAN MILK
There are some 5000 PFAS chemicals; these forever chemicals are described in the recent US media articles. For example The Guardian published the article, “Study finds alarming levels of ‘forever chemicals’ in US mothers’ milk,” written by Tom Perkins in May of this year. The author states breast milk levels of PFAS in a new study are “at levels nearly 2,000 times higher than public health advocates advise is safe for drinking water.” https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2021/may/13/pfas-forever-chemicals-breast-milk-us-study
The article does state that no standards exist for PFAS in breast milk. But does not mention that water standards vary from state to state and the 1 parts per trillion (ppt) recommended by the Environmental Working Group is not the same recommendation made by the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency-US Governmental agency). The EPA recommends 70 ppt. There appears to be no consistent water standard for PFAS chemicals in the USA. The study that Perkins is revealing states that the levels of PFAS in this new study ranged from 50ppt (lower than the EPA water standard) to more than 1850ppt. Yet at the Toxic-Free-Future-Action-Center, in which many of the researchers in this particular study were a part of, they state, “…the study finds that 50 out of 50 women tested positive for PFAS, with levels ranging from 52 parts per trillion (ppt) to more than 500ppt.” There is a huge difference between “more than 500ppt” to “more than 1850ppt.” One would suppose that the article from Toxic Free Future would be correct. https://toxicfreefuture.org/research/breast-milk-study/
The research paper states that the PFAS concentrations in breast milk were the sum of 16 different PFAS chemicals with the predominant PFAS being PFOS and PFOA. Those 2 PFAS showed a decline from breast milk samples taken in US in 2004. Both these chemicals are no longer manufactured in the US and have been around since the 1940s. Yet the Guardian article did not mention this decline, but focused on the “alarming levels of PFAS chemicals.”
There are some 5000 or more PFAS chemicals, “forever chemicals,” being manufactured around the world. Two of the most commonly detected PFAS chemicals in the US are PFOA and PFOS. These two chemicals are no longer manufactured in the USA but are still manufactured in other countries. PFOA was used to produce Teflon products and PFOS was used to produce ScotchGard-a water/stain resistant product used in fabrics. PFAS chemicals are suspected to increase the risk of various cancers: kidney, thyroid, prostate, bladder, ovarian, liver, testicle, breast, and pancreas. Other suspected health risks are increased cholesterol levels, increased risk of high blood pressure or pre-eclampsia in pregnancy, small decreases of infant birth weights, decreased vaccine response in children, changes in liver enzymes. Lab animals have shown damage to their livers and immune systems, birth defects, and newborn deaths. PFAS chemicals do not concentrate in the fat/lipids of the body. They bind to serum proteins (albumin, globulin). The human body stores PFAS chemicals in the liver, blood, kidney, and muscle. The chemicals are slowly excreted in the urine and feces. Humans are exposed to PFAS chemicals primarily through ingestion of food or drink. But also exposed to these chemicals through inhalation, and skin contact.
PRODUCTS THAT CONTAIN PFAS CHEMICALSFire fighting foam-contamination of wells near airports and military base
Flame retardants in clothing-found in 80% of baby and children’s clothing
Most US infant car seats- flame retardant/stain and water resistant fabric
Water resistant fabrics-found in upholstery and upholstery in cars
Teflon used in cooking pots/pans; The chemical contamination of the Ohio River in West Virginia and Ohio by Dupont now Chemours (a spin-off company of DuPont) in the production of Teflon products has resulted in a US lawsuit. https://pfasproject.com/2018/02/12/ohio-attorney-general-sues-dupont-chemours-over-c8-contamination/ Lawsuits in North Carolina https://www.ncdoj.gov/attorney-general-josh-stein-takes-legal-action-against-dupont-over-pfas-pollution/ Interestingly, Dupont’s Nutritional unit manufactures Human Milk Oligosaccharides (HMOs) for use in baby formulas. Dupont applied for FDA GRAS for their manufactured HMOs derived form Escherichia coli K12 strain. FDA had no questions. GRAS notice #897 https://www.fda.gov/media/136755/download
Pesticides mosquito spray, migration of PFAS from storage container such as High Density Polyethylene (HDPE)
Microwave popcorn bags
Food packaging-for example pizza boxes
Hand SanitizersDental floss
Plastic food storage containers
Drinking water in many US muncipalities and water bottles
Laptops and smart phones
*Lab equipment-for example: reagents, glassware, tubing, vial caps, aluminum foil, filters
*This poses problems for researchers of PFAS chemicals, requiring that lab equipment must be checked for PFAS chemical contamination before its use.
THE MEDIA PORTRAYAL OF PFAS CHEMICALS IN HUMAN MILK
There is very little objectivity in articles published in the US media. Most articles in this past decade appear to be biased in favor of corporate interest; which is about increasing profits. Reality is far more nuanced than the media portrays. Scientific studies are not necessarily a true description of the natural world and how it works. Nor is one study necessarily a definitive understanding of what is being researched. The reality is that isolating one component from other components may give us some understanding of that one component but that one component does not work in isolation. Isolated cells only exist in science labs and only with the aid of various chemicals and human manipulation.
Copyright 2021 Valerie W. McClain