Tuesday, September 1, 2015

The Canary in the Coal Mine: Using Human Milk to Prove Environmental Contamination

"As crude a weapon as the cave man's club, the chemical barrage has been hurled against the fabric of life--a fabric on the one hand delicate and destructible, on the other miraculously tough and resilient, and capable of striking back in unexpected ways.  These extra ordinary capacities of life have been ignored by the practitioners of chemical control who have brought to their task no 'high-minded orientation,' no humility before the vast forces with which they tamper."--Rachel Carson, "Silent Spring"

The canary in the coal mine is a legend in the US that coal miners in the early days of mining, when there were no ventilation systems, used canaries to serve as an early warning that the air was toxic.  Canaries, being sensitive to methane and carbon dioxide, would die and serve as a warning to miners to evacuate the mine. 

Like the canary in the coal mine, scientists use human milk as an indicator of the toxins in our environment.  And like the caged canary, who has no idea that it may be giving its life to save some miners, women have no idea that the gift of human milk can be a usurious situation.  What is created is a media frenzy of toxic breast milk headlines and media questions about the value of breastfeeding.  Recently Forbes had an article entitled, "How Toxic Is Your Breastmilk?" (8/21/15)  It was written in response to a study published in Environmental Science & Technology entitled, "Breastfeeding as an Exposure Pathway for Perfluorinated Alkylates,"  by Morgensen et al. (being cited to the corresponding author Philippe Grandjean)

But it was not just Forbes that responded to this research paper with dramatic headlines and questionable assumptions.   An internet website called Science had these headlines, "Breast-Fed Babies Show Buildup of Potentially Harmful Chemical,' or from the website apextribune, "Prolonged Breastfeeding Exposes Babies To Health Risks."

Did this recent study on Perfluorinated Alkylates (synthetic chemicals that are found in products such as Scotchgard, Teflon, food packaging, stain-resistant textiles, couches, carpets, fire fighting foams--some of these chemicals are being phased out of production) prove how toxic breast milk was or that prolonged breastfeeding exposes babies to health risks?  No.  This is a study that "calculated" the infant's prenatal serum PFAS (Perfluorinated alkylates) based on the mother's serum PFAS at 32 weeks of pregnancy.  No measurements of breast milk were taken.  Let me repeat this--no measurements of breast milk for PFAS were taken.  Serum levels of the children were taken at 11 months and 18 months  and 60 months.  Exclusive breastfeeding and partial breastfeeding were not defined in this study and was based on mother's recall when their infants were 60 months old.  What one person or organization means by exclusive breastfeeding may not be the same as another person or organization.  There is a need for researchers who do studies on human milk and/or breastfeeding to declare what definitions they are using.  Some definitions of exclusive breastfeeding can mean that the mother was also giving her infant water.  Some definitions of exclusive breastfeeding mean no vitamins or medications.  If an "exclusively breastfed" infant is also getting water (water being one of the ways humans ingest contaminates), then how do we know it is only human milk that is contaminating the infant with a toxic substance?  Likewise if infants are being given vitamins derived from marine oils (known to be heavily contaminated with toxins), how do we factor out the contamination from the vitamins vs. human milk?

No serum levels of PFAS were taken of infants when they were "exclusively" breastfeeding.  And again no human milk samples were taken to show levels of PFAS.  Serum levels of infants were first taken at 11 months of age.  How are humans exposed to PFAS?  Exposure is through water, food, dust (important to consider regarding infants who crawl on the floor and do alot of hand to mouth exploring), carpeting and stain resistant clothing.  Most infants, are given solid foods on average between 4-6 months of age.  How did this study factor out exposures from other sources than human milk during those 11 months for the exclusively breastfed infant?  One might compare the exclusively breastfed infant and partially breastfeed infant with the formula fed infant.

But strangely enough this study had only one formula fed infant.  One.  Yes one formula fed infant,  Interestingly, this one formula fed infant had the lowest concentrations of PFAS.  Was this infant being fed powdered, ready-to fed or concentrated infant formula? No information.  Looking at the data in graph form it appears that the one infant formula fed infant had a mother that had lower serum PFAS concentrations  in her pregnancy than most of the other mothers.  The mother with the worst PFAS levels was the mother who "exclusively" breastfed for 6 months and partially breastfed for the following 5 months.  The graph shown was for 12 children out of the 81 children tested. The 81 children were selected from a previous study of 656 children.  How were the 81 children selected?

The authors do say that, "While human milk is unlikely to be the sole source of exposure, a PFAS transfer of 1 microgram/kg during 6 months of exclusive breastfeeding would support the notion that human milk could be the dominant exposure source for infants."  The authors did not measure human mik but are relying on the Bavarian Monitoring of Breast Milk study done in Chemosphere 2013 for this particular data.  I could only obtain the abstract which states,"For PFC the intake is clearly below the tolerable daily intake.." and "breastfeeding is still highly recommended."

I find it interesting that the authors cite the data of another study; yet appear to come to a different conclusion than the authors of the cited study.  I have many questions regarding this particular study by Morgensen et al. I find myself annoyed that scientists would rather study human milk for toxins than study and compare infant formula.  I remember some years ago looking at the dioxin studies on breast milk and they compared it against either one or two samples of cow's milk or two or three samples of infant formula.  It seems standard practice to not make such comparisons or to use very small selected samples of infant formula.  

One would believe by these studies that infant formula is devoid of chemical contaminates and human milk is chock full of them.  
Shouldn't we be asking why infant formula samples are so difficult to obtain by researchers?  Could it be because human milk samples are often freely obtained by researchers while infant formula is a costly product?  Could it be because the infant formula and dairy industry have enormous funds and power within our institutions to keep such research from happening or to keep researchers from asking the right questions?

One of the biggest companies in the US who has been in trouble over its contamination of PFAS into the environment is Dupont.  Huffingtonpost just did an article on Dupont and its dumping of PFAS in W. Virginia and Ohio (the PFAS got into the water supplies of a number of cities).  Its a long article but worth reading for understanding the contamination problem and health issues of PFAS.

DuPont is a stakeholder in the infant formula industry. DuPont Nutrition and Health acquired Danisco in 2011.  DuPont Danisco pediatric nutrition ingredients (prebiotics and probiotics) are used in baby formulas.

There is a journalism award called the Dupont-Columbia award.  

How influential are such awards to journalists who write about environmental issues?  How influential are corporations in creating media campaigns that scapegoat breastfeeding?  Is this part of the reason journalists/media seem fixed upon the topic of toxins in breast milk but believe for some strange reason that infant formula is pure, toxin-free?

No I do not believe that human milk is some sterile, uncontaminated substance. Human milk has been called white blood.  Like blood, human milk can give us a picture of the chemicals we encounter in our environment.  But it does not give us a total picture of how those chemicals react within our bodies.  Why do some people get cancer in a chemically contaminated area and others do not?  It seems to me that it would depend on how well a person's immune system functions.  The current body of evidence is that exclusive breastfeeding builds a highly functioning immune system.  An immune system that the infant formula industry is desperately trying to imitate through the use of synthetic chemicals.  Why should we believe research that only looks at human milk as the indicator of toxic contamination?  When we start getting articles on toxic blood or toxic semen, then I might take these one-sided studies and media hysteria more seriously. 
Copyright 2015 Valerie W. McClain