An alarming discovery was found in a new study on perfluorinated alkylate substances, or PFASs, in breast milk. PFASs are a widely used class of industrial chemicals linked with cancer and interference with immune function. And according to a Harvard study published this week, PFASs build up in infants by 20-30% for each month they are breastfed.
PFASs have been used for more than 60 years to make products resistant to water, grease and stains. You will find them in things like waterproof clothing, paints, and even some food packaging. These chemicals are found regularly in animals and humans around the world, and have been linked with reproductive toxicity, endocrine disruption, and immune system dysfunction.
This was the first study to examine the extent to which PFASs are transferred to babies through breast milk and quantify their levels over time. It was known that small amounts of the chemicals could occur in breast milk, but this study showed that the longer babies are breastfed, the more build up they experience.
The researchers looked at levels of five types of PFASs in the blood of 81 children at birth and ages 11 months, 18 months and 5 years. They also examined the PFAS levels in mothers of the children at week 32 of pregnancy.
They discovered that children who were exclusively breastfed had PFAS concentrations that increased 20-30% each month. Children who were partially breastfed had lower increases. In some cases, children’s concentration levels of PFASs were greater than their mothers’ by the end of breastfeeding.
Interestingly, concentrations of all five types of PFASs decreased after breastfeeding stopped. These results suggest that breast milk is a major source of PFAS exposure during infancy.
“There is no reason to discourage breastfeeding, but we are concerned that these pollutants are transferred to the next generation at a very vulnerable age. Unfortunately the current U.S. legislation does not require any testing of chemical substances like PFASs for their transfer to babies and any related adverse effects,” said Philippe Grandjean, adjunct professor of environmental health at Harvard Chan School.