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Breast milk could be a major source of exposure to persistent PFCs in infancy

New research, published today in the journal Environmental Science & Technology, shows that some persistent perfluorinated chemicals (PFCs) can be transferred from mother to infant via breast milk. These chemicals, which have been widely used, are linked to a number of health problems, including negative impacts on immune response to vaccines in children. The research suggests that breast milk is a major source of exposure to some PFCs during infancy, though the researchers emphasise the important benefits of breast milk for babies.

The study looked specifically at a group of PFCs called PFAS chemicals, which have been used in a variety of consumer products, from non-stick frying pans, waterproof clothing, stain-resistant fabrics to food packaging – including in pizza boxes and microwave popcorn bags. See our recent blog on PFCs for more information on their use and potential health impacts.

The new research was carried out in the Faroe Islands between 1997-2000, with blood being analysed for 5 types of PFAS from 81 children at birth, and then age 1 month, 18 months, and 5 years. The main results included:

  • PFAS concentrations in children’s blood increased by roughly 20%–30% each month in those children who were exclusively breastfed, lower increases were noted among children who were partially breastfed.
  • In some cases, by the end of breastfeeding, children’s serum concentration levels of PFASs exceeded that of their mothers – though after breastfeeding stopped, concentrations of all of five types of PFASs decreased.
  • Results suggest that breast milk is a major source of PFAS exposure during infancy.

In a press release on the study, Philippe Grandjean, one of the scientists involved in the project, and adjunct Professor of Environmental Health at Harvard Chan School, said:

“We knew that small amounts of PFAS can occur in breast milk, but our serial blood analyses now show a buildup in the infants, the longer they are breastfed,”

“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”

CHEM Trust’s Executive Director Michael Warhurst said:

“We shouldn’t forget that breast feeding is the best option for babies, but it is shocking that the chemical industry’s careless production of persistent chemicals is leading to this  contamination.

Why has the chemical industry produced these chemicals at all?

How is it possible that some are still in regular use, for example in microwave popcorn?

Why have the UK and EU not already banned them?

It’s time governments got the actions of the chemical industry under control – their continued manfacturing of persistent chemicals is unacceptable”

To find out more about PFCs, see our blog post here – including the extraordinary situation that the EU is working to get them globally restricted, yet permits their use in the packaging of microwaveable popcorn.

To find out how you can prevent your exposure to PFCs see our Take Action as a Consumer page.

The Huffington Post also has an informative article about this research.