With the recent fires on the West Coast and in Australia, it is an especially worrying time for the potential health risks posed to you and your family from polluted environments”

Pollution is everywhere–in the food we eat, the water we drink, and even the air we breathe. With the recent fires on the West Coast and in Australia, it is an especially worrying time for the potential health risks posed to you and your family from polluted environments. Even now, the Bio-Specimen and Fire Effects (B-SAFE) Study, conducted by the UC Davis Environmental Health Sciences Center is researching how wildfire smoke is affecting pregnant women and their babies. While the study isn’t yet complete, there’s a large amount of research explaining the effects of pollutants. Here is a breakdown of some main concerns. 

Chemicals interfere with the immune system, reducing its ability to respond to infections.”

 

The name might sound alien, but cytokines are essential for a baby’s immune system. Breast milk contains these cytokines, which regulate immune and inflammatory responses. They’re also necessary for the development of the central nervous system. This is very important, because newborns can’t make enough on their own yet. 

A 2018 study found evidence that environmental pollutants can disrupt cytokine production. When pollutants from the environment throw off the balance of cytokines in milk, this can potentially harm the baby’s immune system development. One widespread culprit is PCBs, or “polychlorinated biphenyls.” They’re made up of carbon, hydrogen and chlorine atoms and can be found in plastics, dyes, and even copy paper. Fortunately they’re on the way out in manufacturing, but are still in our environment.

PCBs bind to fats, which means they can pass through breast milk. These clingy chemicals interfere with the immune system, reducing its ability to respond to infections, and can also increase the risk of developing asthma and allergies. There’s also a higher potential for neurological disorders, as well as obesity and diabetes. But the bad news doesn’t end there. Mothers also need to watch out as there are potential harmful effects to the reproductive system. This not only affects fertility, but also the health of an unborn child.

Heavy metals consist primarily of lead and mercury. These substances interfere with the immune system (and cytokines) too. They can throw everything off balance, letting infections run rampant. Even before being factored into breast milk, they’re already extremely dangerous. Heavy metals can not only pass through the placenta, but they can also go straight from the bloodstream to the brain. This damages the brain and nervous system—and these harmful effects are even more pronounced in children and infants.

“Breast milk is balanced in nutrition and contains antibodies. Studies show that babies who are breastfed are less exposed to heavy metals compared to formula.”

 

Lead exposure can vary based on region. Breast milk from women who live in urban areas may have higher concentrations of lead compared to rural areas. Lead accumulates over time, though it’s also more directly associated with smoking, which introduces cadmium into the body through the respiratory tract. Just as it does in adults, cadmium hurts the liver and the kidneys.

On the other hand, arsenic is more commonly found in more rural areas of the Southwest, Midwest, and the Northeast in the USA. It can be found in water supplies, often making its way to food through contaminated water used in raising animals or crops. Arsenic is a carcinogen and a poison, and it goes without saying that it’s particularly dangerous for infants and children. Mercury, which is often found in fish and shellfish, is damaging to the brain and nervous system.

Pollutants from the environment inevitably make their way back to the human population. Especially for mothers living in big cities, contact with these substances is unavoidable, which means there will always be a possibility that pollutants from the body will end up in breast milk. They can even appear in food: both heavy metals and PCBs can accumulate in fish. The higher up the food chain an animal is, the more concentrated pollutants may be.

What Can I Do About It?

The benefits of breastfeeding outweigh any risks. Breast milk is balanced in nutrition and contains antibodies. Studies show that babies who are breastfed are less exposed to heavy metals compared to formula. The water used to mix formula might be contaminated with heavy metals, particularly arsenic. If you are concerned about heavy metals in your breast milk, Lactation Lab provides tests that can detect their presence in parts per billion and recommendations on how to modify your diet to decrease their levels. Staying informed and knowing what is in your milk is always a wise course of action to keep you and your child healthy.

Title photo by Rainier Ridao on Unsplash