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September 22, 2009


"... who wouldn't know a p-value if it ran down their legs" -- I love that phrase and will steal it when I can!

I can tell you as someone who works with scientists in the epigenetics field, that the reason all the talk about these results is framed in the 'formula is better' speak, is because the research is funded by formula manufacturers.

Hey, Jo, have you seen a cite for the study? I'm not finding it in a search of the Journal of Andrology, but I was up way too late grading and I could be missing something obvious.

Google is showing me a 2005 study in which Skakkebaek failed to distinguish between prenatal and postnatal exposure to toxins, looking solely at levels in human milk. For PCBs, at least, that's a colossal distinction, because the damage is done prenatally --although I should say that I have focused on neurodevelopment, not reproductive health. I'm more interested in the contents of the skull than the contents of the scrotum. :-)

But, but, Jo -- I just was introduced to LUSH products, and they all smell. And I love the smell . . . And Archipelago candles . . .

I must research.

And if this stuff is in breastmilk, it's in formula too, right?

Hm, Jamie, bad blogger me, I didn't follow up on the cite! Supposedly it's coming out this week so maybe it's not up yet? I'll check back. Also, HAR HAR at the skull vs. scrotum comment.

And v. interesting re: PCB exposure.

Meira, you're good to go!

katrina, do you mean to tell me that some research reporting is affected by its funders?! (Okay, joking. But ew. Gross.)

TB, yeah, usually, although sometimes in different amounts.

Fat-soluble contaminants are present at much higher levels in human milk than in infant formula, because they suck the butterfat out of cow's milk to make it into infant formula. Human milk, even with added toxins, still leaves infant formula far behind. (Formula has its own contamination issues, of course -- enterobacter sakazakii, anyone? or perhaps a little cadmium with that Enfamil?)

I spent the baby's nap trying to find out about this Skakkebaek guy (and not working on the dissertation, like an idiot) and I am skeptical about him. In general, I think we do ourselves a disservice in the bfing advocacy community if we say, "Oh, it's negative about human milk so it must be industry funded!" -- because the fact is that human milk does contain worrisome toxins. But a guy whose published papers include "What the heck is wrong with breastfed babies' liver function?" and "Look, fewer phthalates in infant formula!" as well as "Gee, I didn't look at prenatal exposure even though that's the more likely culprit, but there sure is a lot of crap in mothers' milk!" -- well, that guy deserves to have his work inspected with a jaundiced eye.

I also read something somewhere (I'm no good for a citation) that your milk contains fewer toxins the longer you breastfeed and less so for subsequent children (basically the babies leach the toxins from your body and later on, there are fewer accumulated toxins to wind up in milk).
So, if they are checking first-time moms' milk in the first month, they might get a very different contaminent profile than if they check that same woman at 6 months or a year or on kid #2, etc. I would look at cumulative exposure versus one-time.
I would also believe under this same theory that cows' milk (and hence, cow milk based infant formula) does have fewer PCBs since they lactate a lot more than I do and would have leached the chemicals out of their bodies long ago.

But hey, I went to a nurse-in a couple weeks' back to stand up (well, sit down actually) for my right to poison, errr feed, my baby anywhere I want.

Breast milk contains antioxidants, which act against the toxins. Breast milk also helps baby develop a stronger immune system...which formula can never come close to.

Jamie, yes re: contamination, also because humans eat cows and take on their toxic load, blah blah blah. The higher on the food chain you are, the greater the contamination, which is why DDT was so bad for eagles.

And you know, re: Skakkebaek -- this as-yet uncited study, it could be totally sound. As yet I don't have any quibbles with the conclusions -- my issue is more with society/the media's response. I do think it's really important that we look at contamination of breastmilk -- hugely important! As long as the focus and the blame then goes to environmental chemicals and polluters themselves, and not mothers.

Nice Post.
I am a chemist, and I read labels very carefully.
At home I am trying to revert to using glass for food storage as much as possible. I will still have tupperware and ziplock available, because they are convenient sometimes, but I try to give precedence to glass at any time. I notice the difference in the way my food tastes too.

A lot of parents are very careful to mercury levels when buying fish. But few know that products containing a lot of high-fructose corn syrup can be also contaminated with mercury, because of the way high-fructose corn syrup is purified (using a mercury electrode). And high-fructose corn syrup may pop up where you least expect it, like in Yoplait yoghurt. Read the labels!

And more. On one of your links there is a warning that many popular shampoos contain a Quaternium-15, which can give skin allergies. Most widely used shampoos also contain Methyl- and propyl- parabens and EDTA. The former are known allergenic substances. EDTA is not harmful per se, but it chelates (i.e., 'captures') heavy metals, which means that most products containing EDTA may be contaminated with Nickel and other heavy metals. These products sometimes are found even in lotions for children with eczema! There are very nice natural alternatives that can be found in stores like Target and do not contain these substances. Of course they may not smell like bubble gum or have a bright pink color...but does everything really need to be pink and have a princess on it?

So where did mom get contaminated--was it her own food or environment, or does this all go back to some PCB-infested breastfeeding Eve? If Eve isn't to blame, then isn't it at least possible that in addition to prenatal exposure (where does the fat on newborn babies come from anyway?) the men in the study are also being damaged as a result of being exposed throughout their lifetimes via their own food and environments? Nah. Let's blame the boobs.

The chemicals of course are the problem, but if it's in the breastmilk already, then would the breastmilk turn out to be the problem in the short run?

I say this as someone who is committed to BF'ing, but has recently read a bunch on this debate and I have to say, the whole potentially feeding the baby chemical laden breastmilk thing skeeves me out. On the whole, what I have read makes me want to conclude that breastmilk is still best, and they'll get contamination from other sources and I just need to continue to limit their exposure in other ways, but....

Especially since I am tandem nursing my 3 year old son and his one year old sister. The thought of transferring the chemicals which are already stored in my amply padded 40+ body to the kids, ugh. But at this point, he's probably gotten most of it anyway!

Wish I knew more or there was more conclusive information out there since it pushes every control freak button I have--not to mention the mommy guilt. Thanks for the links, I'll look at them.

As far as PCBs go, and as far as neurodevelopment goes, the studies so far are clear: don't freak out about nursing your baby. Human babies need human milk. Every baby is exposed to toxins through the placenta, even those who live miles and miles from Superfund sites. If a baby gets a double hit -- high toxin levels in utero followed by a diet which isn't designed to support healthy maturation of a human brain and nervous system -- then he's MORE likely to show lingering effects on memory, attention, and cognition than his breastfed counterpart.

In the longitudinal studies that I have read on PCBs, which is most of the studies available up to 2007, only minor and transient effects were associated with postnatal PCB exposure via human milk. (If memory serves, one Dutch paper reported less fluid movements in young infants, or something along those lines -- nothing that persisted in that study, and nothing in any of the other papers that I recall.) The breastfed babies got much, much higher doses of PCBs, but timing is everything. (Or almost everything.)

m, what Jamie said -- the evidence is overwhelmingly in favor of breastfeeding.

There's a very good book about it called Having Faith, by Sandra Steingraber; it's worth reading if you are concerned about it.

Jamie, you are rocking OUT.

I will add from experience not to read Having Faith during the first trimester when your babies organs are forming. It will freak you (me) the fuck out.

Ugh. This is exactly why I want to go into environmental justice work. Thanks for the post, and your amazing commenters.

Ha! Found it! Free full text:


Published online ahead of print, in the International Journal of Andrology, not the plain vanilla Journal of Andrology.

The stinking ABSTRACT, right out in front, says that breastmilk levels are proxies for fetal exposure, which is the big concern. And yet, somehow, that doesn't make it into the blog posts. Babble jumped onto the bandwagon based on the one you linked to, and from that post I found another one headlined "Does breastfeeding cause autism?" -- based on one study in rats. Rats, I ask you.

Am not much farther than the abstract; must give baby her evening dose of PCBs et al. Thought you'd like to see the actual study, though.

xoxoxox, Jamie.

And Brooke, yeah, it turned out to be a big anxiety/OCD trigger for me. Still a quality read though! ;)

Jo, Jo, JO!!!!!

I have been reading you for a long time. About 5 years? Is that a long time? This is one of your best posts ever! As I was reading this out loud to my husband (and nearly in tears as I did so), I was thinking of Sandra Steingraber and I am so glad you pointed to the excellent _Having Faith_ in these comments. She makes a similar point in there about the terrible injustice of transferring ALL of the responsibility of safeguarding the health of babies and children away from industry, from society at large, to mothers. You are so so right on. Right on!!

Honestly I think people will clutch at ANY reason (no matter how illogical) to make breastmilk look gross and to stop women from doing it.

Not sure why breastmilk is so offensive and so threatening to some (oh, except that it takes money FROM formula companies!).. but there are people who will do their darndest to invent new rumours that are bad about breastfeeding.

I'm a militant breastfeeder who has breastfed 2 children into toddlerhood, regardless of anyone else's advice, questions, etc.

And my kids are SMART and it's not just genetics.. it's the boobie milk. ;)

Oh and I have almost no boobs. Seriously, AA size. Proves that even teeny tiny ones can be prolific producers.. another myth smashed. :P

I really did not know it at all, thank you for the information, I will be extra cautious about it.

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