Breastmilk and Baby Orcas: On Being a Mammal

My parents recently returned from a cruise to Alaska.  They came home raving about their on-board lecturer who passionately taught them about Alaska’s natural wonders as they cruised around on a giant boat that may or may not have been more environmentally friendly than the industry standard known for wrecking havoc on coastal environments, economies, and social systems (see this article from The Guardian and this documentary).

Of all the lectures, my parents enjoyed the lecture on the orcas the best.  In their retelling of the orca lecture, one fact in particular stood out to me:

An orca’s first born calf dies before it reaches even a few months of age because of the toxic chemicals it consumes through its mother’s milk.

This was a startling fact, particularly startling to a breastfeeding mother.  The lecturer explained all orca first-borns enter into this world only to swiftly depart it as a result of the contamination of their mothers’ milk, which is laden with PCBs, heavy metals, and other toxic chemicals.  The first-borns’ exposure is particularly acute because of the years of toxic chemical build-up resulting from environmental pollution in the orcas’ diet.  According to the lecturer, subsequent orca babies may survive since the mother orca has released some of the toxic build-up through her first calf (male orcas tend to have shorter lives because they lack this elimination pathway).  Nevertheless, many subsequent orca calves also die due to toxic chemical exposure from their mothers’ milk.

I did some fact checking to see if the horrendous bit of information was true, and there appears to be a fair bit written on the topic suggesting it is indeed fact.

The same day, I came across this study, finding perfluorinated alkylate substances–“a widely used class of industrial chemicals linked with cancer and interference with immune function”–build up in infants by 20-30% for each month they are breastfed as a result of contamination of their mothers’ milk.  The authors recommend against breastfeeding exclusively for more than 3 months for fear of toxic chemical exposure.

Reminder:  We are MAMMALS.

Mammal: any of a class (Mammalia) of warm-blooded higher vertebrates (as placentals, marsupials, or monotremes) that nourish their young with milk secreted by mammary glands, have the skin usually more or less covered with hair, and include humans (Merriam-Webster Dictionary).

Like orcas, we are also mammals at the top of our food chain.  So it should come at no surprise that human breast milk is also contaminated by toxic chemicals that enter into our bodies primarily through our diets (which, however “natural” or “unnatural” they may be, remain 100% composed of ingredients coming from our environment!).  And like orcas, a human mother can expect her first-born child to have a higher intake of environmental contaminants from her breast milk as the result of bioaccumulation (NRDC).

Despite the little attention paid to this topic by the media and our government officials, some people have been looking into what is going on with human breast milk for years.  And as it turns out human breast milk contains all sorts of chemicals associated with a host of health problems, including DDT and its metabolites, bisphenol A, polybrominated diphenyl ethers, hexachlorobenzine, and the cyclodiene pesticides (dieldrin, heptachlor, and chlordane), as well as potentially toxic metals such as lead, mercury, arsenic, cadmium, and others (Mead 2008).

This begs a couple questions:

  1.  Is breastfeeding still a good option for my child?
  2. What the hell are we doing poisoning ourselves?

Let’s start with the first question: Considering all the toxic chemicals found in women’s breast milk as the result of our contaminated environment, is breastfeeding still the best way to feed our young humans?

From the information I have been gathering, it appears the answer is: we don’t really know, but from the data we have, the known benefits of breastfeeding appear to outweigh the known risks.

In other words, epidemiology is tricky, gathering data on the long-term effects of a chemical substance is tricky, and gathering data on the long-term effects of exposure to a soup of chemical substances at relatively low-levels is super tricky. (Note: This all becomes a lot trickier considering the lack of financial support, industry-funded research, the skepticism surrounding environmental sciences in the U.S., and the lack of political will to focus on environmental health).  While  monitoring the makeup of the very sustenance of the next generation would appear to be a worthy undertaking for government, the U.S. lacks any type of breast milk monitoring program unlike other countries such as Sweden and Germany (Solomon 2002).

We know breastfeeding is amazing.  Its immune-boosting, disease-fighting properties sometimes seem comparable to the magic elixirs of fairy-tales.  But really, in some ways, the human body is just a beautifully evolved creation doing what it has evolved to do.  For example take this incredible breastfeeding fact: When a baby suckles, it creates a vacuum, through which the infant’s saliva enters into the mother’s nipple where the mammary glands read signals in the saliva that describe the infant’s immune status.  If the mammary glands detect pathogens, they instruct the mother’s body to produce antibodies that at then sent through the breast milk to the infant where they fight the infection (Katie Hinde, biologist and associate professor, Arizona State University and this great article on the miracles of breastmilk).

But, to continue the magic elixir analogy, someone dumped poison where the witch gathers her sacred herbs.  In the U.S. folks hesitate to talk about environmental contamination in general and real accountability is difficult to come by even in cases of acute contamination (see these cases in West Virginia and Pennsylvania).  So exactly who dumped the poison, where they dumped it, how they dumped it, how much they dumped, and what it’s made of is something we tend to explore as we see acute symptoms pop up and someone dares to connect the dots.  Thus, it wasn’t until 2015 that someone published a study on the accumulation of perfluorinated alkylate substances in infants as a result of consuming solely their mothers’ breast milk and we still don’t have a good sense of the effect of the presence of these contaminants on children’s health– but new research suggests the chemicals can have harmful effects at even the smallest amounts.

Using the precautionary principle, one might think, better safe than sorry, I might as well avoid breastfeeding my child .  But here’s the thing: there’s no escaping our environment.  Switching to formula comes with its own set of problems and doesn’t have any of the benefits of breastfeeding.  When you feed your baby formula you’re also exposing him to environmental toxins, through the water used to dilute the formula, as well as through the formula itself (interview with Dr. Gina Solomon).

Given the information we have, it appears the only solution to this conundrum is to continue to breastfeed your child, to support policies that support breastfeeding, and to demand your right to environmental health.  We have a fundamental right to family, to life, to liberty.  Yet this right is violated every day.  By reckless companies; by lackadaisical governments; by agencies that fail to regulate those under their charge because they have been captured by corporate interests or because they are underfunded and under-supported; by an apathetic and ignorant public.

This brings us to our second question: Why are we poisoning ourselves?

I have no idea.

This will be the resounding question echoed again and again throughout this blog.  And I am not certain that its answer is even particularly important.  What is important is that we stop.

In the case of breast milk contamination by industrial chemicals in our environment- the answer appears to be, because America is not interested in exercising the precautionary principle- we find it dumb.

Here in America, innovation is smart and exciting and clever and profitable.  Pausing to worry over how a particular innovation might affect our breasts, our growing children, our hormone systems, or the ability of our heart to beat is silly, obstructing progress, infringing on the liberty of others to create, to make money, to provide goods and jobs.

This way of thinking is wrongheaded.

We, as humans, have the ability to make new life, the social networks to nourish that precious life into the next generation.  This is a sacred thing, a right given to us as we enter this world, and a right we had better have sense enough to protect.

When we find industrial toxins in the breast milk we feed our children, we have been invaded.  We have lost our liberty.  They have no right to invade our bodies, to steal from our children their health.  It does not matter how many jobs they make, how many dollars they bring to the economy– the moment they invade our bodies we have lost.

Considering we as lactating women have already lost the battle given that standard, what is important is that we win the war.  It will take decades to clean up our environment.  It will take generations before a child is born free of industrial contaminants in her umbilical cord blood, generations before a mother can offer her child a breast free of industrial chemicals from which to eat.

Although chemicals long-banned in the U.S. continue to appear in breast milk, their levels are dropping.  However we are seeing a rise in polybrominated diphenyl ethers (most commonly found in flame-retardants) in breast milk.  These chemicals coat our clothes, upholstery, furniture, electronics, and plastic products, and exposure levels are at a level high enough to present serious health concerns.  They are known endocrine disruptors and carcinogens and associated with many other health problems (Solomon 2002, Breast Cancer Fund, State of the Evidence).

The EPA  has only recently begun collecting data on perfluorinated alkylate substances in our drinking water (EWG 2015), and there are seemingly endless chemicals with similar stories: chemicals we just don’t know enough about that are ubiquitous in our lives.

The Precautionary Principle can be stated this way:

When an activity raises threats of harm to human health or the environment, precautionary measures should be taken even if some cause and effect relationships are not fully established scientifically.

In this context the proponent of an activity, rather than the public, should bear the burden of proof.

The process of applying the Precautionary Principle must be open, informed, and democratic and must include potentially affected parties.  It must also involve an examination of the full range of alternatives, including no action.” (Wingspan Conference 1998).

The U.S. does not apply the precautionary principle when considering human and environmental exposure to industrial chemicals.  The Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976 (TSCA), does not require a routine chemical risk assessment, leaving us without basic toxicity data for the industrial chemicals in our lived environment–the chemicals that are now in our breast milk, our bloodstreams, and the bloodstreams of our children. (Sachs 2011).

Perhaps this is the place to start.  We must demand the precautionary principle be the guiding principle in U.S. handling of chemicals.  We must demand a breastmilk monitoring program and routine chemical risk assessment.  We need to better understand the chemicals that have become a significant part of our environment.  We need to understand their effects on our bodies (and this must mean all types of bodies- too frequently studies ignore the bodies of lactating and pregnant women, of infants, of the elderly) and their effects on our ecosystems.  In the meantime, we must demand the institution of the precautionary principle, where the proponent of a potentially harmful activity must defer from acting until we truly understand the results of that action.  Our bodies and the bodies of our children are too important to make them pay the price of someone’s unnecessary and irresponsible actions.