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Pesticides in Breastmilk:
The Good News for Vegetarians

Organic Consumers Association

Vegetarian Voice Spring 2001

Remember those ads from the 1950s featuring thriving, chubby-faced babies sucking on bottles of formula? You've probably seen them, because those ads do, of course, still exist. But now there's a difference: today, medical professionals and nutritionists are adamant that breastmilk is best.

But over the past year, discussions on the topic of pesticides in breastmilk have left some mothers questioning the safety of their milk.

Fortunately, there is a way for women to minimize the levels of pesticides in their breastmilk - they can go vegetarian, or better yet, vegan. As described by Virginia Messina, PhD and Mark Messina, MPH, RD in the Dietitian's Guide to Vegetarian Diets, studies of vegetarians show lower breastmilk levels of the pesticides DDT, chlordane, heptachlor, and dieldrin, and industrial compounds or byproducts, such as polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and polychlorinated dibenzodiozins.

This is hardly new information: it's been known for years. One study published twenty years ago in the New England Journal of Medicine found that in an analysis of breastmilk from a sample of vegans, the levels of 17 chemicals were markedly lower than in the general population.

Another study from nearly a decade ago, published in the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition, found that frequency of consumption of meat, dairy, and fish was directly related to [breast] milk contamination.

Also, in the mid 1970s, the EPA analyzed the breastmilk of vegetarian women and found the levels of pesticides to be far less than average.

In 1992, a study published in the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that meat and dairy products strongly contribute to breastmilk concentrations of dieldrin and PCBs. This same study also found that fish consumption leads to PCB contamination. This may be why Japanese mothers have such high levels of dioxin in their milk, according to Carol Huotari of La Leche League International. Huotari, who heads the Center for Breastfeeding Information at LLL, points out that while Japanese women eat much less dairy and meat than Americans, they do consume more fish.

How does eating animal-based foods lead to increased breastmilk contamination levels? Pesticides are stored in body fat. So, when women eat animal (including fish) flesh, they also absorb the pesticides consumed by that animal. Women, in turn, store those pesticides in their body fat, then pass them along to their nursing infants through their breastmilk. Remember, even a skinless chicken breast contains over six grams of body fat.

Likewise, dairy cows release much of their stored pesticides in their "uddermilk." So, consuming dairy products also leads to an increase in one's own pesticide stores.

Plant foods, on the other hand, don't bioaccumulate, or store pesticides. On average, a pound of apples - even apples that are not organic - will have nowhere near the levels of pesticides as found in a pound of chicken flesh. Of course, it goes without saying that a pound of organic apples wont have any pesticides at all.

Pesticides made headlines across the nation this past year with the Environmental Protection Agency condemning and phasing out two popular pesticides for home and garden use due to the potential health risks they pose.

This and other pesticide-related issues are causing more and more parents, including actress Jane Seymour, to warn others about the potential health risks children face from exposure to potentially dangerous pesticides. "As parents, we want to do everything we can to protect our kids, but there is an incredible void of simple information to guide parents to better choices," says Seymour.

Put aptly by John Robbins in his historical book Diet for a New America, "women, and even little girls, who think they may wish to have and breastfeed a baby in the future would do well to realize that the diet they eat today will greatly affect the health of their young."

The bottom line, however, even for non-vegetarians, is to choose breastfeeding over formula feeding - except in extreme and rare cases. As Robbins states, human breastmilk is nutritionally and vastly superior for a human infant to any cow's milk formula, formulas are also likely to be contaminated with toxic chemicals, human breastmilk contains antibodies which are crucial for the newborn, and breastfeeding provides the bonding and emotional nurturance which are tremendously important to the well-being of both mother and baby.