Breast is Best, but it Could Be Better: What is in Breast Milk That Should Not Be?

Marian Condon


Pediatr Nurs. 2005;31(4):333-338. 

In This Article

Maternal Characteristics That Facilitate Environmental Chemicals Presence in Breast Milk

The mechanism by which chemicals enter and are present in breast milk is determined by maternal and chemical characteristics (Solomon & Weiss, 2002; Needham & Wang, 2002; Clewell & Gearhart, 2002; Anderson & Wolff, 2000) (see Table 1 and Table 2 ). These characteristics determine the level of different chemicals in the breast milk of certain women. Maternal characteristics can be further divided into those that address the circumstances of exposure to the toxicant, and those that modulate the exposure concentration. For example, Table 1 lists "mode and intensity of maternal exposure." This is demonstrated in women working in certain professions that may have more intense exposures to some chemicals, resulting in the level of these being higher in their breast milk. Some professions of concern include (a) agriculture workers who have higher exposures to pesticides, (b) some medical personnel who are exposed to hazardous anti-cancer drugs in higher doses, (c) women working in dry-cleaning establishments who are exposed to perchloroethylene (a solvent commonly used in dry cleaning), and (d) and women working in certain manufacturing industries and at municipal incinerators who have higher exposure to dioxins (LaKind et al., 2002; Byczkowski, Gearhart, & Fisher, 1994).

Another example of how maternal characteristics may determine infant breast milk exposure is women who have previously breast-fed other children. Lipophilic properties of certain chemicals allow these to be stored in the fat tissue of the breast for a long time. The first breast-fed child will potentially be exposed to the mother's lifetime accumulation of chemicals, with subsequently breast-fed children being exposed to less of these chemicals.


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