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japanese mothers have cause for concern. They have just been informed that their milk is tainted by dioxins -- environmental oestrogen that disrupts hormonal functions. The ministry of health and welfare in Japan has warned that mothers might have to stop breast-feeding the moment their child attains the age of three months. This, several researchers feel, is a step which must be taken in order to reduce the intake of dioxins by infants. On the other hand, doctors say that breast-feeding is crucial to the physical and emotional health of the mother and child. Mothers don't know what to do.
Parents were perturbed by the results of the recent health and welfare ministry study of breast milk in four regions. The study found that on an average a baby was taking in daily about six times the amount of dioxins considered safe. This figure varied from two to 10 times the safe limit. The ministry specifies this daily tolerable amount as 10 picograms (one picogram is one-trillionth of a gram) per kilogram of the person's weight.
This daily intake has been calculated on the assumption that the dose will be taken throughout one's life. Researchers offer a ray of hope by saying that since the lactation period is short, the dose should not impair a baby's health.
But a study of babies aged about 12 months, conducted by Junya Nagayama, assistant professor of environmental hygiene at Kyushu University's School of Health Science, is creating a flutter in the country. The study shows that with high intake of dioxins through breast milk, the baby's immune cells become prone to atopic dermatitis, an allergic disorder characterised by a redness and scaling of the skin. Other ministry of health and welfare research shows that the longer the lactation period, the higher the incidence of atopic dermatitis.
Hideaki Miyata, professor of pharmacy at Setsunan University and a dioxin expert, has told mothers to stop breast-feeding around three months after birth and switch to an infant formula.
Miyata goes a step further. He advises mothers to collect their breast milk and dispose it off even after they have discontinued nursing. Dioxins that have accumulated inside their body will be discharged from the system through breast milk.
The concentration of dioxin reportedly falls by about 40 per cent after breast-feeding the baby for six months and by 60 per cent after breast-feeding for a year. Consequently, by continuing to let breast milk out, the mother can lessen the adverse effect dioxins may have on her next child.
Similar guidelines were given to mothers in Germany in 1984 when a group of researchers advised women to breast-feed babies for the initial four months, and if the mother hoped to continue nursing the baby, she should have her dioxin level checked and refrain from breast-feeding if the concentration was found to be high.
A government committee, however, issued a recommendation in late 1995 stating that this was no longer necessary since the concentration of dioxins in human milk had halved.
Raising a child on breast milk has its merits. Human milk is the ultimate well-balanced food, containing the three main nutrients of protein, fat and lactose, as well as vitamins and minerals. Moreover, breast milk protects the baby from various infectious diseases until its immune system is fully developed.
Although much attention has been paid to dioxins as oestrogen in recent years, their concentration in breast milk has in fact decreased. A study of frozen breast milk by Osaka Prefectural Institute of Public Health, conducted annually since 1973, showed that dioxin concentration peaked during the 1970s and that recent levels have declined to about half of the levels at that time. This is attributed to the control of the use of agricultural chemicals and herbicides containing dioxins as impurities.
Nevertheless, this is an extraordinary situation where humans, who are mammals, must think twice before breast-feeding their children. It is also upto the individual to decide whether to limit breast milk or to give milk on the assumption that the risk is low.
Parents are faced with the problem of a lack of accurate information on the risks of dioxins. Even experts fail to speak in detail on the subject. How badly will a baby be affected by dioxins taken through breast milk? Does the lactation period and dioxin intake correlate? Does the dioxin intake level change for the second and third child? These questions need to be answered as quickly as possible.