We should be worried

Mother could be passing on toxins through breast milk

 
By Manu N Kulkarni
Last Updated: Sunday 07 June 2015

We should be worried

-- Mother's milk should be pristine. After all that's the one food that provides newborns with all the nutrients and benefits their growing bodies require. Nutrition experts recommend that babies be breast fed for at least the first six months after birth. Organisations such as the United Nation's Children's Emergency Fund and the World Health Organization are strong votaries of breast feeding, and many countries even have laws that forbid breast milk substitutes, such as lactogen, in maternity wards of public hospitals. But now there are aspersions that pesticide residues have compromised breast milk.

A mother's complaint Writing in the us daily, New York Times, Florence Williams -- environmental journalist and a nursing mother herself -- notes, "When we nurse our babies we feed them not only the fats, sugars and proteins that help the immune system we also feed them... minuscule amounts of paint thinners, dry cleaning fluids, wood preservatives, cosmetic additives, gasoline by-products, termite poisons and fungicide. Ocean and marine foods contain high mercury levels and mothers who eat them pass on to their children in one form or the other". Williams' worries are not unfounded. She got her own milk tested for polybrominated diphenylthers (pbd), a flame retardant . The pbd levels were found to be 36 parts per billion (ppb). That's seven times below the safe-level, but lets not forget that Williams' breast-feeding daughter is likely to be exposed to pbd- laced milk throughout her infancy.

Scientists believe that each suckle would add to the pbd levels in the infant's body. Says Michael Dourson, a toxicology expert consulted by Williams, "The infant is receiving one-seventh the exposure of the maximum pbd level believed to be safe. Above that level, we're not sure, but we become less confident. And at some point, it becomes unsafe." Arnold Schecter, of the University of Texas School of Public Health has a similar opinion. "No one at this time knows at what levels nursing is not the best approach, and in fact becomes harmful to babies. But such levels must exist,'' he contends.

Contaminants on the rise Experts estimate that pbd levels in Williams' milk are on the rise and at current rates of increase, they could reach 300 ppb in the next 15 years. That's the level that Tom McDonald, of the California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment, says corresponds to endocrine and thyroid dysfunction in lab animals. What this means, though, in human terms, remains unclear.

The worried mother's article caused much consternation. Mothers in many parts of the world had their milk tested. And to their horror, Williams was not the only one whose breast milk was contaminated. Tests on breast milk and food in many parts of Australia showed alarming levels of pbds -- up to five times higher than in Europe, where some of these chemicals have already been banned.

But not in India Environmental activists here are more concerned with toxic crops and toxic cow milk, but not with toxic mother's milk. It's now well known that arsenic and many other deadly chemicals and minerals contaminate food and water in many parts of the country. So, worries about residues of such chemicals in mother's milk should not be dismissed as unfounded.

Before things take a turn for the worse, leading maternity and children's hospitals in India such as the All India Institute of Medical Sciences, New Delhi, Post-Graduate Medical Institute, Chandigarh and the Christian Medical College, Vellore, Tamil Nadu, should begin collecting milk samples of mothers undergoing ante natal care sessions. The samples should be tested for pbd, arsenic and other toxic contaminants, and adequate preventive steps should be taken.

More importantly, the analysis of these samples should form the basis for revamping maternity care programmes in the country. It is quite unfortunate that premier national clinical bodies such as the Federation of Gynecologists and Obstetricians of India have chosen to be silent. This is a wake up call to them to save our mothers from such deadly toxins in their milk.

Manu N Kulkarni is a former unicef representative to India and professor emeritus, Siddaganga Institute of Technology, Tumkur, Karnataka

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