Have you ever wondered if you have PFAS (Perfluorinated alkylate substances) in your breast milk? If you are a woman, the answer is almost certainly 'yes'. Before we go further, it is important to emphasize that in spite of the disturbing knowledge that this best-of-all, locally produced, natural, organic baby food may not be a pure as we would wish, experts still encourage breast-feeding for the many benefits it offers newborns.
But as a society that wants what's best for the newest members of the human family, we must take heed of a study just published in Environmental Science and Technology and publicized by the Harvard School of Public Health. Researchers followed a group of 81 children born in the Faroe Islands, in the North Atlantic. The local diet is high in seafood and may even include whale meat, or grindadráp, embraced as part of local cultural heritage, so this study represents exposure levels that are probably higher than in other places.
However, the study does show a rapid, significant increase in the levels of PFAS in the blood of breast-fed infants. This real-life data proves that we should be concerned about the ability of chemicals to accumulate in our bodies, and to be transferred in breast milk to newborns and infants at critical stages in their development.
Poly- and per-fluorinated hydrocarbons first gained popularity for making nonstick pans not stick, but the market has grown widely. Now PFAS can be found in many textiles, papers, and coatings, where they make stains not stick and repel moisture or prevent fats and oils from seeping into packaging. As these chemicals spread and with improvements in analytical chemistry, scientists began tracking the PFAS as they began appearing in humans, polar bears, and other species. Some of these types of chemicals are named on the Stockholm convention list of persistent organic pollutants, and one of the key precursor and breakdown products PFOA, is required in Europe to be classified as a reproductive toxin with potential for harmful effects on breastfed children as well as a suspected carcinogen and for long-term harm to the liver.
The PFAS are under intense scrutiny and are regulated as "substances of very high concern" in Europe. The US EPA has been criticized for failing to regulate these substances. But manufacturers have been working with EPA to enact voluntary phase-out of the long-chain perfluoroalkyl chemicals.
There is good news in all of this. The Harvard study found that one type of PFAS - perfluorohexanesulfonate -- did not accumulate in the infants who were breast-fed. This chemical has a shorter chain (6 carbons), suggesting that the substitution of long-chain perfluoroalkyl chemicals by these alternatives is on the right path.
In other good news, the US has now subscribed to a system of hazard classification known as the Globally Harmonized System, which more clearly labels hazard like chemical exposure potential in breast milk. The clear communication of these types of hazards will make it easier to discuss and manage the risks.