The results of a new study reveal that toxic chemicals known as PFAS* (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances) have been found in all 50 samples of breast milk tested–at levels nearly 2,000 times what is considered safe in drinking water. The peer-reviewed study found PFAS at levels in milk ranging from 50 parts per trillion (ppt) to more than 1,850ppt.** The researchers said the findings “are cause for concern” and highlight a potential threat to newborns’ health.*** PFAS chemicals have been linked to cancer, birth defects, liver disease, thyroid disease, plummeting sperm counts and a range of other serious health problems****.
The study is the first in the US since 2005 to check breast milk samples, and shows an increase in the newer generation of PFAS, while older compounds that were phased out by industry are still present, and some at high levels. The study also analyzed breast milk data from around the world and found PFAS detection frequency is increasing.
This is the first study in the last 15 years to analyze per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) in breast milk collected from mothers (n = 50) in the United States, and our findings indicate that both legacy and current-use PFAS now contaminate breast milk, exposing nursing infants. Breast milk was analyzed for 39 PFAS, including 9 short-chain and 30 long-chain compounds, and 16 of these PFAS were detected in 4–100% of the samples. The ∑PFAS concentration in breast milk ranged from 52.0 to 1850 pg/mL with a median concentration of 121 pg/mL. Perfluorooctanesulfonic acid (PFOS) and perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) were the most abundant PFAS in these samples (medians 30.4 and 13.9 pg/mL, respectively).
Researchers’ recommendations pregnant women and mothers should take to protect themselves include: avoiding greaseproof carryout food packaging, stain guards like ScotchGard, waterproof clothing that uses PFAS, and cooking products with Teflon or similar non-stick properties, though manufacturers often do not disclose the chemicals’ use.
*PFAS (per and polyfluoroalkyl substances) are a class of over 9,000 compounds that are used to make products like food packaging, clothing and carpeting water and stain resistant and cookware and bake ware non-stick. They are called “forever chemicals” because they do not naturally break down and have been found to accumulate in humans.
**There are no standards for PFAS in breast milk, but the public health advocacy organization Environmental Working Group puts its advisory target for drinking water at 1ppt, and the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, within the Department of Health and Human Services, recommends as little as 14ppt in children’s drinking water.
***Studies of older children and adults have linked the chemicals to hormonal disruptions and suggests PFAS harm the immune system, which could be especially problematic for infants because breast milk bolsters their immune system.
**** See our posts on other scientific research findings about PFAS ‘Forever Chemical’ here:
Journal reference: Guomao Zheng, Erika Schreder, Jennifer C. Dempsey, Nancy Uding, Valerie Chu, Gabriel Andres, Sheela Sathyanarayana, and Amina Salamova. Per- and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances (PFAS) in Breast Milk: Concerning Trends for Current-Use PFAS, Environmental Science & Technology Journal, May 13, 2021,