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Mothers want to protect their newborn babies from all threats.
Unfortunately, 100% of U.S. breast milk samples tested positive for containing per- and polyfluoroalkyl substance (PFAS), a dangerous chemical found in food, water, and everyday products, according to new data.
“We now know that babies, along with nature’s perfect food [breast milk], are getting toxic PFAS that can affect their immune systems and metabolism,” Erika Schreder, a Toxic-Free Future science director and study co-author, said.
“Moms work hard to protect their babies, but big corporations are putting these, and other toxic chemicals that can contaminate breast milk, in products when safer options are available.”
The New Research on Breast Milk and PFAS
Previous reports have confirmed that companies put PFAS chemicals in a wide range of everyday products, from food packaging and clothing to carpet and upholstery.
States and retailers are starting to take action to restrict these chemicals in products, but federal regulations are needed to prevent the use of PFAS or other chemicals that can build up in breast milk in consumer products, experts say.
“This is the first study in the last 15 years to analyze PFAS in breast milk collected from mothers in the United States, and our findings indicate that both legacy and current-use PFAS now contaminate breast milk, exposing nursing infants,” the researchers write.
This study found that 50 out of 50 women tested positive for PFAS, with levels ranging from 52 parts per trillion (ppt) to more than 500 ppt.
Breast milk samples were tested for 39 different PFAS, including 9 current-use compounds. Results found that both current-use and phased-out PFAS contaminate breast milk, exposing nursing infants to the effects of toxic chemicals.
A total of 16 PFAS were detected with 12 found in more than 50% of the samples.
The levels of PFAS that are currently in use in a wide range of products are rising in breast milk.
“These findings make it clear that the switch to newer PFAS over the last decade didn’t solve the problem,” Dr. Amina Salamova, study co-author and associate research scientist at Indiana University, said. “This study provides more evidence that current-use PFAS are building up in people. What this means is that we need to address the entire class of PFAS chemicals, not just legacy-use variations.”
What are PFAS?
PFAS contamination is a wide-spread problem.
PFAS’ nickname illustrates its cause for concern: “Forever chemicals.”
PFAS are a class of chemicals manufacturers use as fire-retardants. Despite their extensive use, some data has demonstrated these substances can be an initiator of cancer development.
PFAS are commonly used in food packaging for water and grease resistance.
Sandwich wrappers, french-fry boxes, and bakery bags have all been found to contain PFAS, according to a recent Take Out Toxics report.
“Between 2002 and 2016, the FDA approved 19 PFAS for use in food packaging and nearly half of the fast food wrappers collected in 2014 and 2015 had detectable PFAS,” the Environmental Working Group (EWG) wrote in a June 2019 report.
Once manufacturers produce these substances, they will not breakdown over time.
Worse, they have a history of contaminating water supplies, food, and consumer products that go to harm people.
PFAS exposure, according to the CDC, can:
- Affect growth, learning, and behavior of infants and older children
- Lower a woman’s chance of getting pregnant
- Interfere with the body’s natural hormones
- Increase cholesterol levels
- Affect the immune system
- Increase the risk of cancer
The Environmental Working Group’s recent findings estimate there are over 600 tainted water sites throughout the U.S. that are impacting 19 million Americans. While the EPA argues against that claim, one thing is clear: PFAS contamination is a wide-spread issue with severe consequences.
The adverse health impacts have significant impacts on firefighters across the country.
These public servants show higher levels of cancer development from PFAS exposure.
Worse, some researchers say PFAS don’t do their job.
“The use of flame retardants in furniture, children’s products, electronics enclosures, and building materials provides limited fire safety benefit,” researchers at the Green Science Policy Institute write. “For example, research shows they often delay ignition only a few seconds and can make a fire more toxic. Preventing ignition with fire-safe products such as cigarettes, candles, lighters and smoke detectors, sprinkler systems, etc. is a more effective and healthier way to prevent fires.”
Are Latinos at Risk?
Many Latinos in America find themselves trapped in food deserts, or areas that do not contain a grocery store within a 2-mile radius. They also tend to live in food swamps, which are food deserts that also have lots of unhealthy fast food options.
Facing a lack of healthy food access, many of these families are forced to rely on drive-through chains and cheaper, packaged, processed items for their diet.
These products can contain the highest levels of PFAS contamination, according to the Take Out Toxics report.
Minority communities that deal with food-access inequity can also struggle with the development of other illnesses.
Problems such as heart disease, diabetes, hypertension, and obesity, are other worries—on top of PFAS exposure—impacting these groups, according to a 2016 study, published in the Journal of Immigrant and Minority Health.
“Fruit and vegetable consumption falls well below recommendations in much of the U.S., particularly among African American, Latino, low educational attainment, and low-income populations,” the study states. “Many neighborhoods with large minority populations are classified as food deserts, and lack full-service grocery stores, increasing the difficulty and expense of obtaining healthy foods.”
How Can We Create Healthier Food Environments for Latinos?
We have to create equitable, accessible healthy food access for Latinos and all people.
A few Salud Heroes are working to this end:
- Jorge Olvera is creating community gardens to fight food swamps in Houston.
- Flávia Fernandes is helping San Antonio residents with healthy cookbooks.
- Eloísa Trinidad started a vegan community fridge in New York
- David Miskie is bringing bilingually branded, healthier breakfast food into schools for Latino students.
Also, you can share important information on local food access with your decision-makers.
Just download a Salud America! Health Equity Report Card!
The report card will show you how you will see how your county is doing on food deserts, food access, the amount of fast food restaurants, the amount of grocery stores, and more. The data is compared to the rest of your state and nation.
Email your Health Equity Report Card to community leaders and share it on social media. Use it to make the case to address healthy food access where help is needed most.