Monday, April 05, 2004

Toxins and breastfeeding

Breast is best avoided?

An American expert has claimed that breastfeeding may expose infants to chemicals linked to cancer. Katherine Tucker from Tufts University in Boston, told ITV's Tonight with Trevor McDonald that tests on eight women had revealed toxins in their breast milk, including dioxins. 'Dioxins have been shown in animals to be related to cancer and in humans there have been suggestions they contribute to cancer. Children exposed to these chemicals may grow more slowly, have learning difficulties and difficulty in development', she said.

It seems that mothers are caught between a rock and a hard place. If they breastfeed, they could be exposing their children to toxins. If they don't breastfeed, they are accused of not giving their children proper nutrition and protection from disease. Experts rushed to defend breastfeeding, lest there be any dilution of the 'breast is best' message.

In truth, neither position is justified. The levels of toxins described by Professor Tucker are tiny, and their links to illness tenuous, even in large quantities. In the quantities found in breast milk they are almost certainly harmless. As one survey put it, 'the search for adverse health effects from dioxin has found no unequivocal epidemiological evidence to link dioxin to human cancers, suppression of immune function, or reproductivity, even among workers exposed to somewhat higher concentrations of dioxin'.

As for breastfeeding: while it does confer certain health benefits, it is far from essential in order to produce a healthy child. The over-zealous campaigns designed to bully new mothers into breastfeeding are enough to drive anybody to the bottle. But the way to counter these scares is not to promote alternative panics around breastmilk - it is to defend mothers' ability to make choices about how best to bring up their children, including deciding what to feed them and how.

Chemicals in breast milk, Sun, 5 April 2004

Dioxin: a toxin for our times, by Dr Michael Fitzpatrick