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Did Breastfeeding Hurt My Baby? How Regulations on Harmful Chemicals Can Help

Did Breastfeeding Hurt My Baby? How Regulations on Harmful Chemicals Can Help

Like so many expectant mothers, when I was pregnant with my son three years ago, I read numerous parenting books, attended birthing classes, and hired a doula who also served as my lactation consultant.

I had decided early on that I wanted to try and breastfeed my baby, while also knowing if things did not work out, I was allowed to change my mind. With support from my husband, education from my lactation consultant, and comradery from fellow nursing moms, I successfully breastfed my baby through the generally recommended time of  two years.

But recent news shifted my thoughts and had me wondering if I had unknowingly hurt my child.

A recent study shows the presence of 25 different toxic flame-retardant compounds, known as Brominated Flame Retardants (BFRs), in the breastmilk of American women. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, exposure to BFRs can lead to an increase in cancer, hormonal disruption and significant developmental delays in infants and children and lower IQs.

Learning this sent me into immediate panic. I could not help but wonder if I had already, within a 2.5-year span, drastically impeded my son’s development and long-term health. I could not help but feel like I was the problem. I am not.

During the first few months of learning how to breastfeed and pump, I often found myself filled with doubt and worry. Was I producing enough milk? Is my baby hungry? Will my supply decrease?

I thought about quitting more times than I care to admit. Looking back now, I was a tired, worried new mom, but my baby’s health was never in question. I had left that space of self-doubt related to nursing behind me a while ago, only for those feelings to come right back after learning about BFRs in breastmilk.

My decision to breastfeed was based on science and the practicality of my life. Environmental regulations need to be in place to ensure optimal outcomes of such decisions.

These chemicals are commonplace and have been for decades. Used to reduce combustion in everyday products, BFRs are found in household items such as furniture and electronics. Exposure can occur when the chemicals separate from products and are then inhaled or ingested through dust.

This is not the first time flame retardants have been found in human breastmilk. First detected in the U.S. in the 1970s, flame retardant chemicals entered the food chain by way of dairy farms and into the breastmilk of Michigan nursing mothers. The presence of flame-retardant chemicals in breastmilk is not exclusive to the United States.

Popular from 1970-1990, polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs), a type of Brominated Flame Retardant, were used in numerous household products such as mattresses and TVs. Found in alarmingly high concentrations in human breastmilk, and known for their adverse effects on humans and wildlife, PBDEs were eventually phased out of production and use.

Since the phase out of PBDEs, other chemically similar, and lesser studied, compounds, such as Bromophenols have been used by manufacturers. For the first time, Bromophenols were found in an overwhelming majority of samples in a recent study of human breastmilk in the US. A recent study shows bromophenols, structurally similar to thyroid hormone, can have an adverse impact on an individual’s thyroid function.

But more recent efforts over the past decade to regulate of Brominated Flame Retardants (BFRs) seems to work.

 The concentration of polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs) in human breastmilk and in children within the U.S. has decreased since its phase-out began over 10 years ago.

While the phase-out of PBDEs was largely voluntary, many states, such as California, Hawaii, Illinois, Maine, Maryland, Oregon, Vermont and Rhode Island have laws in place regulating various classes of BFRs.

recent law passed in New York, set to take place in 2024, bans the sale of electronic casings, furniture, and mattresses with halogenated, organophosphorus, and organonitrogen flame retardant chemicals.

These chemicals have negative health outcomes, including infertility, cancer, and delayed fetal and child development. In 2021, the European Union banned the sale of televisions with halogenated flame retardants in their casing; research continues on the impact of various BFRs.

How to feed our babies is one of the earliest decisions parents make. Whether to breastfeed/ pump, use formula or a combination of both, these decisions are based on various personal and practical factors. There is a risk-benefit analysis with each decision; parents always striving to choose what is best for their families.

Without continued and updated regulation, it seems between flame retardant chemicals in breastmilk and repeated formula recalls, the risk-benefit analysis of parents is severely undermined, and many are left with limited to no options on how to feed their babies safely.

Thankfully, my son is a healthy, inquisitive, observant, and all-around silly toddler. With those hard early days of nursing behind me, I can reflect and appreciate the tremendous work my body did sustaining myself and my baby.

I already miss the absorbent amount of snuggles that come with being a nursing parent. Like most moms, I am always going to worry. With necessary regulation, the impact and presence of toxic chemicals in breastmilk does not need to be a top concern. As a society, it is our job to do what is in the best interest of all children.

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