I recently heard an alarming statement, that every woman on Earth has some trace of a chemical called dioxin in her breast milk. Is this true? And if so, why is it and what are the ramifications? Should I not breast-feed my baby?
—Katya Proctor, Richmond, VA
Unfortunately, it is true that women all around the world have dioxins in their breast milk. In fact, most people—not just women—have detectable levels of dioxin in their tissues, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Dioxins are now widespread in our environment, and tend to remain in the environment for long periods of time, traveling long distances, primarily through air.
Dioxins are typically detected in air, soil, sediments and food and result from a number of industrial activities, including incineration of municipal solid waste and medical waste, vinyl manufacturing, the chlorine bleaching of wood pulp in papermaking, and coal-fired power plants. Other major sources of dioxin include forest fires, residential wood burning and the backyard burning of household waste.
There are 75 forms of dioxin. All are “organochlorine” compounds, that is, organic chemicals to which varying amounts of chlorine have been added. They are potent chemicals known to cause cancer, skin disease, liver problems, birth defects and damage to the brain and central nervous system. The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) says that dioxin is “among the most toxic substances on Earth.”
According to the Children”s Health Environmental Coalition (CHEC), kids are exposed to dioxins through food, primarily from the animal fats in meat and dairy products. Also, dioxins can cross the placenta to expose babies in the womb. Breast-fed infants are exposed to dioxins that have accumulated in breast milk. Researchers worry that fetuses and breast-feeding infants may be at particular risk from exposure to dioxins, which may cause harm to the developing brain and immune system.
Despite these risks, the American Academy of Pediatrics still recommends breast milk as “the preferred source of feeding for almost all babies for at least the first year of life,” touting its health, nutritional, immunological, developmental and psychological benefits. Besides, dioxins are so prevalent that even infant formulas can contain some.
Eradicating dioxins from the environment is a tall order, says NRDC, as they are unintentional industrial byproducts and their elimination would require fundamental changes in how industry operates. The EPA does report, however, that industrial dioxin emissions in the U.S. have been reduced by more than 90 percent since 1987. Environmental organizations are calling on industries and the EPA to make every effort to eliminate or reduce dioxin formation where possible, and are calling for an end to many forms of incineration and the phase-out of products whose manufacture and disposal produces dioxin.