If there ever was a magic potion, it's breast milk. With its perfect mix of protein, fat, carbohydrate, vitamins and minerals, it's got everything your baby will need to thrive. Yet despite its stellar composition, most mothers' milk does contain small amounts of pollutants.
Like all other mammals, humans are exposed over the years to industrial chemicals that have worked their way into the water and air, up the food chain into plants and animals, and ultimately into our blood, bones and fat stores, which the body draws on to produce breast milk. Some toxins, including solvents, alcohol and nicotine, clear from the body relatively quickly; others, like some pesticides and flame retardants, can linger for years. But the good news is that many contaminants are easy to avoid, and you can improve the quality of your milk through the choices you make when pregnant and nursing. The key is to watch what you eat and are exposed to.
"The biggest impacts on your milk are your occupation and diet," says Gina Solomon, M.D., M.P.H., a senior scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council. Clearly, pregnant and nursing women who are exposed to workplace contaminants must take special precautions. But all women who plan to breastfeed should watch their seafood consumption, as most mercury comes from certain fish. In addition, they should limit their intake of high-fat meats and dairy products, as pesticides, dioxin and flame retardants are often found in animal fats.
Stick with natural fragrances
Recently, scientists also have found synthetic musks—compounds from some artificial fragrances—in breast milk. They seem to disrupt hormone function and are best avoided, but it's difficult to know which products contain them. "Synthetic musks aren't listed on labels," explains Kurunthachalam Kannan, Ph.D., an environmental chemist at the Wadsworth Center, New York State Department of Health. (For product lists, go to safecosmetics.org.)
Despite the traces of toxins in breast milk, formula is not a better option, Solomon says: It can contain the same contaminants and lacks the antibodies in breast milk that protect your baby from illness. And you do have some control over the quality of your milk. "It's never too early or too late to prepare for breastfeeding," Solomon emphasizes. To make your milk as pure as possible, find out what to avoid using our "Toxic Cleanup" chart.