Breastfeeding and the environment: Guest post for World Breastfeeding Week 2020

By Donna Walls, RN, BSN, ICCE, IBCLC, ANLC

Each year the World Alliance for Breastfeeding Advocacy (WABA) chooses a theme for World Breastfeeding Week (WBW) celebrations around the world. WBW is celebrated every year during the first week in August. This year’s theme is “Support Breastfeeding for a Healthier Planet”. 

The 2020 objectives are:

  • Inform people about the links between breastfeeding and the environment/climate change
  • Anchor breastfeeding as a climate-smart decision
  • Engage people and organizations for greater impact
  • Galvanize action on improving the health of the planet and people through breastfeeding

Can breastfeeding really affect climate change and create a cleaner, healthier environment? 

Our planet’s health is closely tied to human health, and so there is a growing interest in learning how to protect the health of the environment. 

Among the many things humans can do to protect the environment, breastfeeding is one of the most important. Breastfeeding is the best example of a clean, eco-friendly action to protect and improve the health of planet Earth. 

Breastfeeding is the ultimate natural, sustainable resource. It requires no raw materials needed for processing and no energy consumption in production or transportation. It does not produce any material waste or by-products, does not require any packaging materials, water resources or electricity, and creates no pollution of the air or water. Lactation is a perfect partner for environmental health and the ultimate example of “eating local”.

Parents who express their milk and feed from bottles or other methods also provide a more planet-friendly feeding method than artificial feeding. Formula manufacturing requires energy, material and transportation. 

The carbon footprint of breastfeeding gives us another glimpse into the environmental impact of breastfeeding. Wikipedia defines carbon footprint as “the total greenhouse gas emissions caused by an individual, event, organization, service, or product, expressed as carbon dioxide equivalent.” In simple terms, it’s a measurement that shows us something’s impact  on the health of the environment. 

The carbon footprint of breastfeeding is based on the production and transportation of food for the mother based on the RDA of an additional 500 kcal/day recommended during breastfeeding. According to research from the United Kingdom, the carbon footprint of breastfeeding is estimated at 5.9 (this varies between countries). 

In comparison, the carbon footprint of formula feeding— which is based on the use of resources, animal and factory production emissions and transportation of the formula as well as supplies, preparation and storage of formula at home— is estimated at 11.0 (again varying between countries). On average, feeding breast milk substitutes had a higher impact on the climate than breastfeeding in all countries studied. This certainly demonstrates the positive impact on the environment when the infant feeding choice is breastfeeding.(Bodkin, 2019 Meade, 2008)

The International Baby Food Action Network (IBFAN) supports optimal infant feeding practices and  advocates for universal implementation of the International Code of Marketing of Breastmilk Substitutes, an international health strategy recommending restrictions on the marketing of all formulas and supplies intended to discourage breastfeeding. In 2015 IBFAN developed their statement on breastfeeding and the environment:

“Breastfeeding protects our health and our planet – right from the start, breastfeeding is the first step towards protecting human health, short- and long-term. It is also the first step towards protecting the health of our environment and conserving our planet’s scarce natural resources. We need to start at the beginning, with infants and young children. Our babies and children are in no way responsible for climate change and environmental degradation, but instead they suffer the disastrous consequences.” (IBFAN, 2015)

 It’s clear that breastfeeding is the most climate-friendly option for infant feeding, but does the environment have an impact on breastfeeding? The answer is yes. 

For decades scientists around the world have studied the impact of environmental contaminants on the mammary gland, and on mothering behaviors. For instance, a study from the Journal of Health Science demonstrated that rats exposed to dietary bisphenol A (BPA) in early pregnancy showed cellular injury to the mammary glands as well as lower prolactin levels. (Miyaura, 2004). 

What’s more, Rochester Medical Center studies reported in Science Daily demonstrated damage to rat mammary glands to the extent that some mother rats were unable to nourish their pups after exposure to dioxins. Researchers noted that some rats were able to recover mammary function by late pregnancy. (Lawrence, 2009). 

In 2013, a study in the Journal of Neurotoxicology and Teratology showed a decrease in maternal behaviors in Wistar rats (less grooming, protection and nuzzling), a concerning finding but not yet demonstrated in humans. (Boudalia, 2013}.

Studies like these are the basis for ongoing research looking into possible negative impacts on human lactation. The studies are also the basis of much education related to how to create a safer environment while protecting lactation.  

An unpublished study from Wright State University looked at mothers with self-described low milk supply and the relationship between environmental contaminants. The 78 mothers in the study were four  weeks to eight  months postpartum and were all given education on reducing exposures to environmental estrogens (personal care products, food hormones and plasticizers). 

Results were seen in one to five weeks and ranged from the mothers stating her “breasts were fuller,” the “babies seemed more satisfied,” and fewer needed supplementation. Some found a doubling of supply (noted with pumping during work hours). Seven had no noticeable increase in milk supply, and of those only two weaned from breastfeeding. The rest continued supplementation. (Walls, presented 2009). 

In a Mexican study of young Yaqui tribe women, those who moved from native land  to new chemical based agriculture, had less alveolar tissue compared to the young women who remained with the tribe and practiced  traditional, non-chemical farming techniques. 

Many of the agri-chemical exposed young women were found to have larger than normal breasts, but less glandular tissue (referred to as “empty breast” syndrome) and many were unable to breastfeed their infants which is viewed as an integral part of mothering in their culture. (Hansen, 2010).

On the surface, these studies can seem discouraging until we really weigh the risks and benefits of breastfeeding in a polluted world. 

First, human milk contains properties that have been shown to mitigate some negative, environmental effects. (Williams, Florence, NYT) 

For instance, human milk contains bio-active components which specifically control and resolve inflammation, promote a thick, healthy gut lining to support an optimum functioning immune system and provide the most nutritious food for optimum general health for infants and children.  

Emeritus Director of the Carolina Global Breastfeeding Institute Miriam Labbok, MD, MPH, IBCLC stated “The fact that studies of child [health] outcomes in highly polluted areas are still better for the breastfed infant . . . would seem to indicate that certain factors in the production of human milk and in the milk itself, immunological and other, may mediate the potential harm of the ambient pollution.”

She went on to say, “… No environmental contaminant, except in situations of acute poisoning, has been found to cause more harm to infants than does lack of breast-feeding. I have seen no data that would argue against breastfeeding, even in the presence of today’s levels of environmental toxicants.”

Sandra Steingraber, biologist and author of Living Downstream and Having Faith: An Ecologist’s Journey to Motherhood agrees: ”We haven’t yet compromised breast milk to such an extent that it’s a worse food than infant formula…..”

The American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP) has also published that certain components of human milk act to increase the infant’s elimination of some toxins and to protect the infant’s developing brain, central nervous system, and body as a whole.

WABA’s statement  on breastfeeding and environmental contaminants echoes this sentiment and  encourages breastfeeding as the safest feeding choice despite maternal exposure to contaminants. 

Their statement reads: “Is the presence of these chemical residues in breastmilk a reason not to breastfeed? No. Exposure before and during pregnancy is a greater risk to the fetus. The existence of chemical residues in breastmilk is not a reason for limiting breastfeeding. In fact, it is a reason to breastfeed because breastmilk contains substances that help the child develop a stronger immune system and gives protection against environmental pollutants and pathogens. Breastfeeding can help limit the damage caused by fetal exposure.” (WABA, 2005.)

The World Health Organization’s (WHO) review on contaminants and human milk states definitively, “The benefits of breastfeeding far outweigh the toxicological disadvantages that are associated with certain POPs” (persistent organic pollutants). 

To reiterate, considering the safety of human milk even when contaminants have been detected, neonatal intensive care researcher Fani Anatolitou (2012) states, “the detection of any environmental chemical in breast milk does not necessarily mean that there is a serious health risk for breastfed infants. No adverse effect has been clinically or epidemiologically demonstrated as being associated solely with consumption of human milk containing background levels of environmental chemicals”. 

It is important to understand that many of the measurements of POPs in human milk are not clinically meaningful, hence are not a cause for alarm. Even more importantly, as mentioned earlier, a number of components of human milk act to counter potential risks of contaminant exposure (Anitolitou, 2012). The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) points out that effects of exposure have only been detected in a breastfeeding infant when the mother was extremely ill.

As lactation care providers we are in a unique position to not only support the optimum health of infants and children, but also be a part of creating a healthier environment for the children to grow and thrive.

For more on WBW check out this action folder by BPNI

Resources/References

American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP). (2018). Breastfeeding, Family Physicians Supporting (Position Paper). Downloaded 17. Jan. 2018 from https://www.aafp.org/about/policies/all/breastfeeding-support.html

American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), Section on Breastfeeding. (2012). Breastfeeding and the use of human milk (Policy Statement). Pediatrics 129(3), e827-e841. DOI: 10.1542/peds.2011-3552.

AMERICAN ACADEMY OF PEDIATRICS The Transfer of Drugs and Other Chemicals Into Human Milk Committee on Drugs  https://pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/108/3/776/T7

Anadón, A., Martínez-Larrañaga, M. R., Ares, I., Castellano, V., Martínez, M. A. (2017). Drugs and chemical contaminants in human breast milk. In R. C. Gupta (Ed.), Reproductive and Developmental Toxicology (2nd Ed., pp. 67-98). London, UK: Academic Press.

Anatolitou, F. (2012). Human milk benefits and breastfeeding. Journal of Pediatric and Neonatal Individualized Medicine 1(1), 11-18. DOI: 10.7363/010113.

Arnardottir,H. et al. Human milk proresolving mediators stimulate resolution of acute inflammation. Mucosal Immunology, October 2015 DOI: 10.1038/mi.2015.99

Bodkin, H. Breastfeed to save the planet, scientists say as study exposes infant formula damage to environment https://www.telegraph.co.uk/science/2019/10/02/breastfeed-save-planet-scientists-say-study-exposes-infant-formula/

Boudalia, S. et al.  A multi-generational study on low-dose BPA exposure in Wistar rats: Effects on maternal behavior, flavor intake and development. Neurotoxicol Teratol 2013                      Nov 20. pii: S08920362(13)00217-1. doi:10.1016/j.ntt.2013

Climate Change and Health June 2015 https://ibfan.org/docs/climate-change-2015-English.pdf

Dadhich, J,  Lellamo, A. Report on Carbon Footprints Due to Milk Formula: a Study from Selected Countries of the Asia-Pacific Region

BPNI/IBFAN Asia, New Delhi (2015). http://ibfan.org/docs/Carbon-Footprints-Due-to-Milk-Formula.pdf, Accessed 24th Jan 20

Eidelman AI. Environmental Impact on Maternal Breastfeeding Behavior. Breastfeed Med. 2018 Jul/Aug;13(6):397. doi: 10.1089/bfm.2018.29096.aie. Epub 2018 Jul 5.PMID: 29975551 

Goldman, A. Anti‐inflammatory Properties of Human Milk. September 1986.  https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1651-2227.1986.tb10275.x 

Hoffman K, et al. Lactational exposure to polybrominated diphenyl ethers and its relation to social and emotional development among toddlers..Environ Health Perspect. 2012 Oct;120(10):1438-42. doi: 10.1289/ehp.1205100. Epub 2012 Jul 19.PMID: 22814209 

Joffe, N. Support for breastfeeding is an environmental imperative. Oct 2, 2019. www.bmj.com › content › bmj

Karlsson, J.O. The carbon footprint of breastmilk substitutes in comparison with breastfeeding. Feb 2019. Journal of Cleaner Production. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jclepro.2019.03.043

Kowalewska-Kantecka B. Breastfeeding – an important element of health promotion. Dev Period Med. 2016;20(5):354-357.PMID: 2839125

Mead, N. Contaminants in Human Milk: Weighing the Risks against the Benefits of Breastfeeding Environ Health Perspect. 2008 Oct; 116(10): A426–A434PMCID: PMC2569122 PMID: 18941560

Murínová, P et al. Partitioning of hexachlorobenzene between human milk and blood lipid..Environ Pollut. 2017 Oct;229:994-999. doi: 10.1016/j.envpol.2017.07.087. Epub 2017 Aug 1.PMID: 28778790

Natural Resources Defense Council. 2005. Healthy Milk, Healthy Baby. Chemical Pollution and Mother’s Milk. New York, NY: National Resources Defense Council. http://www.nrdc.org/breastmilk/chems.asp

Pan IJ, Paediatr Perinat Epidemiol. 2010 May;24(3):262-71Lactational exposure to polychlorinated biphenyls, dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane, and dichlorodiphenyldichloroethylene and infant growth: an analysis of the Pregnancy, Infection, and Nutrition Babies Study. doi: 10.1111/j.1365-3016.2010.01114.x.PMID: 20415756

 Poore and Nemecek, 2018.  Reducing food’s environmental impacts through producers and consumers. Science, 360 (6392) (2018), pp. 987-992. https://doi.org/10.1126/science.aaq0216

Stigum H, et al. A novel model to characterize postnatal exposure to lipophilic environmental toxicants and application in the study of hexachlorobenzene and infant growth..Environ Int. 2015 Dec;85:156-62. doi: 10.1016/j.envint.2015.08.011. Epub 2015 Sep 19.PMID: 2639804339

Terri Hansen, Today correspondent. Pesticide exposure deprives Yaqui girls of breastfeeding – ever,  Feb 28, 2010. https://www.sej.org/headlines/pesticide-exposure-                              deprives-yaqui-girls-breastfeeding-ever

Toxic Release Inventory http://toxnet.nlm.nih.gov/cgi-bin/sis/htmlgen?TRI

Tran CD, Dodder NG, Quintana PJE, Watanabe K, Kim JH, Hovell MF, Chambers CD, Hoh E  Organic contaminants in human breast milk identified by non-targeted analysis.Chemosphere. 2020 Jan;238:124677. doi: 10.1016/j.chemosphere.2019.124677. Epub 2019 Aug 26.PMID: 31524616

United Nations Sustainable Development Goals and Breastfeeding https://www.un.org/sustainabledevelopment/blog/tag/breastfeeding/

Vermeulen, B.M. Campbell, J.S.I. Ingram. Climate change and food systems. Annu. Rev. Environ. Resour., 37 (1) (2012), pp. 195-222

WABA Towards Healthy Environments for Children Q. Frequently asked questions (FAQ) about breastfeeding in a contaminated environment https://www.waba.org.my/whatwedo/environment/pdf/faq2005_eng.pdf

A call to reinvigorate the International Code Of Marketing Of Breastmilk Substitutes

Last month marked the 39th anniversary of the World Health Organization (WHO) International Code Of Marketing Of Breastmilk Substitutes. As the World Alliance for Breastfeeding Action (WABA) reminds us,  “Following the adoption of the Code in 1981, governments have been called upon by the World Health Assembly to give effect to the provisions in the Code through national legislation. So far, UNICEF/ World Health Organization (WHO)/ #IBFAN have identified 136 countries as having Code regulations in place.”

Photo by Andre Adjahoe on Unsplash

You might know that the U.S. is not one of these nations. 

In a timely offering– when formula companies use the crises of the pandemic to prey on mothers and babies– The Network for Global Monitoring and Support for Implementation of the International Code of Marketing of Breastmilk Substitutes and subsequent relevant World Health Assembly Resolutions (#NetCode) has developed a toolkit to reinvigorate and reinforce ongoing monitoring and periodic assessment of the Code and national laws. The toolkit offers health advocates an opportunity to connect with governments to establish a sustainable system that will monitor, detect and report violations of national laws. Find it here: https://waba.org.my/netcode-toolkit-for-ongoing-monitoring-and-periodic-assessment-of-the-code/?fbclid=IwAR2PzeROMctrsCJ3ZiG8gah07IXQMhI-3eSn6EqLDhV3-TdGhhmk-IxDzt4

“Formula manufacturers are exploiting the panic and fears of contagion to intensify their aggressive marketing practices,” Patti Rundall writes in the Baby Milk Action policy blog. “In this context, government action to regulate the marketing of breast-milk substitutes has never been greater.”

On May 28, the World Health Organization (WHO), UNICEF, and the International Baby Food Action Network (IBFAN) launched the virtual 2020 Status Report which highlights which countries have implemented measures required by the Code. [The official launch event can be viewed here.]

Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

“Given the important role of health workers in protecting pregnant women, mothers and their infants from inappropriate promotion of breast-milk substitutes, the 2020 report provides an extensive analysis of legal measures taken to prohibit promotion to health workers and in health facilities,” Thahira Shireen Mustafa, Department of Nutrition and Food Safety, writes. 

In the U.S. in late March, Baby-Friendly USA released a statement detailing access to adequate nutrition for babies born during the Covid-19 crisis with an announcement explaining that BFUSA  would relax one standard regarding the provision of small quantities of formula upon discharge to formula feeding families in communities experiencing shortages in retail outlets. 

“We did so to ensure that formula feeding families receive essential support during this global emergency,” BFUSA CEO Trish MacEnroe writes. “We did NOT loosen restrictions on interactions with formula companies.”

MacEnroe goes on to write, “Regrettably, some formula companies have interpreted our statement as a window of opportunity to reengage their aggressive marketing tactics with Baby-Friendly designated hospitals… 

“We at BFUSA are appalled that these companies would use the pandemic as an ‘opportunity’ to advance their business interests under the guise of an intent to support facilities during this difficult time.

So, please let us be perfectly clear: Our standards are still our standards. We have not ‘loosened’ our guidelines and we still expect Baby-Friendly designated facilities to shield health care workers, mothers and families from commercial influence, as outlined in the International Code of Marketing Breast-Milk Substitutes.”

Photo by Luiza Braun on Unsplash

In other parts of the world too, companies exploit the Covid-19 crisis. Baby Milk Action documents how one company violates Indian Law with their YouTube channel. Keep scrolling and scrolling and scrolling on Baby Milk Action’s page and you’ll find offense after offense after offense documented in multiple countries. 

In response, there are several documents cited offering guidance on how to navigate avoiding partnerships with these corporations.  Find them here

On an individual level, this is a great time to remind Certified Lactation Counselors (CLCs) of our Code of Ethics which states we must “Abide by the International Code of Marketing of Breast-Milk Substitutes and subsequent resolutions which pertain to health workers.”

How to support world’s coordinating authority in setting global health norms

I have a friend who describes her experience wading through the pandemic as paralyzing. 

Photo by The New York Public Library on Unsplash

In the first few weeks of the social distancing orders, she says she found herself just standing there at times, staring off into the distance with an utter sense of loss. 

It’s a familiar feeling. Even with so much to be grateful for, there’s static that surrounds us– a heaviness that lingers around the edges, as my friend puts it. 

“It’s a pretty big presence to try to push away with positivity right now,” she counseled me. 

Amidst the stillness, what sometimes feels like paralyzation, there are actions taken, decisions made– like President Trump’s decision to halt funding to the World Health Organization (WHO) during a global pandemic— with sweeping consequences. 

Trump’s plan to defund WHO has been met with mobilization by the International Baby Food Action Network (IBFAN) and partner civil society organizations who are  joining forces to support WHO. You can read IBFAN’s full statement of support to WHO from April 11 here

Patti Rundall is the Policy Director Baby Milk Action, Global Advocacy IBFAN.  

“We have been one of the most outspoken NGOs, calling for WHO to adopt a sound conflict of interest policy to safeguard its independence and resist the unjustified influence of powerful interests, be they commercial or political,” she writes in an email to Our Milky Way.  “…All our criticisms are focused on supporting WHO in its unique role as the world’s coordinating authority in setting global health norms.” 

Specifically, WHO “is absolutely critical to the world’s efforts to win the war against COVID-19,” as U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres declares in a UN News story

Guterres goes on to say in that piece that it is “not the time to reduce the resources for the operations of the World Health Organization or any other humanitarian organization in the fight against the virus.”

Bill Gates on Twitter writes: “Halting funding for the World Health Organization during a world health crisis is as dangerous as it sounds. Their work is slowing the spread of COVID-19 and if that work is stopped no other organization can replace them. The world needs @WHO now more than ever.” The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s voluntary contribution to WHO is second to the U.S.’s assessed and voluntary contributions. [More here.] 

Rundall adds: “WHO is needed to guide not only country responses to COVID-19 but also the host of other global threats that we face – not least global heating, new viruses, antimicrobial resistance and non-communicable diseases.” 

Rundall explains that “the U.S. is not the only nation to lobby against the much needed increases of Member States assessed contributions, but it is one of the most powerful.”

“For goodness sake, WHO’s total annual budget of $2.5bn is about the same as the budget of a large US hospital,” she puts the money into perspective.  

Even without defunding, WHO is already underfunded

Even as many of us are feeling debilitated to some degree, Rundall offers suggestions on how to take action for good. 

“We hope that US citizens– and especially anyone working in infant and young child health– will remember the critically important role that WHO has had in child survival,” she begins. “and do everything they can: write to politicians, media, social media, friends  and distance themselves from President Trump’s statements about health.”  [Link added.] 

Rundall directs us to the Society for International Development’s stance on Trump’s move which reiterates the G2H2 statement as well as an open letter of support to WHO and Dr. Tedros Adhanom Gebrheyesus in BMJ

Visit Rundall’s frequently updated policy blog here