Glints of hope and control in a burning world

As I gathered my thoughts for an Earth Month and infant feeding installment, I got an email notification that Valerie McClain had published something new on her Substack. Of course I hurried over, because her pieces are always illuminating. She writes in Standing on the Precipice:  “We are self-destructing on our Mother Earth, and she may be the last woman standing amidst the rubble and miles of corpses.”

Photo by Tatiana Syrikova: https://www.pexels.com/photo/anonymous-little-kid-touching-tree-with-hand-3932861/

In all of the pieces and years past that we have covered the connections between infant feeding and planetary health, it never actually occurred to me that there might be a scenario where Mother Earth outlives us. This will surely strike some of you as naive, absurd, delusional, or something else considering what has happened and continues to happen on our planet. Even so, I envisioned humans dying alongside our planet, our self-destruction agonizing and inevitable, as we claw, infect, and deplete Mother Earth with our beastly antics, taking down the innocent in our path to complete decimation. 

On a recent trip to The Museum of Modern Art, I was shaken out of this sense of Doom and flurry of eco-emotions. Victor Grippo’s lead containers with beans first spoke to me, metaphors “for the force and persistence of life”. This display coupled with Niki de Saint Phalle’s phrase “What is now known was once only imagined” infused me with a little glint of hope that I’ve been craving. 

Then on a Throughline episode about consumer protections and trust in and accountability from companies and elected leaders, I heard the voice of Ralph Nader. He offered: Cynicism is “a cop-out. That’s an indulgence. That’s an indulgence of quitters that makes them feel good. Because when you’re cynical, you’re obviously smart, aren’t you? You think you’re smart. No, you’re not smart. You’re playing into the hands of the corporate supremacists. You’re playing into the hands of the few who want to control the many who could easily outvote the few and make the corporations our servants, not our masters.” This offered me a shift in perspective too.

Source: https://www.gifa.org/en/international-2/green-feeding/

Among the hopeful is coverage of the Green Feeding Tool by Kristi Eaton. Eaton quotes Julie Smith, co-creator of the tool: “…with the Green Feeding Tool—designed to provide policymakers, climate scientists, advocates and others with clear data about how increasing support for breastfeeding can help save the planet—we have the evidence to support action.”

Now, consider this headline: Breast milk can expose babies to toxic ‘forever chemicals’

“For decades, physicians and scientists have touted breast milk as liquid gold for its immunological benefits.

But nursing parents with considerable exposure to cancer-linked ‘forever chemicals,’ or PFAS, may unwittingly be exposing their babies to these compounds as well…” the author begins. 

The article acknowledges contaminated water could be a potential source of PFAS which infant formula is often mixed with. The author also includes that “the benefits of nursing likely outweigh the potential risk of PFAS exposure through breast milk.” [Note the language used here. There are generally no benefits to breastfeeding. Instead, there are risks associated with not breastfeeding.] 

Nikki Lee asks some important questions: “Why doesn’t formula get tested for these chemicals?  Do folks believe that somehow cows are protected against pollution?”

As with anything, there will be risks associated with any variation of infant feeding. 

Healthy Children Project’s Karin Cadwell points out that if toxins are being detected in human milk, it means we need to reconsider the products being used in industry.

Photo by willsantt: https://www.pexels.com/photo/woman-breastfeeding-her-toddler-under-the-tree-2714618/

The author of Study Finds High Levels of Toxic Chemicals in Mothers’ Breast Milk quotes Erika Schreder, science director at Toxic-Free Future who shares a similar sentiment: “’If we want to make pregnancy and breastfeeding safe and free from PFAS, we really need to eliminate the use of these chemicals and products, so that we can have clean food, clean air, and clean water… We really don’t believe that responsibility should be placed on individuals when we need regulations to end the use of these chemicals.’”

In the predicament(s) we find ourselves in, I’d like to leave you with a few more of McClain’s words: “A mother cannot control events such as: wars, sieges, shortages of infant formula and pitocin, fires, floods, hurricanes, tornadoes; but she has a semblance of control in her and her baby’s world through breastfeeding. Dependency on always having access to infant formula, health care, freedom from human or environmental violence, should be tempered with the reality that there may be times, when all the civility of life vanishes.” 

More for Earth Month 

Industry lies and the Code

Infant feeding and planetary health go hand in hand 

Breastfeeding is eco-friendly 

Goats and Soda’s How do you keep calm and carry on in a world full of crises?



Infant feeding and planetary health go hand in hand

I recently woke up to a headline with the words “climate” and “hope” strung together. As author Jeff Brady points out, it’s “…something you don’t hear much when it comes to climate change: hope.” 

Brady goes on to illuminate a recent International Energy Agency (IEA) report that shows “countries are setting records in deploying climate-friendly technologies…” 

There’s more: “While greenhouse gas emissions keep rising, the IEA finds that there’s still a path to reaching net-zero emissions by 2050 and limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, or 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit. That’s what’s needed to avoid the worst effects of climate change, such as catastrophic flooding and deadly heatwaves,” he writes.

Photo by Mika Baumeister on Unsplash

It’s hard to imagine that we’re in a place where there’s still the potential for “the worst effects.” Are we not already there? 

Not long ago, when extreme weather occurred, we were told it wasn’t possible to link specific events to the climate crisis. Now though, scientists have figured out a model to represent how the climate crisis produces specific weather events like hurricanes and extreme heat.

Extreme weather events and other disasters and emergencies will continue to occur, so it’s imperative that we develop infant and young child feeding in emergencies (IYCF-E) preparedness in the U.S., something we are seriously bad at.  

Jennifer Russell’s, MSN, RN, IBCLC, NHDP-BC, Ph.D. Candidate in Nursing Science from the University of Tennessee Health Science Center co-authored Domestic Preparedness Journal article “Challenges with pediatric mass care feeding,”(p 27-31) details the importance of and how state, local, tribal, and territorial organizations’ (SLTTs) can “safely, effectively, equitably, and quickly provide pediatric feeding support” in emergencies. 

Namely, the authors state: “SLTTs must estimate and plan for the logistical distribution and cost of breastfeeding and re-lactation supplies along with safe alternatives to mothers’ breastmilk and other pediatric feeding items.” The authors bust some common misconceptions about emergency response and offer ways in which we can improve existing guidance. 

Photo by Dave Clubb on Unsplash

In her most recent guest post on Our Milky Way, “Nourishing Children and the Planet”,  Healthy Children Project’s Donna Walls considers the critical weather events of late and highlights the urgency of education, legislation and action.

Walls points out that lactation care providers (LCPs) and health advocates can and should take a leading role in the fight for the health of our planet.  LCPs are important actors within the greater need for national-level policy development, and LCPs’ work helps to mitigate the more grandiose challenges of the climate crisis.  

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The first best food for infants is mother’s own milk. We all know about the benefits for mothers and babies, but we don’t often discuss the benefits for the health of the planet.

https://www.gifa.org/en/international-2/green-feeding/

This is a win-win situation. By providing our infants and children with cleaner, “greener” foods, we also create a cleaner, safer environment for our families, our communities and the world. 

By contrast, commercial milk formulas (CMFs) are harmful to the planet because they require procurement of ingredients and manufacturing and transport of the product. All of these processes use resources and contribute to the increasing burden of greenhouse emissions. Read Powdered Baby Formula Sold in North America: Assessing the Environmental Impact for a detailed look at the environmental and Greenhouse Gas impact of powdered baby formula, which as the authors note, “should be considered when developing and funding infant and young child feeding policies and supportive programs.”

Water resources are scarce in many countries around the world, and yet “about 5000 litres of water are used for every kilogram of milk powder, including producing the milk, then processing the powdered milk, preparing the feeds, and sterilising feeding equipment.” (Linnecar, van Esterik, 2023).  Unnecessary use of precious water resources threatens the very survival of children across the globe.

It’s true that “the few extra litres of water required by a breastfeeding mother are negligible compared to the amounts of water for formula production and preparation.” (Linnecar, van Esterik, 2023

Destruction of natural resources, such as the rainforest for harvesting ingredients as well as ever-mounting pollution from plastics is creating a negative impact on the environment ultimately contributing to rapid climate change. 

By supporting breastfeeding families,  LCPs can be the first line of defense by reducing pollution and minimizing the powerful effects of the climate crisis. Breastfeeding  is, without doubt, the cleanest, “greenest” form of infant nutrition. 

Ultra processed foods (UPFs) impact on  health

What’s more, we have evidence that breastfed infants consume less ultra processed foods (UPFs) as they get older (Paharia, 2023). 

UPFs not only strain our resources but have been shown to increase rates of type 2 diabetes, obesity, hypertension, cardiovascular disease and dementia further straining resources as communities struggle to care for sick individuals. Shockingly, research shows “67% of children’s calories come from empty ultra processed foods” in the U.S. (Berg, 2022).

Food additives– “any substance not normally consumed as the food itself and not normally used as a typical ingredient of the food, whether or not it has nutritive value” (FAO, Codex Alimentarius, 2021)– frequently found in UPFs, present a myriad of concerns including central nervous system disruptions, hyperactivity or other behavioral or neurological issues in children. (Health Effects Assessment: Potential Neurobehavioral Effects of Synthetic Food Dyes in Children, 2021

Predatory marketing lulls families into believing that these convenient food sources are not harmful. Information and research about the toxicities and harm is usually assigned to the small print or not disclosed at all. 

The Environmental Working Group (EWG) has published information on several food additives that are especially troubling. These include:

  • Nitrates and nitrites- meat preservatives  linked to stomach cancer, esophageal cancer, and possibly brain and thyroid cancers
  • Propyl paraben- a preservative in pastries shown to cause developmental and reproductive harm.
  • Food dyes (especially red and yellow dyes) linked to cancers
  • Potassium bromate- carcinogen found in baked goods
  • BHT and BHA- preservatives in foods are possible carcinogens
  • Titanium dioxide- color additive implicated in DNA damage
  • PFAS- known as forever chemicals used in food packaging which has been shown to leach into foods. These are known to increase the risk of cancer, damage to the immune system and hormone disruption. 
Food additives’ impact on environmental health 

According to Lempart-Rapacewicz, et al, the latest literature classifies food additives as one of the groups of so-called Contaminants of Emerging Concern (CECs), defined by the United States Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA) and United States Geological Survey (USGS).

These chemicals are not naturally occurring, and so require manufacturing resources ie; water, energy, systems for disposal of by-products and waste and packaging materials, to either develop or alter the final product.  Pollution of our air and water are well documented consequences of this type of manufacturing. 

These  substances are also found in sewage where current processes are unable to remove them from the systems, leading to concerns of the micropollutants in the ground and water tables. 

Additives such as ascorbic acid might sound harmless, but when found in large quantities,  alters the pH of water and soil, affecting the basic growing medium for plants and crops. Ongoing research investigates the long-term consequences on plant and crop properties and the effects on biodiversity. Some studies have found mutagenic and teratogenic effects on fish and aquatic vegetation after exposure to food additives. ( Lempart-Rapacewicz, et al, 2023)

Plastic ingestion

Infants and children can be especially susceptible to  exposure to micro or nano plastics–plastics so small they are measured in micrometers or nanometers (microplastics are plastic particles under 5 millimeters in size, and nanoplastics are under 0.001 millimeters in size). They’ve been detected in many of the foods we eat,  in the air we breathe and the water we drink. Micro and nanoplastics are absorbed into our bodies through food packaging or in infants and children through feeding bottles and teats, baby food containers and pouches. Significantly more particles are released when the food containers are heated in the microwave (Hussain, et al, 2023).

Photo by Zeesy Grossbaum on Unsplash

The health effects of ingesting plastics are not completely understood yet, but early research implicates micro and nano plastics in imbalances in the microbiome, altered lipid metabolism, reproductive system, brain and lung dysfunctions. 

More on environmental degradation

In 1962,  Rachel Carson wrote the groundbreaking book Silent Spring, sounding the alarm about the use of pesticides and herbicides. Concerningly, as a nation, we have yet to heed her warnings. 

Use of these powerful chemicals is negatively impacting plants by causing them to produce less phytonutrients– the vitamins and minerals we need to stay healthy. 

Scientists are finding “dead zones” in bodies of water, areas that are so polluted they can no longer sustain aquatic animals and plants on account of run off of these toxins. Disruptions in the ecosystems have led to the rapidly changing climate and instability of our weather patterns.

Since the publishing of Carson’s book, micro and nano plastics have been found to inhibit the growth of healthy microbiota in aquatic animals and have also been shown to obstruct the digestive system of marine organisms such as mussels and oysters. 

Scientists note increasing contamination of agricultural soils with these particles, reducing plant growth and overall productivity (Amboyne, et al, 2021). Soil contamination negatively affects inhabitants such as earthworms and nematodes resulting in changes in the soil microbiome.

Learning to live in balance
Photo by Derek Owens on Unsplash

On an individual level, tackling the catastrophic challenges spurred by the way we produce and consume food, is insurmountable and requires system-level action;  however, there are resources for families to consult when working to make the healthiest choices for their families. Beyond breastfeeding,  families can check out theEWG’s  “Dirty Dozen” and “Clean 15” listing of foods to find the most budget-friendly way to provide cleaner, organic foods. There is no question that organic foods are the healthiest. 

When we learn to live in balance with the natural world, the health of both flourishes.  It can sometimes seem an uphill battle to create a cleaner, greener world but as individuals, and collectively, it is our privilege and responsibility to do whatever we can. One person at a time, one family at a time, one community at a time. One of my life-long favorite quotes is from Margaret Mead, and it is as important now as when she wrote it in 1978: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed it is the only thing that ever has”. This seems to be the time for those committed to caring for mothers and babies to also commit to caring for Mother Earth as well.

More resources to consult

Global Nutrition Report 

Green Feeding Tool

IBFAN’s Health and Environmental Impacts

Report on CARBON FOOTPRINT DUE TO MILK FORMULA: A study from selected countries of the Asia-Pacific region

Register to attend  Infant and Young Child Feeding in Emergencies: Preparedness Systems for Communities to Keep Our Babies Safe webinar hosted by U.S. Breastfeeding Committee (USBC) and the National Association of County and City Health Officials (NACCHO) on November 1 from 2:00 – 3:30 pm ET. The session will provide an overview of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) infant and young child feeding in emergencies (IYCF-E) toolkit, share current research exploring personal experiences and disaster-related factors that influence breastfeeding, describe how NACCHO has supported communities in emergency preparedness for maternal and child population.



Breastfeeding is eco-friendly.

–This post is part of our 10-year anniversary series “Breastfeeding is…”

Breastfeeding is eco-friendly.

Planetary protection has never been more crucial, and the undeniable relationship between planetary health and human health has never been more evident.

In November 2022, world leaders, policy-makers and delegates from nearly 200 countries attended the COP27 UN climate summit, held in Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt.

Fabrication of Bodies Joined by a Molecule of Air(2022), by Invisible Flock and Jon Bausor, manufactured by MDM Props Limited in Lebanon, represented by Architect & Engineer Karim Attoui. ©Courtesy of Invisible Flock. https://invisibleflock.com/portfolio/bodies-joined/

Presenters made poignant remarks about the climate crisis we find ourselves in.

“We are on a highway to climate hell with our foot on the accelerator,” António Guterres, Secretary-General of the United Nations said.

Sherry Rehman, Minister of Climate Change, Pakistan argued that  “The dystopia has already come to our doorstep …”

Mark Brown, Prime Minister of the Cook Islands, shared, “Our survival is being held to ransom at the cost of profit and an unwillingness to act despite the ability to do so.”

On Decarbonization Day of the summit, Dr. Abla Al Alfy convened a panel of speakers who presented on the importance of the 1,000 Golden Days and the relationship between the climate crisis and mother baby health. [You can access the United Nations Egypt’s recording here which starts at 19 minutes in.]

Dr. Nevein Dous, UNICEF health specialist, covered infant mortality rates, micronutrient deficiencies, mental health challenges, among other global health challenges and called for the integration of services rather than siloing health strategies.

WHO

Frederika Meijer with UNFPA Egypt highlighted UNFPA’s work confronting medical violence and reducing the country’s cesarean section rate which soars over 60 percent.

Meijer brought light to the need to create resilient health systems that will withstand the inevitable shocks of the climate crisis.  She noted the important role skilled midwives play in the reduction of unnecessary c-sections, giving way to the work of Dr. Kawther Mahmoud, President of the Nurses Syndicate, Assistant Undersecretary for Nursing and head of the Central Department for Nursing in Egypt, who helps lead the national plan for the midwife.

Many presenters emphasized the importance of family planning counseling and the environmental and health implications of pregnancy spacing.

Dr. Naeema Al-Gasseer’s remarks drew attention to a recent WHO report which states that “Almost the entire global population (99%) breathes air that exceeds WHO air quality limits, and threatens their health.”

Dr. Camilla Kingdon, President of the Royal College of Pediatrics and Child Health, further described that 26 percent of child deaths under 5 years of age have an element of environmental cause like heat waves, water scarcity, vector-borne diseases and flooding. UNICEF has identified that air pollution will be the leading cause of death for children by 2050, she shared. Additionally, there is a clear link between air pollution and miscarriage. Dr. Kingdon went on to describe the prevalence of visible air pollution particles on the placenta.

WHO

In connection to these harrowing accounts, Healthy Children Project’s Dr. Karin Cadwell presented research on the environmental impact of powdered baby formula milks in North America. Read about that work here.

Healthy Children Project’s Dr. Kajsa Brimdyr acknowledged the mess we are in and noted how many solutions that may contribute to planetary and population health are expensive and complex. Skin-to-skin contact (SSC) in the first hour after birth though, is simple and easy, inexpensive, is appropriate for all dyads, and touts priceless benefits.

Brimdyr noted just some of the benefits: SSC in the first hour after birth decreases infant mortality by 25 percent in low birth weight (LBW) infants, decreases transfers to the NICU,  decreases maternal stress and depression, improves paternal parental stress, and allows baby to self attach to the breast improving maternal confidence in breastfeeding and increasing breastfeeding rates overall.

The effects of SSC in the first hour extend far beyond the first hours, the first days and first weeks of life. Feldman et al. (2014) followed mothers and their premature infants who had been in SSC and control groups for 10 years. They found that children who had been in the SSC group had better cognitive development, better autonomic nervous system functioning, and mother–child interactions were more reciprocal 10 years later.

Photo credit: United States Breastfeeding Committee

Silke Mader of the European Foundation for the Care of Newborn Infants (EFCNI) and her colleagues are fighting for SSC and breastfeeding support for all dyads. Mader calls for a zero separation policy which is supported by evidence even in the context of the pandemic, she reported. Mader added that fathers and partners are not second-class citizens and should be included in the policies that help shape proper parent infant bonding.

As the climate emergency becomes more and more bleak, breastfeeding is a safeguard for infant and young child health. Read our coverage on infant and young child feeding in emergencies (IYCF-E)  in Prioritizing infant and young child feeding in emergencies during National Preparedness Month and beyond and National Preparedness Month: the U.S.’s deficit in Infant and Young Child Feeding preparedness during emergencies.

COP27 held the first-ever Youth-led Climate Forum ensuring that young people have a place in the conversation about the climate crisis. More on that here.

 

More resources to explore  

RCPCH Climate Change Working Group

Baby Milk Action’s coverage on COP27

Breastfeeding can help tackle climate crisis but it’s on governments, not mums to save the world

The climate crisis is a health crisis short video

 

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As part of our celebration, we are giving away an online learning module with contact hours each week. Here’s how to enter into the drawings:

Email info@ourmilkyway.org with your name and “OMW is 10” in the subject line.

This week, in the body of the email, tell us: Where have you seen predatory marketing of breastmilk substitutes?

Subsequent weeks will have a different prompt in the blog post.

We will conduct a new drawing each week over the 10-week period.  Please email separately each week to be entered in the drawing. You may only win once. If your name is drawn, we will email a link with access to the learning module. The winner of the final week will score a grand finale swag bag.