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Breastfeeding most definitely

20/2005, 20.06.2005

Chemical residues in breast milk do not in any way detract from its value

Breast milk is the best, most practical and cheapest food for newborn babies. Breastfed infants are less prone to infections in the first 12 months and to obesity in later life. Breastfeeding also seems to have a positive effect on the risk of allergies. Besides the infant’s health, breastfeeding also promotes the mother’s health. Because breastfeeding uses up energy, mothers lose weight more easily after giving birth.  All the same, the emotional component is just as important as the physical one. Breastfeeding enhances the wellbeing of both mother and baby. The National Committee for the Promotion of Breastfeeding within BfR, therefore, advocates that mothers should exclusively breastfeed their babies for six months if possible. “The fact that a wide spectrum of chemicals has been found in breast milk should not deter any mother from breastfeeding”, recommends the Head of the National Breastfeeding Commission, Professor Hildegard Przyrembel. “The levels of many chemicals are falling. According to all the information available today, they do not constitute a risk for the breastfed infant.”

Breast milk is also an ideal bioindicator for the burden on the environment. This applies in particular to substances which tend to accumulate in fat-containing media. Many substances, that mothers come into contact with, are found in breast milk, too. They include alcohol, nicotine or caffeine as well as substances from the environment. There can and never will be “chemical”-free breast milk because all products, air, soil and food contain chemicals. The bioindicator function of breast milk does, however, offer a unique opportunity to test the current exposure situation and to intervene whenever this is necessary to protect health. Already in the mid-1980s the federal states, therefore, systematically started tests on breast milk and still carry out this programme today. Anxious mothers who come into contact with chemicals on a large scale can contact the test authorities of the federal states to find out more about the conditions for participation in a test programme.

Analyses of breast milk show that the trends for many chemicals have been on a downward spiral for more than 15 years. For instance, the burden with dioxins and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) has fallen markedly – evidence that emission-reducing measures and bans on use have had an impact. With the development of more sensitive analytical methods and the widespread use of new chemicals, the spectrum of substances that can be detected in breast milk has changed. Brominated flame retardants agents are just one example. They reduce the flammability of combustible materials and are mainly used in the electrical industry, in wood and wood materials, plastics and textiles. Polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs) are mainly to be found in TV sets and computers. They are stable, fat-soluble compounds which are not readily degradable and which accumulate in the environment. They have been detected in air, soil, water and products of animal origin. These brominated flame retardants are not considered to be highly toxic substances. However, at the high doses tested in animal experiments, neurotoxic effects were observed. It is not yet clear whether flame retardants trigger cancer. This is reason enough to subject them to more comprehensive scientific tests in order to prevent them from developing into a risk for breastfeeding mothers and their babies. 

In 2002 the Federal Institute for Risk Assessment, together with the Federal Environmental Agency, therefore started a study on the incidence of brominated flame retardants in breast milk. It was financed by the Federal Ministry for the Environment, Nature Conservation and Nuclear Safety and conducted in conjunction with the Action Programme Environment and Health. The results show that flame retardants are indeed to be found in the mother’s blood and in breast milk. One of the main intake routes are foods of animal origin. The amounts taken up by the infant from breast milk are, however, tens of thousands times below the doses which still failed to trigger any harmful effects in animal experiments. Hence, according to the current level of scientific knowledge they do not constitute a risk to health. Nevertheless, the levels of flame retardants should be reduced whenever possible.

What applies to flame retardants, applies equally to other foreign substances. In principle, the National Breastfeeding Committee calls for the incidence of foreign substances in breast milk to be reduced as far as possible by suitable measures. One effective step would be to strengthen the consumer protection dimension to the new European chemicals legislation, REACH. BfR, therefore, calls for the relevant parts of the proposal for a regulation to be amended immediately along those lines. On 23 and 24 June 2005, the Institute is to put forward its position for public discussion during the BfR Forum Consumer Protection.

The final report “Residues of flame retardants in breast milk in Germany with special consideration of polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs)” will soon be available in PDF format (in German) on the website of the “Action Programme Environment and Health” on

Further information on the REACH event can be found on the BfR homepage (