Breastfeeding and environmental pollutants

Breastfeeding and environmental pollutants

Every so often, the topic of breastfeeding and environmental pollutants comes up in the media. Unfortunately, many media reports tend to sensationalise this issue, thus undermining the value of breastfeeding and worrying parents needlessly.

How are environmental pollutant levels tested?

There are various ways to test for levels of pollutants in the human body (eg urine, blood, hair and breastmilk). However, breastmilk most often comes up in media reports, because it is easy to measure and painless to obtain. Any substances found in breastmilk because of this testing are a reflection of the exposure of environmental pollutants in women of reproductive age living in a particular study area and not a statement about breastfeeding.

Breastfeeding is the safe and normal way to feed babies

Breastfeeding mothers need to know that they are providing safe and effective nutrition for their baby. Breastfeeding is the normal way to feed babies. Not breastfeeding because of environmental pollutants poses needless health risks to a baby.

Breastmilk provides babies with a defence against environmental pollutants

Breastmilk provides a baby with the best defence against environmental pollutants. Breastmilk contains immune protective factors which can lessen the effects of environmental pollutants that a baby is exposed to.1

What the World Health Organization (WHO) says

The WHO states that: The advantages of breastfeeding far outweigh the potential risks from environmental pollutants. Taking into account breastfeeding's short- and long-term health benefits for infants and mothers, WHO recommends breastfeeding in all but extreme circumstances.2

When is a baby most at risk from environmental pollutants?

The greater impact of environmental pollutants on a baby is while they are inside their mother’s womb during pregnancy, not when being breastfed. It is during the vital stages of development inside a mother’s womb that environmental pollutants can be most damaging. After birth, breastfeeding is the best protection that a baby has for normal growth and development. Breastfeeding can help limit the damage caused by foetal exposure.3,4

How to limit exposure to environmental pollutants5

In order to reduce the exposure of you and your baby to environmental pollutants, the following suggestions may be helpful:

  • breastfeed
  • avoid smoking cigarettes and drinking alcohol
  • avoid pesticides and lead-based paints
  • reduce intake of animal fats
  • increase intake of grains, fruits and vegetables
  • wash and peel fruits and vegetables to help eliminate pesticide residues
  • avoid swordfish and shark or freshwater fish from waters reported by local health agencies as contaminated
  • limit exposure to common chemicals (eg solvents found in paints, non-water based glues, furniture strippers, nail polish and gasoline fumes)
  • limit exposure to dry-cleaned garments. Remove the plastic cover of dry-cleaned clothing, and air out the garments in a room with open windows for 12–24 hours
  • avoid contact with smoke and ash, preserved wood, or produce grown near incinerators
  • avoid occupational exposure to chemical contaminants
  • avoid bringing contaminant residue into the home.


In a world exposed to many environmental pollutants, the advantages of breastfeeding far outweigh any risk of ingesting possible environmental pollutants. Focus needs be directed toward removing, or at least reducing, environmental pollutants from the world we live in while recognising that breastmilk is the normal and optimal way to feed babies.

For further information

International Lactation Consultant Association (ILCA) 2003, Breastfeeding, Breast Milk, and Environmental Contaminants. URL: Accessed 3/3/2012.

Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) 2001, Healthy Milk, Healthy Baby: Chemical Pollution and Mother's Milk. URL: Accessed 3/3/2012.

World Alliance for Breastfeeding Action 2003, Towards Healthy Environments for Children: Frequently asked questions about breastfeeding in a contaminated environment. URL: Accessed 3/3/2012

World Alliancefor Breastfeeding Action 2003, Working Together for a Toxic-Free Future. URL: Accessed 3/3/2012


  1. World Alliance for Breastfeeding Action 2003, Towards Healthy Environments for Children: Frequently asked questions about breastfeeding in a contaminated environment. URL: Accessed 3/3/2012.
  2. World Health Organization, Safe food: Crucial for child development. URL: Accessed 3/3/2012.
  3. Lunder S, Sharp R et al 2003, Study Finds Record High Levels of Toxic Fire Retardants in Breast Milk from American Mothers, Environmental Working Group.
  4. Bauchneer E 2003, Environmental Contaminants and Human Milk, Leaven 39(6): 123-25. URL: Accessed 3/3/2012

© Australian Breastfeeding Association March 2012