Recently, researchers from Indiana University, the University of Washington's Seattle Children's Research Institute and Toxic-Free Future studied the breast milk of 50 first-time moms in the area of Seattle, Washington. In the first study in 15 years to analyze per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) in breast milk, the study detected significant levels of these pervasive and persistent chemicals above those considered safe for drinking water.
The breast milk was analyzed for 39 PFAS and researchers found 16 of them in 4% to 100% of the samples. The researchers' findings were peer-reviewed and published in the American Chemical Society's May 2021 edition of Environmental Science & Technology.
PFAS are a result of mid-century innovation between oil and gas companies and the chemical industry.
Made from petroleum byproducts, PFAS have been used over the decades in many consumer goods, from nonstick pans and plastic bags and bottles, to stain protection on furniture and flame retardant in clothing. They can also be found in fast-food wrappers, cosmetics, shampoos, body lotions—even dental floss.
PFAS are called "forever chemicals" because they last, literally, forever (looking at you, Teflon) due to their strong chemical bonds that do not break down in the environment or the human body. In fact, PFAS are present at some level in the blood of almost 99% of Americans. Exposure to PFAS can build up in the human body over decades and can cause cancer, liver toxicity and reduced birth rates. PFAS can also mimic hormones like estrogen and testosterone, which can affect fertility rates and developing babies in utero. In a 2017 meta-study, Dr. Shanna Swan and her colleagues at The Hebrew University/Mount Sinai indicate that PFAS are a leading cause of the decline in male infertility.
More research and legislation around PFAS are needed
More good news is that in the past few years, legislation has been introduced in Congress to declare PFAS chemicals as hazardous substances under environmental protection laws so that they are eligible for cleanup funds under the Superfund Act. Another bill has been introduced that would provide the U.S. Geological Survey with funding to develop new ways to detect PFAS and to conduct testing.
Breastfeeding is still recommended
The advantages of breastfeeding still outweigh the risks that PFAS pose to babies. "Definitely, the evidence still shows that [breastfeeding has] so many benefits," said Dr. Sheela Sathyanarayana, a co-author of the study and professor at the University of Washington Medical Center whose research focuses on pediatric environmental health, as reported by The Seattle Times.
Here are 10 ways to lessen your PFAS load:
- To remove a substantial amount of residue, wash your hands before eating and avoid scented and antibacterial soaps, which can contain PFAS chemicals.
- Leave your shoes at the door to avoid tracking chemicals inside.
- Dust and vacuum often and open your windows to air out any toxic chemicals that accumulate in your home.
- Avoid using cleaning products with fragrances—a hidden source of PFAS.
- Buy PFAS-free labeled cosmetics, shampoos, and other self-care products.
- Use glass and stainless steel food storage whenever possible and never warm up food in plastic containers.
- Aim to avoid buying canned foods that are more acidic, such as canned tomatoes, which often have PFAS used in the linings.
- Filter your tap water—PFAS are present in varying amounts in drinking water.
- Don't buy items labeled stain-resistant or water-repellant.
- Avoid nonstick cookware, or keep the heat below 400° F and toss out a pan if it's scratched or chipped.
It's hard to imagine a world without all the conveniences that plastics and their derivatives provide us. And it can feel like we are surrounded by objects chock full of them—because we are. So it's good to be aware of the concerns surrounding PFAS in order to avoid them when possible and reduce your overall exposure in ways that will have the most significant impact.
Levine H, Jørgensen N, et al., Temporal trends in sperm count: a systematic review and meta-regression analysis, Human Reproduction Update, Volume 23, Issue 6, November-December 2017, Pages 646–659, doi:10.1093/humupd/dmx022
Zheng G, Schreder E, et al., Per- and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances (PFAS) in breast milk: concerning trends for current-use PFAS, Environ. Sci. Technol. 2021, 55, 11, 7510–7520, doi:10.1021/acs.est.0c06978