Breast is best, or so the saying goes. But is that really the case when you factor in newly-discovered risks? Microplastics in water supplies have been a long-standing concern, but a recent study finding them in human breast milk raises even more alarm. Due to the prevalence of plastic in every corner of the earth, this new discovery may have a significant impact on breastfeeding moving forward.
According to the EPA, in the U.S. alone in 2018, 35.7 million tons of plastic was produced, resulting in startling numbers of plastic waste. Water bottles, food containers, cosmetics, as well as microfibers from textiles and clothing (just 2.5 million tons, or less than 15% of textile waste was recycled in 2018), can all produce tiny plastic particles. Microplastics can also leach from the breakdown of larger plastics.
Now that scientists have discovered traces of microplastics in human breast milk, there seems to be even more cause for concern.
Although no epidemiological studies in a large group of people have yet shown that microplastics are harmful to human health, laboratory tests in mice show they can cause inflammation, lower sperm count, and result in fewer pups.
Microplastics In Breast Milk
In a recent study, which was published in June 2022 in the journal Polymers, researchers looked at 34 healthy mothers after giving birth in Rome, Italy. Among the 34 breast milk samples examined, 26 contained microplastics—mostly polyethylene, PVC, and polypropylene, which are mainly found in packaging.
Even when accounting for the women’s age, diet (especially that of seafood or items from plastic packaging), and use of personal care products that contain plastic compounds, no significant difference was made in the findings of microplastics in breast milk.
Valentina Notarstefano, a researcher at Universita Politecnica della Marche and one of the study’s authors, told The Guardian that the findings were extremely concerning.
The authors also wrote in the paper that microplastics in breast milk might be even more prevalent than what they recorded. “It should be stated that the number of microparticles that we detected could be underestimated, since only … ~4 g of milk was considered for each sample.”
So, what should nursing mothers do?
What This Could Mean For Breastfeeding
While the results are disconcerting, the researchers were hesitant to recommend nursing mothers switch to formula just yet.
“It will be crucial to assess ways to reduce exposure to these contaminants during pregnancy and lactation,” Notarstefano told The Guardian. “But it must be stressed that the advantages of breastfeeding are much greater than the disadvantages caused by the presence of polluting microplastics. Studies like ours must not reduce breastfeeding of children, but instead raise public awareness to pressure politicians to promote laws that reduce pollution.”
Additionally, previous research has shown that bottle-fed babies are still ingesting microplastics due to the high temperatures needed to sterilize bottles and prepare formula.
That said, the researchers stressed the need for more research, especially since newborns and infants are more vulnerable to chemical contaminants.
Where Do We Go From Here?
With microplastics everywhere, it’s clear that a greater focus should be placed on their impact on human health, especially on newborns and young children. Emphasis on reducing plastic packaging and waste should be another top priority.
And while the study did not find a specific cause of microplastics in regards to diet or cosmetics use, Nostastefano told The Guardian that, “we would like to advise pregnant women to pay greater attention to avoiding food and drink packaged in plastic, cosmetics, and toothpastes containing microplastics, and clothes made of synthetic fabrics.”
Scientists are just beginning to understand how our most vulnerable population is affected by microparticle exposure, but it’s increasingly difficult to ignore the dangers. In the meantime, staying informed and taking steps to reduce plastic waste and potential negative exposure are all good first steps.