The study, first reported by The Guardian, showed that the chemicals were found at levels roughly 2,000 times higher than what experts consider safe. This is the first study since 2005 to look at PFAS in breast milk samples.
According to study co-author Erika Schreder, the findings indicate that PFAS contamination of breast milk may be universal in the United States. The chemicals are contaminating what should be "nature's perfect food," added Schreder, who works as a science director for Toxic-Free Future, a nonprofit group that calls for the use of safer products and chemicals.
Schreder and her colleagues published their findings on Thursday, May 13, in the journal Environmental Science and Technology.
PFAS are called "forever chemicals" because they practically take forever to break down. This characteristic makes them very useful for many products, such as non-stick cookware and stain-resistant fabric. But it is this exact characteristic as well that allows PFAS to persist in the environment for several decades.
PFAS have also been known to accumulate inside human bodies. In fact, they have been linked to many serious health problems, such as cancer, birth defects, liver disease and low sperm counts, to name a few.
Previous studies have looked at PFAS in air, drinking water and children's bodies. But little is known about PFAS in breast milk. To shed light on the matter, the researchers tested the breast milk of 50 women for 30 long-chain and nine short-chain PFAS. Long-chain PFAS are thought to be more dangerous than short-chain ones because they can stay inside the body for months before being excreted completely.
All samples came back positive for PFAS. In total, 16 PFAS were detected. PFAS levels were found in extremely high concentrations ranging between 50 parts per trillion (ppt) to 1,850 ppt. To put this into perspective, advocacy groups like the Environmental Working Group (EWG) recommend only 1 ppt of PFAS in water.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) suggests a limit of 52 ppt of PFAS for adults and only 14 ppt for children. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) currently has no guidelines for PFAS levels in breast milk.
The findings suggest that PFAS-contaminated breast milk might pose a threat to newborn babies. However, few studies have looked at the effects of PFAS on newborns, said co-author Sheela Sathyanarayana, an associate professor of pediatrics at the University of Washington.
So far, studies have shown that PFAS can have adverse effects on older children's health. The chemicals can disrupt the production of hormones necessary for growth and development.
But even with these studies, it's still extremely difficult to determine which children face the greatest risk of PFAS exposure because the chemicals are so ubiquitous in the environment, explained Sathyanarayana.
And even though the researchers only looked at a relatively small sample size, the contamination cut across socioeconomic and geographic groupings. This makes determining exposure levels so difficult as well on an individual level, added Sathyanarayana.
To minimize exposure to PFAS, Sathyanarayana and her colleagues recommend that pregnant women and nursing mothers avoid greaseproof carryout food packaging, waterproof clothes and non-stick cookware. However, take note that manufacturers don't always disclose all of the chemicals they use in their products. (Related: US scientists detect MORE THAN 50 chemicals from everyday products in pregnant women and newborns.)
Learn more about the health risks associated with forever chemicals at Chemicals.news.