Breastfeeding and environmental contaminants

Compiled by Kelly Bonyata, IBCLC

Many moms worry about environmental contaminants in their breastmilk, particularly as the media brings this concern to the forefront periodically. Nursing continues to be the best choice for mothers and babies, but there are ways to minimize your (and baby’s) exposure to environmental contaminants.

Per Dr. Ruth Lawrence, “The average person is not at great risk for unusual exposure to chemicals, such as herbicides, pesticides, and heavy metals… In industrialized countries, unless a major spill or exposure has occurred, mothers are not at risk for herbicides or pesticides in their milk.” [Lawrence RM & Lawrence RA. Given the Benefits of Breastfeeding, what Contraindications Exist? Pediatric Clinics of North America 2001 (February); 48(1): 235-51.]


Additional information

General | Information on specific contaminants


Breastfeeding and the Environment: Towards Healthy Environments for Children from the World Alliance for Breastfeeding Action. FAQ about contaminants in breastmilk, and more.

Breastfeeding and Exposure to Environmental Toxins from the US Centers for Disease Control

Toxins in Human Milk from La Leche League International

Toxins In Breastmilk, from Analytical Armadillo, June 2012

Science You Can Use: Worried about toxins in your breastmilk? Get the facts. by Tanya Lieberman, IBCLC, May 14, 2012

Does Mother’s Milk Transfer Environmental Toxins to Breast-Feeding Babies? from Scientific American, January 26, 2010

Toxins and Infant Feeding by Jack Newman, MD, FRCPC, 2009

Contaminants in Human Milk: Weighing the Risks against the Benefits of Breastfeeding by M. Nathaniel Mead, from Environ Health Perspect. 2008 October; 116(10): A426–A434.

Don’t trash our bodies! Researching breastmilk toxins – Breastfeeding by Christine Gross-Loh, from Mothering, Jan-Feb 2004.

Environmental Contaminants and Human Milk by Elizabeth Bauchner, from Leaven, Vol. 39 No. 6, December 2003 – January 2004, pp. 123-25.

Breastfeeding Remains Best Choice in a Polluted World, LLLI Media Release (August 2003)

PDF To Breastfeed or Not to Breastfeed is Not the Question: Why Risk-Benefit Analysis is the Wrong Way to Look at the Problem of Breast Milk Contamination by Sandra Steingraber, PhD (p. 4-5 of PDF file), from The Ribbon Volume 8, Number 2, Summer 2003.

Environmental Contaminants and Breastfeeding by Yvonne E. Vaucher, MD, MPH, from Breastfeeding Update, Volume 2, Issue 2, June 2002.

Breastfeeding, Breast Milk, and Environmental Contaminants (unavailable, being revised) – Statement by the International Lactation Consultant Association

Environmental Toxins and Breastfeeding from the Massachusetts Breastfeeding Coalition

Consequences of Exposure to Contaminants from Risks, Rights and Regulation: Communicating about Risks and Infant Feeding by Penny Van Esterik (World Alliance for Breastfeeding Action, 2002)

Toxins in human milk by Annelies Bon. Includes an extensive bibliography and links to additional information.

Why Breastfeeding is Still Best for Baby (April 2001) from the Human Health and the Environment Project of Greater Boston Physicians for Social Responsibility (also available in Spanish)

Environmental Contaminants in Breast Milk. Summary of a continuing medical education videoconference (2002), including informative handouts by speakers Ruth Lawrence, MD and Judith S. Schreiber, PhD.

Lawrence RM, Lawrence RA. Given the Benefits of Breastfeeding, what Contraindications Exist? Pediatric Clinics of North America 2001 (February); 48(1): 235-51.

Schreiber JS. Parents worried about breast milk contamination. What is best for baby? Pediatr Clin North Am. 2001 Oct;48(5):1113-27, viii. Unless the maternal exposure
to chemicals is tremendous (high level occupational exposures), the benefits of breastmilk far exceed the risks of low levels of chemicals in milk. Rather than stop breast feeding, the mother and her lactation consultants/MDs should be aware of her potential exposures and how to avoid them, thereby providing milk of the highest quality.

Lawrence RA. 1997. PDF A Review of the Medical Benefits and Contraindications to Breastfeeding in the United States (Maternal and Child Health Technical Information Bulletin). Arlington, VA: National Center for Education in Maternal and Child Health.

Minimizing Contaminant Risks During Pregnancy and Lactation by Betty Crase, from LEAVEN, Vol. 30 No. 3, May-June 1994, p. 37.

Press releases and articles on contaminants and infant feeding from the Baby Milk Action website

Information on specific contaminants


@ other websites

Breastfeeding and Lead Exposure (January 2016), by Paula K. Schreck, MD, IBCLC, FABM, from the Michigan Breastfeeding Network

Guidelines for the Identification and Management of Lead Exposure in Pregnant and Lactating Women issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC, 2010)

Chemical Contaminants in Breast Milk: Time Trends and Regional Variability, by Gina M. Solomon and Pilar M. Weiss, from Environmental Health Perspectives Volume 110, Number 6, June 2002. Discusses chlordane, dieldrin & aldrin, DDT, heptachlor, hexachlorobenzene (HCB), hexachlorocyclohexane (HCH), dioxins & furans, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs), toxic metals (lead, mercury, cadmium) and solvents.

Fisher J, Mahle D, Bankston L, Greene R, Gearhart J. Lactational transfer of volatile chemicals in breast milk. Am Ind Hyg Assoc J. 1997 Jun;58(6):425-31.

Lackmann GM, Schaller KH, Angerer J. Organochlorine compounds in breast-fed vs. bottle-fed infants: preliminary results at six weeks of age. Science Total Environ. 2004 August;329(1-3):289-293.

Dioxins in the Australian Population: Levels in Human Milk – Technical Report No. 10, prepared by Dr Fiona Harden, Dr Jochen Müller and Leisa Toms for the Department of the Environment and Heritage, May 2004

“In summary, the levels of PCDD/PCDFs and PCBs in the breast milk of Australian women are both similar across all regions of Australia and low by international standards. Consistent with worldwide trends, the levels of dioxin-like compounds have decreased over a ten-year period from 1993 to 2003 by approximately 60%. It should be noted that it is the advice of the WHO and the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) in Australia, that breast milk is the best food for babies. Breast milk may contain low levels of dioxins because of its fat content, but all babies are exposed to dioxins even if they are not breastfed. Alternative foods for babies, such as infant formula, may also contain dioxins because they may also contain fat. Several studies around the world in areas where dioxin levels are known to be high have still shown that breastfed babies are healthier than those fed infant formula.”

Schreiber, J., 1997, Transport of Organic Chemicals to Breast Milk: Tetrachloroethene Case Study, Chapter 5, IN: Environmental Toxicology and Pharmacology of Human
, 1997, Taylor and Francis, Publ., Kacew and Lambert, Eds., pp. 95- 143. This chapter discusses in detail the characterisitcs of chemicals that allow transport to breast milk. The dry cleaning solvent perc is used as an example of maternal inhalation exposure that affects breast milk quality.

Pesticides and Breastfeeding by Betty Crase, from LEAVEN, Vol. 30 No. 3, May-June 1994, pp. 37-40.

Journal search for articles on environmental contaminants and breastmilk

KellyMom is sponsored this month by Earth Mama Angel Baby, maker of natural and organic herbal products, who has graciously helped pay our costs this month.
Our sponsor is not responsible for and has had no influence over the creation, selection or presentation of evidence-based or other information or resources provided on this site.