The UK government is raising the alarm about flame retardants in breast milk, but the benefits of breastfeeding still outweigh any risks
- The UK Parliament's environmental audit committee recently warned about the presence of flame retardants in furniture, among other household products.
- In a statement, committee chair Mary Creagh said UK mothers had "some of the world's highest concentrations of flame retardants" in their breast milk. But there's little evidence to substantiate that claim.
- In fact, US mothers have far higher concentrations of flame retardants in breast milk, presumably because regulations are less stringent.
- Even so, the benefits of breastfeeding far outweigh any health risk to infants.
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Sixteen years later, the UK Parliament's environmental audit committee has released a report calling on the UK to further reduce the presence of flame retardants in home furnishings, including children's mattresses and sofas.
In a statement, committee chair Mary Creagh said UK mothers had "some of the world's highest concentrations of flame retardants" in breast milk. But there's little evidence to substantiate that claim, and public-health experts say breast milk is still the best source of nutrients for babies.
North America and Asia have higher levels of flame retardant in breast milk
Sara D. Davis/Chicago Tribune/MCT/Getty Images
The Parliament committee attributed its findings to Breast Cancer UK, a charity that campaigns to reduce exposure to environmental toxins. In its own report, Breast Cancer UK cites two studies related to flame retardants.
The first study, published in 2014, found that the levels of PBDEs - a type of flame retardant used in building materials, electronics, furniture, and textiles - are higher in mothers' breast milk in the US and Canada than in Europe or Japan.
The second study, published that same year, found that PBDE concentrations in people's bodies decreased in Europe between 2010 and 2012.
Breast Cancer UK told Business Insider that recent studies suggest that levels of PBDEs in breast milk are highest in the UK compared to other European nations, but the concentrations are still lower than in North America and some Asian countries.
Margaret Wexler, the organization's head of science, said "we support fully the committee's recommendation" to strengthen regulations around flame retardants "as a matter of urgency."
Breast milk isn't free of pollutants, but it's still healthy for infants
Craig Mitchelldyer / Stringer / Getty Images
Craig Mitchelldyer / Stringer / Getty Images
In the US, a 1975 law required furniture manufacturers to treat their products with flame retardants. To date, 13 states have adopted policies that limit or ban flame retardants from certain products, but the chemicals still linger in soil, water, air, and household dust.
The UK has adopted more stringent regulations.
However, breast milk is often the main source of exposure to flame retardants among infants. A 2011 study published in the journal Environment International collected 34 breast-milk samples from mothers in Birmingham, a major UK city. The results showed that infants there consumed more flame retardant through breast milk than toddlers and adults consumed through their diets.
The European Food Safety Authority has determined that breast-fed infants consume up to 20-30 times more PBDEs than the general population.
Infants are especially vulnerable to the effects of toxic chemicals, since they weigh very little and their metabolic pathways haven't built up immunity to environmental hazards.
But overall, the scientific evidence doesn't suggest that UK mothers (or moms anywhere) should be concerned about breastfeeding.
When asked about Creagh's statement that UK mothers have "some of the world's highest concentrations of flame retardants" in their breast milk, a communications officer from the House of Commons pointed Business Insider to the UN's Global Chemicals Outlook. That report found that "concentrations of certain flame retardants are higher in developed countries," but did not mention the UK specifically.
The officer also pointed to a 2014 study that showed the presence of PBDEs in UK breast milk. But one of the study's authors, Stuart Harrad, told Business Insider that "the evidence does not support" Creagh's claim.
Even in the US, where the amount of PBDEs in a person's body is typically 10 times higher than in Europe or Asia, the developmental benefits of breastfeeding outweigh any health risk associated with consuming flame retardants.
"Breast is still best," Leonardo Trasande, an NYU professor and expert in children's environmental health, told Business Insider. But Parliament's report, he said, "calls further attention to the need to reduce exposure to these contaminants."
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