Breast-Fed Infants Exposed to Heat-Resistant Chemicals

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By Pat Rizzuto

Aug. 20 — A class of persistent chemicals linked with decreased immune function, cancer and other health problems builds up in breast-fed infants to surprising levels, according to the lead investigator of a study published Aug. 20.

Scientists know small amounts of perfluorinated alkylates can occur in breast milk, lead investigator Philippe Grandjean, adjunct professor at the Harvard School of Public Health, told Bloomberg BNA Aug. 19. The study provides new information about the amounts of five of these chemicals that build up through breastfeeding, he said.

If a baby is exclusively fed breast milk for six months as recommended, the concentrations of one of the chemicals—perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS)—shoots up four times higher than it does in babies who are not breast fed, Grandjean said. “We were surprised.”

Production Stopped; Exposure Continues

3M Co. and DuPont have stopped making PFOS and another chemical measured in the study—perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA).

The chemicals remain a concern, however, because they are extremely persistent in the environment and resistant to typical environmental degradation processes, and because they are linked with a variety of health problems in human and laboratory animal studies, according to a fact sheet from the Environmental Protection Agency.

PFOS and PFOA have been detected in surface water serving a number of U.S. cities and in sediments downstream of former fluorochemical production facilities. They also are found in wastewater treatment plant effluent, sewage sludge and landfill leachate, the EPA said.

Thus exposures continue even though U.S. manufacture of the chemicals has ceased.

In conversations with chemical regulators, Grandjean said he also has been told that manufacture of the chemicals has increased in India and China.

“Two cornerstones of public health are breastfeeding and vaccinations. Both are crucial to give the next generation its best start in life,” Grandjean said.

At least three previous studies have found exposure to these chemicals makes vaccines less effective. That possibility is concerning, Grandjean said.

“I'm a physician. I'm trying to prevent disease,” he said.

Grandjean discussed a study called “Breastfeeding as an Exposure Pathway for Perfluorinated Alkylates,” which was published online in Environmental Science & Technology, a peer reviewed journal published by the American Chemical Society.

Chemical Class Widely Used

The study examines levels of five perfluorinated alkylates, including PFOS and PFOA.

Perfluorinated alkylates have been used for decades to make chemicals that give industrial, aerospace and consumer products heat, corrosion, stain and grease resistance. The chemicals are used in the production of aviation hydraulic fluids, fire fighting foams, metal plating, wire coatings and also in electronic equipment and stain-resistant carpets and textiles.

The perfluorinated alkylates remain in the body through a mechanism that differs in a key way from other persistent pollutants. Traditionally, persistent organic pollutants or POPS, such as the original 12 banned under the Stockholm Convention, persist by clinging to fat.

Perfluorinated alkylates cling to proteins, such as the proteins in blood.

The chemicals appear to pass from mothers to their breastfeeding infants through protein in their milk, Grandjean said.

NTP Currently Focused on Hazard, Not Exposure

The exposure study was published one week after the National Toxicology Program requested information about ongoing or recently completed studies about whether PFOS and PFOA harms the immune system for an evaluation it will conduct.

Kris Thayer, director of NTP's Office of Health Assessment and Translation, which is conducting the PFOS and PFOA analysis, said exposure research such as Grandjean's breastfeeding study would supplement the information NTP is gathering.

Exposure data, however, are not directly relevant to the analysis the program will initially conduct, she said.

NTP is focused on determining whether these chemicals can harm the immune system, or focused on their hazard, she said.

Later, the program may be interested in both hazard and exposure data, but Thayer said there is no timeline for that possible next phase of the analysis.

To contact the reporter on this story: Pat Rizzuto in Washington at

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Larry Pearl at

An abstract of “Breastfeeding as an Exposure Pathway for Perfluorinated Alkylates” is available at, which has information about purchasing the entire study.


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