Environmental Health News

What's Working

  • Garden Mosaics projects promote science education while connecting young and old people as they work together in local gardens.
  • Hope Meadows is a planned inter-generational community containing foster and adoptive parents, children, and senior citizens
  • In August 2002, the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) Board voted to ban soft drinks from all of the district’s schools

#658 - PVC and the Breasts of Mothers, 07-Jul-1999

Wow! Last week the Science and Environmental Health Network
HANDBOOK, and this week they bring us a full-length book just
published by Island Press: PROTECTING PUBLIC HEALTH & THE
order the book from Island Press, telephone 1-800-828-1302 --well worth
the $30 price.)

Carolyn Raffensperger, the North Dakota dynamo who powers SEHN,
seems to be everywhere at once. Last week she traveled to the
White House, invited to make a presentation about the
precautionary principle. We take this as further evidence that
American industry is in a panic over this new way of making
environmental decisions. Perhaps they are hoping Al Gore can
coopt and "cool out" these precautionary upstarts and get things
back onto the risk assessment track where they belong. We suspect
Mr. Gore -- who talks a good game but whose actions have proven
him an untrustworthy friend of the environment -- will do his
best to give chemical corporations what they want.

SEHN's new book-length anthology will satisfy anyone who wants to
know the history of the precautionary principle, where it fits
into environmental law, how it has developed in Europe, and how
the principle can be applied in many different settings. SEHN's
book is deep and rewarding, at once philosophical and factual, a
thoroughly satisfying volume.

Best of all, there is a special reward at the end of the book --a
wonderful little essay by Sandra Steingraber, our favorite
environmental writer (see REHW #565). Here, with permission from
Island Press, is that essay verbatim:

Why the Precautionary Principle? A Meditation on Polyvinyl
Chloride (PVC) and the Breasts of Mothers

by Sandra Steingraber[2]

Those of you who know me know that when I talk on these topics I
usually speak out of two identities: biologist and cancer
activist. My diagnosis with bladder cancer at age 20 makes more
urgent my scientific research. Conversely, my Ph.D. in ecology
informs my understanding of how and why I became a cancer patient
in the first place: bladder cancer is considered a quintessential
environmental disease. Links between environment and public
health became the topic of my third book, LIVING DOWNSTREAM, but
since I have been given the task of speaking about the effect of
toxic materials on future generations, I'm going to speak out of
another one of my identities -- that of a mother.

I'm a very new mother. I gave birth in September 1998 to my
daughter and first child. So, I'm going to speak very intimately
and in the present tense. You know it's a very powerful thing for
a person with a cancer history to have a child. It's a very long
commitment for those of us unaccustomed to looking far into the
future. My daughter's name is Faith.

I'm also learning what all parents must learn, which is a new
kind of love. It's a love that's more than an emotion or a
feeling. It's a deep physical craving like hunger or thirst. It's
the realization that you would lay down your life for this
eight-pound person without a second thought. You would pick up
arms for them. You would empty your bank account. It's love
without boundaries and were this kind of love directed at another
adult, it would be considered totally inappropriate. A kind of
fatal attraction. Maybe, when directed at babies, we should call
this "natal attraction."

I say this to remind us all what is at stake. If we would die or
kill for our children, wouldn't we do anything within our power
to keep toxics out of their food supply? Especially if we knew,
in fact, there were alternatives to these toxics?

Of all human food, breast milk is now the most contaminated.
Because it is one rung up on the food chain higher than the foods
we adults eat, the trace amounts of toxic residues carried into
mothers' bodies become even more concentrated in the milk their
breasts produce. To be specific, it's about 10 to 100 times more
contaminated with dioxins than the next highest level of stuff on
the human food chain, which are animal-derived fats in dairy,
meat, eggs, and fish. This is why a breast-fed infant receives
its so-called "safe" lifetime limit of dioxin in the first six
months of drinking breast milk. Study after study also shows that
the concentration of carcinogens in human breast milk declines
steadily as nursing continues. Thus the protective effect of
breast feeding on the mother appears to be a direct result of
downloading a lifelong burden of carcinogens from her breasts
into the tiny body of her infant.

When it comes to the production, use, and disposal of PVC
[polyvinyl chloride plastic], the breasts of breast-feeding
mothers are the tailpipe. Representatives from the vinyl industry
emphasize how common a material PVC is, and they are correct. It
is found in medical products, toys, food packaging, and vinyl
siding. What they don't say is that sooner or later all of these
products are tossed into the trash, and here in New England, we
tend to shovel our trash into incinerators. Incinerators are de
facto laboratories for dioxin manufacture, and PVC is the main
ingredient in this process. The dioxin created by the burning of
PVC drifts from the stacks of these incinerators, attaches to
dust particles in the atmosphere, and eventually sifts down to
Earth as either dry deposition or in rain drops. This deposition
then coats crops and other plants, which are eaten by cows,
chickens, and hogs. Or, alternatively, it's rained into rivers
and lakes and insinuates itself into the flesh of fish. As a
breast-feeding mother, I take these molecules into my body and
distill them in my breast tissue. This is done through a process
through which fat globules from throughout my whole body are
mobilized and carried into the breast lobes, where, under the
direction of a pituitary hormone called prolactin, they are made
into human milk. Then, under the direction of another pituitary
hormone called oxytocin, this milk springs from the grape-like
lobes and flows down long tubules into the nipple, which is a
kind of sieve, and into the back of the throat of the
breast-feeding infant. My daughter.

So, this, then, is the connection. This milk, my milk, contains
dioxins from old vinyl siding, discarded window blinds, junked
toys, and used I.V. bags. Plastic parts of buildings that were
burned down accidentally are also housed in my breasts. These are
indisputable facts. They are facts that we scientists are not
arguing about. What we do spend a lot of time debating is what
exactly are the health effects on the generation of children that
my daughter belongs to. We don't know with certainty because
these kids have not reached the age at which a lot of diseases
possibly linked to dioxin exposure would manifest themselves.
Unlike mice and rats, we have long generational times. We do know
with certainty that childhood cancers are on the rise, and indeed
they are rising faster than adult cancers. We don't have any
official explanation for that yet.

Let me tell you something else I've learned about breast feeding.
It's an ecstatic experience. The same hormone (oxytocin) that
allows milk to flow from the back of the chest wall into the
nipple also controls female orgasm. This so-called let-down
reflex makes the breast feel very warm and full and fizzy, as if
it were a shaken-up Coke bottle. That's not unpleasant. Moreover,
the mouths of infants -- their gums, tongues, and palates -- are
perfectly designed to receive this milk. A newborn's mouth and a
woman's nipple are like partners in a tango. The most expensive
breast pump -- and I have a $500 one -- can only extract about
half of the volume that a newborn baby can because such machines
cannot possibly imitate the intimate and exquisite tonguing,
sucking, and gumming motion that infants use to extract milk from
the nipple, which is not unpleasant either.

Through this ecstatic dance, the breast-fed infant receives not
just calories, but antibodies. Indeed the immune system is
developed through the process of breast feeding, which is why
breast-fed infants have fewer bouts of infectious diseases than
bottle-fed babies. In fact, the milk produced in the first few
days after birth is almost all immunological in function. This
early milk is not white at all but clear and sticky and is called
colostrum. Then, from colostrum you move to what's called
transitional milk, which is very fatty and looks like liquid
butter. Presumably then, transitional milk is even more
contaminated than mature milk, which comes in at about two weeks
post-partum. Interestingly, breast milk is so completely digested
that the feces of breast-fed babies doesn't even smell bad. It
has the odor of warm yogurt and the color of French mustard. By
contrast, the excretions of babies fed on formula are notoriously

What is the price for the many benefits of breast milk? We don't
yet know. However, one recent Dutch study found that
schoolchildren who were breast fed as babies had three times the
level of PCBs in their blood as compared to children who had been
exclusively formula fed. PCBs are probably carcinogens. Why
should there be any price for breast feeding? It should be a
zero-risk activity.

If there was ever a need to invoke the Precautionary Principle --the
idea that we must protect human life from possible toxic
danger well in advance of scientific proof about that danger --it is
here, deep inside the chest walls of nursing mothers where
capillaries carry fat globules into the milk-producing lobes of
the mammary gland. Not only do we know little about the long-term
health effects of dioxin and PCB exposure in newborns, we haven't
even identified all the thousands of constituent elements in
breast milk that these contaminants might act on. For example, in
1997 researchers described 130 different sugars unique to human
milk. Called oligosaccharides, these sugars are not digested but
function instead to protect the infant from infection by binding
tightly to intestinal pathogens. Additionally, they appear to
serve as a source of sialic acid, which is essential to brain

Most recently, Swedish researchers discovered powerful
anti-cancer proteins in breast milk. Activated by stomach acids,
they appear to enhance cell suicide in defective cells, which is
one way our own bodies protect us from developing cancer.[3]

So, this is my conclusion. Breast feeding is a sacred act. It is
a holy thing. To talk about breast feeding versus bottle feeding,
to weigh the known risks of infectious diseases against the
possible risks of childhood or adult cancers is an obscene
argument. Those of us who are advocates for women and children
and those of us who are parents of any kind need to become
advocates for uncontaminated breast milk. A woman's body is the
first environment. If there are toxic materials from PVC in the
breasts of women, then it becomes our moral imperative to solve
the problem. If alternatives to PVC exist, then it becomes
morally imperative that we embrace the alternatives and make them
a reality.


[1] Carolyn Raffensperger and Joel Tickner, editors, PROTECTING
PRINCIPLE (Washington, D.C.: Island Press, 1999). $30.00. ISBN
1-55963-688-2. Telephone 1-800-828-1302.

[2] Sandra Steingraber, poet, writer, biologist, and cancer
survivor, lives in Ithaca, N.Y.

[3] C. Kohler and others, "Protease activation in apoptosis
induced by MAL," EXPERIMENTAL CELL RESEARCH Vol. 249, No. 2
(June 15, 1999), pgs. 260-268.

Descriptor terms: breast milk; food safety; dioxin; pvc;
chlorine; plastics; precautionary principle; science and
environmental health network; sehn; book reviews;

Error. Page cannot be displayed. Please contact your service provider for more details. (26)