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Good news on breastfeeding shows the effectiveness of environmental campaigning

Information for the press from Baby Milk Action and Women's Environmental Network

The UK Government Committee on Toxicity today (14th May 1997) announced a 30% fall in the levels of Dioxins in breastmilk reflecting a general lowering of levels throughout Europe. Research in Germany shows that PCB and Dioxin levels are down by 50%(1). The news illustrates the effectiveness of campaigning on environmental issues and the wisdom of policies which aim to phase out persistent chemicals rather than attempting to regulate and control their use.

The day before the announcement the Department of Health convened a special briefing meeting for organisations involved in infant feeding, calling for help in providing the public with a balanced view. The DH is aware that scares about contaminants in breastmilk may have a damaging effect on health worker and public support for breastfeeding. Although the PCB levels in human milk still exist, the DH stressed that when seen in the context of a lifetime exposure, there is no doubt that breastfeeding should continue to be recommended as the best for all infants. All the evidence to date demonstrates that breastfed babies are developmentally and neurologically healthier than artificially-fed babies and that breastfeeding can even counteract the neurological effects of contaminants transferred before birth. Even in the best social conditions a baby has a five-fold risk of gastrointestinal illness if it is artificially fed, while in poor social conditions in the UK there is a ten-fold risk(2). Breastmilk also contains anti-bodies to salmonellae and general anti-infective factors which line the gut and protect the baby from infections.

The baby food industry has capitalised on mothers' insecurities, exaggerating the qualities of artificial milks and minimising their known and proven risks. Artificial milks have been shown to contain high levels of aluminium, lead and other heavy metals and in the last year alone concern has been raised about salmonella, Phytoestrogen and phthalate contamination in UK baby milks. Unlike breastfeeding, artificial feeding adds to environmental pollution in its manufacture, packaging, transport and preparation(3). In Norway, where 98% of mothers breastfeed their babies, Amnehjelpen, the Norwegian breastfeeding mother's support group, has calculated that if all babies were artificially fed 260 extra tons of solid waste would result annually.

In 1991, WEN highlighted likely dangers from PCBs and dioxins and its report Chlorine, Pollution and Parents of Tomorrow influenced policy and campaigning on dioxins and PCBs, which are both chlorine chemicals. Campaigns in the 1980s achieved a gradual reduction in the use of organochlorine pesticides contaminated with dioxins. PCBs have been progressively phased out since the mid 1970s. Production in the UK (all by Monsanto in Wales) stopped in 1977, and sale and use was banned in 1986. However the UK has been slow to destroy PCBs in existing equipment such as electrical transformers.

The ongoing campaign to phase out PCBs must be followed by a planned phase out of other persistent organic pollutants, many of which , including PCBs and dioxins, are hormone disrupters. Baby Milk Action and WEN welcome the Environment Minister, Michael Meacher's pledge in which he describes the banning of such chemicals as "environmental absolutes" not to be subject to haggles over trade. The promotion of baby foods by companies has played an important role in the lowering of breastfeeding rates in the UK(4) and worldwide.

Baby Milk Action has asked the new Minister for Health, Tessa Jowell, to look at the UK law controlling baby milk advertising and to ensure that the Government fulfils its commitment to implement World Health Assembly resolutions on infant feeding.

(1) German National Breastfeeding Committee, Robert-Koch-Institute, Ministry of Health. 20.11.95
(2) Howie et al. BMJ 1990
(3) "Breastfeeding and the Environment", WEN available for SAE and donation from WEN. "Breast milk a World Resource Baby", Milk Action available for 50p + SAE from Baby Milk Action
(4) In the UK only 63% of babies are breastfed at all at birth, and by 4 months this figure has dropped to 25%. In Norway, where there is no promotion of artificial feeding and much more support for breastfeeding mothers, 98% of women leave hospital breastfeeding and 75% are still breastfeeding at 6 months. Source: Office Population Census and Surveys

For further information contact:
Ann Link, Women's Environmental Network, 87 Worship St, London, EC2A 2BE, UK.
Fax: +44 (0)171 247 4740
Patti Rundall, Tessa Martyn, Baby Milk Action, 23 St Andrew,s St, Cambridge CB2 3AX, UK.
T: +44 (0)1223 464420


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