Chemicals in Furniture, Carpets, Food Packages Taint Mothers’ Milk

(Reuters Health) – PFAS, commonly used fluorinated compounds known as “forever chemicals” because they remain in the environment, contaminated the breast milk of every one of 50 Seattle-area nursing mothers tested in 2019, a new study shows.

The study – the first to measure PFAS in American women’s breast milk in 15 years – revealed one bright spot: levels of two now-banned PFAS chemicals have declined worldwide. But the researchers found evidence in the Washington mothers’ milk of substances that replaced the banned chemicals.

“It’s the same old story of replacement chemicals taking the place of chemicals that we know are harmful,” said Dr. Sheela Sathyanarayana, one of the study’s authors and medical director of the University of Washington Medical Center Newborn Nursery in Seattle. “The newer, replacement chemicals are also accumulating in breast milk.”

Sathyanarayana stressed the continued nutritional and emotional benefits of nursing to mothers and their babies. “We don’t want women to think they shouldn’t breastfeed,” she told Reuters Health in a phone interview. “Breast milk is still extremely beneficial.”

But, she added: “We need to start to acknowledge that there are components of breast milk that shouldn’t be there.”

PFAS, or per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, include 9,000 human-made compounds used in everyday industrial and consumer products starting with Teflon in the 1950s. They have been added to carpets and furniture for stain resistance, to clothing for waterproofing and to pizza boxes to contain grease. They are in firefighting foams, cosmetics and microwave popcorn bags. (

Exposure to PFAS has been associated with Illnesses from heart and kidney disease to cancer. PFAS exposure might reduce antibody responses to vaccines as well as resistance to infectious diseases, including COVID-19, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (

Researchers detected at least one type of PFAS in the milk of every one of 50 mostly affluent mothers breastfeeding their first children, said Amina Salamova, senior author of the study published in Environmental Science & Technology.

The scientists looked for 39 different PFAS compounds and found 16 in total, 12 of them old, or legacy, PFAS, and four replacement substances.

“These findings make it clear that the switch to newer PFAS over the last decade didn’t solve the problem,” said Salamova, a research scientist at Indiana University in Bloomington.

“When a chemical is banned, another chemical is used instead,” she said in a phone interview. “Usually the acute toxicity is tested, but the long-term exposures are not being assessed.”

Chemical companies assured regulators and legislators who banned certain long-chain PFAS that short-chain replacements would be safer because they would degrade. But the new research suggests that the replacements also linger in the environment and in the blood and breast milk of new mothers.

“It’s a group of 9,000 chemicals. We cannot assess 9,000 chemicals on an individual basis,” Salamova said. “As a class, they need to be banned.”

Dr. Leonardo Trasande, a children’s environmental health expert and pediatrics professor at New York University, said the research highlights the need to regulate PFAS as a class. He was not involved in the study and cautioned in an email that it “has danger of being misinterpreted badly.”

“Breastfeeding is still best,” he said. “Benefits of nutrients in breast milk outweigh those of any other source and these contaminants.”

But he described “regrettable substitution” of replacement short-chain PFAS for banned long-chain PFAS as “an ongoing problem.” Short-chain PFAS, for example, has been associated with gestational diabetes, he said. (

“The costs of PFAS exposure are substantial,” he wrote in an email. “For low birth weight alone, costs were as high as $13.7 billion in 2003 to 2004,” he said. (

Meanwhile, what’s a nursing mother to do to protect her baby?

Trasande recommends using cast-iron or stainless-steel cookware and avoiding nonstick pots and pans.

Dr. Sathyanarayana advises new mothers to try to avoid stain-resistant furniture and carpet treatments as well as food packaging with grease-resistant coatings. She also recommends removing shoes at home, keeping carpets and windowsills clean and eating fresh food.

“Just a few small steps can make a big difference,” she said. “No one is going to get to zero exposure. The key is to try to decrease your exposure as much as possible.”

That said, “the burden and the onus shouldn’t be on our general population and on moms,” she said. “This study is really for regulators.”

She, like Salamova and Trasande, would like to see all PFAS outlawed.

SOURCE: Environmental Science & Technology, May 13, 2021.

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