Breastmilk: the perfect renewable resource
"The undermining of breastfeeding is the destruction of a natural resource and should therefore be seen in the same light as logging in the rainforests or overfishing our seas and rivers."
-Andrew Radford, 1991, in the Ecological Impact of Bottle Feeding.
ive years after the Rio Earth Summit, politicians are having another go at the state of the environment. Yet during the past five years, promises made to reduce pollutants have fallen far short of agreed goals. As politicians are again stretching the limits of truth on this five year anniversary, it is appropriate for us to consider the ecological impact of infant feeding practices. In examining these issues it astounds us how the simplicity, the convenience, the readiness, the total completeness, the sustainability of breastfeeding is so perfect compared to the waste, expense and degradation - both to humans and to the environment - of artificial feeding. Current renewed interest in environmental issues gives us opportunity to advocate that legislation to protect breastfeeding is also legislation that protects the environment.
With continued depletion of rain forests, damage to the ozone layer and chemical toxicants in our air, food, water and soil, breastfeeding with all its benefits, ranging from health, to social and economical, is without question the only safe, sustainable and environmentally suitable means to feed babies. And to acknowledge this, the World Alliance for Breastfeeding Action (WABA) has chosen the environmental theme as its topic for World Breastfeeding Week 1997, Breastfeeding: Nature's Way.
For this issue we have chosen some examples to highlight the Breastfeeding Environmentally Friendly theme.
Breastfeeding is a sustainable renewable resource that is free and creates no waste. On the other hand artificial feeding products are non-renewable, create waste, require costly packaging and shipping, and need expensive fuel to prepare.
If 50% of infants born in Canada (total births about 400,000 per year) are bottlefed for six months, then more than 15 million tin cans would be discarded.
Breastfeeding reduces fertility rates and prevents more births than all other forms of birth control combined. In Africa breastfeeding prevents an average of 4 births per woman. In Bangladesh breastfeeding prevents about 6.5 births per woman. Chilean women, exclusively breastfeeding for six months, reported no pregnancies while of those bottle fed, 72 per cent became pregnant.
A breastfeeding woman needs only to consume a few hundred extra calories per day to produce adequate breastmilk. An extra sandwich, or slightly larger meals and additional fluids per day can easily be met with nutritious locally available foods.
The production of artificial baby milks requires hundreds of millions of lactating cows. In India alone, to replace breastmilk, 135 million lactating cows would be needed. In Mexico to produce 1 kilogram of baby milk would require 12.5 square metres of cleared land.
Although energy required to boil water and sterilize bottles and nipples can readily be accessed in industrialized countries, it more often than not comes from polluting nuclear or power generating stations. In poor countries women often spend hours every day collecting scarce firewood. A bottlefed baby needs about 1 litre of boiled water to prepare feeds and 2 litres to sterilize the bottles and nipples. This requires more than half a kilo of precious firewood per day.
Breastmilk over the past has been vilified because of the presence of environmental toxicants. This clearly is a signal that environmental pollution needs serious addressing. However, to switch to artificial feeding is not a viable response. In addition to all the negative health, economic and safety consequences, artificial feeding products are themselves rank with contaminants.
Phthalates, a chemical used in the production of plastic, has been identified in all 15 brands of infant formulas, tested by the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food in Great Britain. Nine of the brands tested had levels high enough to result in reduced sperm counts in rats.
In New Zealand four leading scientists have raised serious concerns about the high levels of phytoestrogen hormones found in soy based formulas. In some cases the levels were found to be greater than amounts required to disrupt the menstrual cycle of premenopausal women. The scientists recommended that routine sales of soy formulas be stopped.
Soy based infant formulas sold in Canada are contaminated with extremely high levels of aluminum. In some cases the aluminum intake of formula fed infants can be as much as 1000 times higher than the intake of breastfed infants. Health Canada researchers have estimated that aluminum ingested by infants fed unmodified cow's milk or human milk exclusively is 2 3 micrograms per day, whereas, infants fed soy based formulas ingested on average 1260 micrograms per day. Infants fed cow's milk based formulas consumed an average of 82 micrograms per day.
Infant formulas are also subject to bacterial contamination. Researchers from the Netherlands cultured infant formula samples from 35 countries. Bacteria from the Enterobacteriaceae family, known to cause neonatal meningitis and sepsis, were found in 52.5 per cent of the samples tested. Infant formulas are also subject to repeated recalls because of microbial contamination. In 1993 Health Canada issued recalls for both Enfalac and Soyalac. Ready to serve cans of Enfalac were removed from shelves when consumers complained of a sour smell. The formula was "underprocessed" and spore forming pathogenic bacteria, Bacillus cereus had survived the deficient processing. The powdered Soyalac was contaminated with Salmonella tennessee, capable of causing severe illness in infants.
Radford, A The ecological impact of bottle feeding. Baby Milk Action, 1991
Frank, J. W., Newman, J. Breastfeeding in a Polluted World: uncertain risks, clear benefits. Canadian Medical Association Journal. 149:33 37, 1993
MAFF, 1996. Food surveillance information sheet number 83. Phthalates in infant formulae. UK Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food.
Irvine, C. et al. The potential adverse side effects of soybean phytoestrogens in infant feeding. New Zealand Medical Journal 108: 208 209, 1995
Dabeka, R.W., Mckenzie A.D. Aluminum levels in Canadian infant formulae and estimation of aluminum intakes from formulae by infants 0 to 3 months old. Food Additives and Contaminants, 1989
Health and Welfare Canada, News release, "Warning Against Consumption of Enfalac Infant Formula," March 27, 1993Health and Welfare Canada, "Warning Against Consumption of Soyalac Infant Formula Powder," May 20, 1993
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