New mothers who work in an environment that includes regular exposure to toxic chemicals may wonder whether they should continue breastfeeding once they return to work. It can be alarming to learn that chemicals found in substances such as rocket fuel, cleaning products, the coating on non-stick pans and vinyl have been found in breast milk, but these concerns are not necessarily a reason to stop breastfeeding or stay at home. Studies have determined that the benefits to breastfeeding outweigh some kinds and levels of exposure.
The decision on whether or not to stop breastfeeding after returning to work should be an informed one, weigh factors such as the kinds of chemicals you are exposed to, the degree of your exposure, whether you can take steps to minimize your exposure, against the benefits of breastfeeding.
When planning to head back to work, be sure to discuss your concerns with your doctor before you decide to stop breastfeeding. Your doctor will be able to tell you what the level of risk might be, and if there is any risk, how to protect yourself and your baby, so that you don’t necessarily have to stop.
The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) lists exposure the following workplace chemicals as cause for concern:
- Lead, mercury and other heavy metals
- Organic solvents and volatile organic chemicals such as dioxane, perchloroethylene, and bromochloroethane
- Smoke, fire, or tobacco chemicals
- Radioactive chemicals such as Iodine-131
Some jobs that might increase your exposure to lead include artist, car mechanic, construction worker, firing range instructor, painter, plumber, police officer, and welder. If you think you might be exposed to lead during your job, ask your doctor to check your lead levels to see if it’s safe to breastfeed. Even if your exposure is limited, it can add to other environmental lead your baby may already be exposed to. Lead poisoning can negatively affect a baby’s neurological and physical development.
You may never have heard of the chemicals dioxane, perchloroethylene, and bromochloroethane. These chemicals are used to clean clothes and you be exposed to them if you work in or regularly visit dry cleaners.
If you work as a firefighter you might be exposed to flame retardants and other harmful chemicals released during a fire. You can potentially be exposed to radioactive chemicals if you work in a hospital and your job involves radiation therapy.
You may be able to minimize some workplace exposure to toxins by wearing personal protective equipment—such as gloves, protective clothing or a respirator. You can further reduce your own and your family’s exposure by changing your clothes and shoes before leaving the job. If your workplace has a shower, washing there can be a good idea. If not, be sure to thoroughly wash your hands and face. If it’s not possible to change at work, take your shoes off as soon as you enter the house, change your clothes and wash up. Wash work clothes in a separate laundry load from the rest of your family’s wash.
Your workplace should have safety checks in place to minimize your exposure to hazardous chemicals, but they are not necessarily always strictly enforced. It can be a good idea to learn what these safety recommendations are.
Despite concerns about chemical exposure, in most cases breastfeeding is still recommended as the best possible way to feed an infant. The benefits of breastfeeding—in terms of nutrition and providing antibodies—are still thought to outweigh the risks, unless the mother herself is sick from exposure to toxins. Health organizations such as the American Academy of Pediatrics, the CDC and WHO agree that even contaminated breast milk is better than formula. One study suggested that breast milk may even help metabolize some environmental toxins.
The timing of your return to work can make a difference. Chemical exposure is considered more dangerous shortly after birth than it is once breastfeeding is well-established. A six-week old baby will not be able to metabolize toxins as well as a six-month-old or year-old baby who is getting some of his nutrition from other sources.
Also, not every chemical you are exposed to will make it into breast milk, since ingested chemicals, for example, have to pass through your digestive system.
If you have concerns about exposure to workplace chemicals, be sure to discuss them with your doctor and learn about ways to minimize exposure. The CDC also offers helpful information on workplace exposure.