Global perspectives in breast milk contamination: infectious and toxic hazards

Environ Health Perspect. 2002 Jun;110(6):A349-51. doi: 10.1289/ehp.021100349.


Breast milk is the natural and optimal food for infants. In addition to meeting nutritional needs, breast milk provides numerous immunologic, developmental, psychologic, economic, and practical advantages. It is postulated that breast-feeding may also be related to the prevention of some adult health problems such as diabetes and coronary heart disease. Malnutrition among infants and young children, which remains one of the most severe global public health problems, is among the main reasons that the World Health Organization (WHO) so strongly supports breast-feeding. However, WHO recognizes the growing concern expressed by scientists, health professionals, environmentalists, and mothers about the potential risks posed by the presence of toxicants and infectious agents in breast milk. In this paper we review the main infectious hazards (tuberculosis, hepatitis B, and human immunodeficiency virus) and selected chemical hazards (tobacco, persistent contaminants) and the activities undertaken by WHO. We conclude that in cases where there is a high degree of pollution from chemical sources occurring simultaneously in a bacterially contaminated environment, the choice is not simply between polluted breast milk and risk-free substitutes. Rather, informed choice is based on assessing the known and unknown risks of artificial feeding versus the unknown, but potential, risks of chemical contamination of breast milk. Clearly, the possible toxicity of compounds requires further investigation. Of much greater importance, however, are effective measures to protect the environment for the entire population by controlling the use of these toxic products. Current scientific evidence does not support altering WHO's global public health recommendation of exclusive breast-feeding for 6 months followed by safe and appropriate complementary foods, with continued breast-feeding, up to 2 years of age or beyond.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Environment*
  • Environmental Pollutants / analysis*
  • Environmental Pollutants / pharmacokinetics
  • Environmental Pollution / prevention & control
  • Female
  • HIV Infections / prevention & control
  • HIV Infections / transmission
  • Hepatitis B / prevention & control
  • Hepatitis B / transmission
  • Humans
  • Infant Nutritional Physiological Phenomena
  • Infant Welfare*
  • Infant, Newborn
  • Male
  • Milk, Human / chemistry*
  • Public Health
  • Risk Assessment
  • Tuberculosis / prevention & control
  • Tuberculosis / transmission
  • World Health Organization*


  • Environmental Pollutants