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Breastfeeding Benefits Far Outweigh Any Risk

Levels of dioxins in breastmilk have fallen by about two thirds in the last decade according to a report released by the Ministry of Health today.

The results are reported in the Ministry of Health's Investigation of Organochlorine Contaminants in the Milk of New Zealand Women.

Dr Pat Tuohy, the Ministry of Health's Child and Youth Chief Advisor said it was pleasing to see that today's report also confirmed earlier findings that dioxin exposures in New Zealand are at the lower end of the range of values compared with other industrialised countries.

Ten years ago the Ministry of Health released its first report into levels of dioxins in breastmilk. This latest study has shown the level of dioxin in breastmilk has fallen by about two thirds in the past decade.

Dr Tuohy said he recognised that information about trace levels of dioxins in breastmilk might cause alarm among parents and caregivers but said the amounts found in breastmilk were so low that the benefits of breastfeeding far outweighed any risk to the health of babies.

"Modelling of dioxin exposures in infants and children undertaken in a Ministry for Environment report released in February* shows that New Zealand babies reach similar tissue levels of dioxins to their mothers after about six months of breast feeding. Other model studies undertaken in the United States show that children who were bottle fed as babies and children who were breastfed as babies both have similar low dioxin levels in their bodies by age 10. Breastmilk does not contribute any greater lifetime dioxin body burden," Dr Tuohy said.

"The health risk of trace-level dioxins is the cumulative build up in the body over several decades, not short-term exposure such as six to nine months of breast feeding."

"The benefits of breastfeeding far outweigh any risks. Breastfeeding is the best way to provide the nutritional requirements to ensure optimum physical and intellectual development of a baby," Dr Tuohy said

"All key infant and child health groups, both in New Zealand and internationally, are aware of the presence of dioxins in breastmilk and still strongly recommend breastfeeding. The World Health Organization considered the implications of dioxins in breastmilk in May 1998 and came out with a statement in support of continued promotion of breastfeeding.

"Dioxins in the body is not a new issue and the Ministry of Health report coincides with the release this week of a Ministry for the Environment study Concentrations of selected organochlorines in the serum of New Zealanders.

The serum study provides more detail on dioxin levels in populations based on age, gender and ethnicity as well as differences that result from geographic location.

"The Ministry of Health urges businesses and local authorities to work with the Ministry for the Environment to reduce the levels of dioxins in the environment, for the benefit of our children and those yet to be born," Dr Tuohy said.

"The levels of dioxins in breastmilk and human blood are a reminder that these long lasting compounds continue to contaminate our environment".

*Evaluation of the toxicity of dioxins and dioxin-like PCBs: a Health Risk Appraisal for the New Zealand population.


For further information on the health effects of dioxins contact; Hayley Brock, Media Advisor. Ph (04) 496 2115, 025 495 989 Internet Address; or Barbara Thomson, National Study Co-ordinator, ESR Ph: (03) 351 6019

For further comment on the Ministry for the Environment report findings contact; Karl Ferguson, Ministry for the Environment, Communications Advisor (04) 917 7482, 025 243 7486.

Other organisations to contact on this issue include:

Julie Stufkens NZ Breastfeeding Authority 03 379 9480

Jane Wickham NZ Lactation Consultants Association 07 347 7106 or 025 293 4106

Becky Fox or Angela Baldwin RNZ Plunket Society 04 471 0177

Norma Campbell NZ College of Midwives 03 377 2732

Rirepeti Haretuku Maori SIDS Prevention, Auckland School of Medicine 025 886 810

Rosemary Gordon La Leche League New Zealand 04 471 0690

Sineva Cruickshank or Anna Bailey Healthstar Pacific 025 504 855

Sharon Cole Parents' Centres NZ 04 476 6950

Maureen Gillon Royal NZ College of GPs 04 496 5990

Barbara Dennison Keneperu Hospital Dietitian 04 385 5999

Background Information

What are dioxins and organochlorines? Dioxins are part of a family of organochlorine compounds which have been present in our environment for decades. They are known to be harmful to health and exposure to high levels has been linked with a greater risk of cancer, developmental effects and damage to the immune and reproductive systems.

What did the study do? The study funded by the Ministry of Health and researched by the Institute of Environmental Science and Research Limited (ESR), attempted to repeat a study done in 1987/1988 to measure the residues of organochlorine contaminants, including dioxins, in the bodies of New Zealanders, by measuring the levels of these substances in human milk.

How many women participated? 53 women from four geographical regions participated in the study. The geographic distribution was (numbers of women in brackets):

Two urban areas: Auckland (20), Christchurch (15) Two rural areas: Northland (16), North Canterbury (2)

These regions were chosen because they were the same areas studied previously making comparisons as valid as possible. While the sample size overall is small, by international standards the total numbers are good.

What were the criteria for inclusion in the study? The women needed to meet the following criteria: age (they needed to be 20-30 years old) parity (they needed to be having their first child) health status (mother and baby needed to be healthy and full breastfeeding established) residence (they needed to have resided in the area for five years).

What did the study find? The report found levels of dioxins in the milk of New Zealand women had declined by about two thirds over the ten year period 1988 to 1998. This shows that exposure of the New Zealand population generally to these substances has substantially declined and that measures to reduce contaminants in the New Zealand environment have been effective.

In general, the exposure of New Zealanders to dioxins and other organochlorine contaminants is low relative to exposures in most other countries where comparable studies have been carried out. The decreases in contaminant concentrations in New Zealand milk are consistent with declining levels in other countries where similar testing has been carried out.

Why did the study discuss levels in breastmilk? Testing dioxin levels in breastmilk is an effective way of determining the levels in the human body, a reflection of the fact that dioxins exist in food, air and water. The level of dioxins in breastmilk has fallen two thirds in the past decade.

The amounts found in breastmilk were so low that they do not represent a risk to the health of babies. At the very low levels that are found in the New Zealand environment, the risk to health is from any long-term cumulative buildup in a person's body, rather than short term effects.

Breastfeeding benefits both the mother and the child. Benefits include: The nutritional benefits of breastmilk include; it meets the full term baby's complete nutritional needs for the first four to six months of life is readily available with no heating required has low risk of bacterial contamination is low cost has less risk of over or under feeding contains optimal ratios of the fatty acids required for eye and brain development the nutrients in human milk are more bioavailable than in infant formula

Other benefits for the baby include; reducing the risk of infectious disease such as meningitis, gastroenteritis, respiratory and ear infections because it contains maternal antibodies reduces the risk of food allergy may reduce the risk of sudden infant death syndrome

Benefits of breastfeeding for the mother are that it; speeds up the contraction of the uterus back to its normal size after birth provides emotional and physical satisfaction to the mother and may help the mother to return to her pre-pregnancy weight does not require preparation or storage exclusive, on-demand breastfeeding may help to space pregnancies reduces the risk of premenopausal breast cancer

What help is available to breastfeeding mothers, parents and others wanting more information? If people want further information, they should contact a health professional, such as their Plunket nurse or midwife. The Ministry has distributed information related to this report to key child and infant health groups.

The Ministry of Health has produced publications for parents seeking advice on healthy eating; Food and Nutrition Guidelines for Healthy Infants and Toddlers and Food and Nutrition Guidelines for Healthy Breastfeeding Women. The background papers (written for health professionals) for the pamphlets are on, while the pamphlets are available from hospital Public Health Units. The ESR report will also be available on the website.

What can people do to reduce dioxins in their environment and decrease their intake? People can reduce dioxin intake by following the Ministry of Health's nutrition guidelines. Eating a healthy diet high in cereals, fruits and vegetables and choosing low fat meats. The main dioxin sources for humans are high fat animal foods and some fish.

People can prevent dioxins getting into the environment by not burning household rubbish, particularly PVC plastic in back yard incinerators, or chemically treated wood in internal housefires. Plastics should be recycled to prevent generation of toxic wastes through burning. People should ensure that items and substances containing PCBs, which are related to dioxins, such as capacitors, light fittings and electric motors are disposed of safely by local authorities who should have safe air policies and plans for the disposal of organochlorine compounds.

For more information see the Ministry for the Environment's website

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