Environmental and Health Risks Associated with Infant Formula

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Overview on Infant Formula

The formula industry is an 8 billion dollar a year business. Huge advertising budgets are spent to convince women all over the world that it is more convenient and better for their baby to bottle feed than to breastfeed. Infants that are formula fed are more susceptible to respiratory illnesses, ear infections, diarrhea, and allergies. The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC- United States) blames aggressive marketing of formula in developing or least developed countries for epidemic of infant death from malnutrition and diarrhea (www.nrdc.org/breastmilk/formula.asp).

It is estimated that 70% of babies in the United States receive some formula by the time they are 3 months old (www.ewg.org/babysafe). In a continuing effort to emulate mother's milk, formula makers sell/supply the market an increasing variety of infant formulas. Parents can choose between liquid formula, powdered formula, ready-to-use formula, organic formula, soy formula, and DHA fortified formula for their babies. Despite the many options, the reality is that “human milk cannot be duplicated. It is a living, changing fluid which continually adapts to the needs of the developing infant” (www.babiesonline.com). DHA is an important component of breast milk that leads to greater brain development. It is missing from most infant formulas and although formula companies have tried, DHA cannot be synthesized and added to formula in the same form that it exists in breast milk.

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Problems Associated with Soy-Based Formula

Soy-based formulas account for 10-20% of infant formulas purchased in the United States with an estimated 750,000 infants fed soy-based formulas each year. Although soy formula may be an appropriate alternative in instances where babies are not breastfed and are allergic to cow's milk, it can also be a source of concern because soy contains plant derived phytoestrogens. Phytoestrogens act on the thyroid gland which in turn can induce goiter and anti-thyroid agents associated with endocrine disruption, depression of immune system, and thyroid depression. Soy based formula has also been linked to premature thelarche or breast development in infants and girls under 8 years old. Infants who are fed soy formula have higher risk of reproductive problems and more asthma as adults.

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Contaminants in Infant Formula

There is no disputing the fact that infant formula is nutritionally and developmentally inferior to mother's milk. We live in an increasingly polluted world which has caused Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs) like dioxins, PCBs, and pesticides to be found in breast milk. Although levels of POPs may be higher in breast milk than in formula, there are also a variety of contaminants found in commercial infant feeding products [B&J1] due to the way it is manufactured, the water in which it is mixed, the containers in which it is stored, and the bottles used for feeding.

The presence of certain contaminants often begins with the process involved in manufacturing formula. Heavy metals like aluminum, manganese, cadmium, and lead, chemical residues from pesticides and fertilizers, and hormone disrupting plasticizers have all been found in commercial infant foods. The fungal toxin aflatoxin, a know carcinogen, has also been found in some commercial infant formulas (www.nrdc.org/breastmilk/formula.asp).

Manganese is a neuro-toxic chemical found in much higher concentrations in baby formula than in breast milk and it is linked to behavioral problems like ADHD.Soy based formulas have been found to contain 80 times as much manganese as mother's milk while animal based have 30 times the quantity of manganese than breast milk (www.naturalnews.com/019338.html). Cadmium is a likely reproductive and developmental toxin and studies have revealed that animals exposed to cadmium have a range of birth defects that include damage to the central nervous system and decreased weight gain. Studies have found that soy formulas can contain 6 times more cadmium than cow's milk formula.

Other ingredients in infant formula can include glutamic acid (MSG) and aspartic acid which are known carcinogens. Hydrogenated oils and high fructose corn syrup are also found some formulas, ingredients that promote chronic disease later in life. The term "infant feeding products" includes bottles, nipples, etc. as used later on in the text, but this sentence seems to refer to just formula itself. You may just want to say "formula." If you leave "infant feeding products," pluralize the verbs (ARE manufactured, ARE mixed, ARE stored).

Some formulas are affiliated with pesticide or chemical companies that make hazardous chemicals. There are very few rules and regulations that formula companies are required to follow and therefore infant formula has been recalled in the past due to contamination from fragments of metals, small pieces of glass, salmonella, and other bacteria that can be harmful to a developing infant (www.nrdc.org/breastmilk/formula.asp).

Are these OTHER ingredients? The substances previously mentioned were not really "ingredients."

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Bisphenol-A (BPA) is a chemical that is used to make polycarbonate plastic, a lightweight, heat-resistant, and durable plastic. It is found in clear plastic bottles and in the lining of many metal food cans. The makers of Nestle, Similac, Enfamil, and PBM said they use BPA in the linings of metal cans holding liquid formulas. The FDA does not require infant formula manufacturers to test their products for BPA. BPA leaches from metal can linings into the formula and the amount of BPA ingested by some bottle fed infants exceed doses that caused adverse effects in animal studies.

Since 2005, over 130 countries have examined effects of BPA on human health. The Environmental Working Group (EWG) found that BPA can be harmful at low doses. Their analysis of existing research on BPA found that even exposure to a small amount can cause brain and behavioral disorders, cancer, obesity, and early puberty. According to EWG's findings, 1 out of every 16 infants fed concentrated formula would be exposed to BPA at doses twice the amount of what is considered safe exposure (www.ewg.org/node/26004).

Ready-to-eat formula in metal cans has the highest potential to leach BPA. Liquid formula in metal cans also leach a high quantity of BPA. Powdered formulas are the best choice for parents who want to avoid BPA in their baby's diet.

Most baby bottles are not polycarbonate free and therefore the majority of formula fed infants is also exposed to BPA that leaches from their bottle. Bottle fed infants likely face higher BPA exposures than any other segment of the population.

Medela, a major baby bottle producer, makes plastic bottles without bisphenol-A and Born Free makes glass baby bottles (www.newbornfree.com and www.insidefatherhood.com/medela-bpa-free-baby-bottles/).

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Water Contamination

With the use of formula there is a risk of contaminated water, bottles, nipples, and formula. On average a 3-month-old baby needs 1 litre of water a day for mixing feeds. The aggressive marketing of promoting formula over breastfeeding in developing countries is related to the epidemic of infant death because women often use contaminated water to prepare the formula which results in diarrhea and other serious infections. It is not uncommon for women to heat the water that they use to prepare baby formula. Hot water dissolves contaminants more quickly than cold water and therefore cold tap water should always be used when preparing baby formula.

Some of the contaminants found in water are chlorine, weed killers, insecticides, solvents, lead and arsenic. Nitrates, a carcinogenic chemical found in some water supplies as a result of fertilizer runoff, are not tolerated by a baby and exposure can result in “blue baby syndrome,” which is often fatal. Atrazine is a weed killer that contaminates many water supplies throughout the world and it has been linked to mammary and uterine cancer in rats.

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The True Cost of Formula Feeding

Breast milk is the most ecologically available food to infants because it does not depend on consumption of our natural resources and its use does not take up any space in our landfills. Conversely, infant formula is a product of a large industrial process that results in a lot of pollution and toxic exposure as a result of manufacturing, packaging, transportation, and waste associated with formula.

The life cycle of a can of infant formula pollutes our environment in a variety of different ways along its path. Formula that is cow's milk based depends on the consumption of materials like fossil fuels and wood products as well as the clearing of forests for cattle grazing. Cow's excretion and flatulence produce 50 million tons of methane every year, which is a huge contributor to greenhouse gases and global warming. In Brazil, forests are often cleared and burned to create soy plantations to feed the cattle.

Just the industrial process to create artificial baby feeding products alone uses vast quantities of energy and natural resources, and the production plants where formula is manufactured also contribute to pollution. The production and packaging of infant formula results in the use of a high quantity of paper, glass, plastic, and metals that are rarely ever recycled (www.nrdc.org/breastmilk/formula.asp). Once infant formula has been produced, it usually has to travel long distances in trucks that burn polluting diesel fuel to supply hospitals, clinics, and grocery stores all over the world. Therefore the transportation necessary to distribute infant formula is also a large contributor to air pollution. Ecuador imports infant formula from the United States, Ireland, Switzerland, and Holland.

If every child in America was bottle fed, almost 86,000 tons of tin would be needed to produce 550 million cans for 1 year's worth of formula (www.parentingweb.com/lounge/whybf.ht). The majority of the cans and packaging used in the distribution of formula end up as trash in landfills that contribute to groundwater pollution or incineration, which releases carcinogens like dioxin into the air.

Infant feeding products such as plastic bottles and nipples also end up in landfills and it is estimated that they will take 250-400 years to break down.

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Infant formula exists for a reason- to provide an alternative to breast milk in cases where breastfeeding is not an option for women. External circumstances such as illness or adoption may be barriers to breastfeeding and there are instances when women do not produce enough milk to exclusively breastfeed their infant. Apart from these specific circumstances, most women have the capacity to breastfeed their baby. Unfortunately formula has been marketed for decades in a way that convinces women that formula feeding with a bottle is superior to mother's own milk, which is designed by nature to fit the specific nutritional needs of her baby.

It is true that certain chemicals that are ubiquitous in our environment are ending up in the breast milk of women throughout the world. Formula companies are using this information to convince women that formula is the healthier choice for their babies. The reality is that formula is filled with just as many contaminants as breast milk and it doesn't have the same health and immunological benefits that breast milk has to combat an infant's exposure to toxic chemicals. Ultimately, it is every woman's right to be informed about the facts associated with breastfeeding and formula feeding so that she can make the best choice for herself and her baby.

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