Breastfeeding and Lead
What Do Mothers Need To Know?
Because lead is cheap and useful, it is found in many products and in many places in the environment. Lead can affect anybody, but children under the age of four and the foetuses of pregnant women are most at risk.
Lead can affect children by causing learning and attention problems, impaired hearing thresholds, slowed growth and behavioural problems. The major pathway for lead intake in young children is their normal hand to mouth activities.
Lead gets into adults when we breathe in lead dust or fumes in the air, or if we take in food or drink that contains lead. Small amounts can gradually build up to cause health problems. Half of the lead you absorb into your bones any time in your life will still be in your bones 10 to 30 years later. Lead will leach out of your bones and into your blood as your bones give up some calcium especially if your calcium intake is insufficient. This might be when you become immobilised due to a fractured bone; when there is an extreme change in activity levels such as lengthy bed rest; osteoporosis; use of steroids or pregnancy and lactation.
Breastfeeding is nutritionally perfect for your baby.
There is much controversy over how much lead is in breast milk, however, experts all agree that breastfeeding should continue unless there has been severe lead poisoning diagnosed in the mother during her life. Artificial baby milks and cow's milk also contain lead. (Abadin HG., Hibbs BF., Pohl HR. 1997, Newman J. 1992, Rabinowitz M., Leviton A., Needleman H. 1985). Reducing your exposure and continuing to breastfeed is the most effective way of limiting your babys risk of lead exposure.
How much lead is there in breast milk?
Because breast milk is an ever changing substance, it can be difficult to measure and the literature shows a wide range of results. There has also been the problem of contaminated specimens. What has been found, is that the lead levels in breast milk are related to the lead levels in a mother's blood, but breast milk contains only 5% or less of this amount. Having your blood level checked is a simple way of estimating the risk to your baby. (If you are pregnant, ask your doctor to request a lead level with your next tests or ask your GP - this test is covered by Medicare).
Lead moves from where it is stored in a mother's skeleton, during later pregnancy and lactation, when the need for calcium increases. Maintaining your calcium intake will give the body plenty of circulating calcium in the blood which can be used easily by the body to meet the increased need of the foetus. This means there is less likelihood of the body using the skeletal calcium which might induce lead to leave the bones and enter the blood stream.
The 1994 Australian Market Basket Survey found only trace or undetectable levels of lead in breastmilk, cows milk and infant formulas including soy based formula. In the 1992 Australian Market Basket Survey, lead was below the detection limit in all breastmilk tested. Soy based infant formula had lead levels 4 times the detection limit and other infant formula had 3 times the detection limit. In Broken Hill, which is a lead rich environment, the mothers tested had levels that were one tenth of the amount considered to be a problem for breastfeeding.
How does lead get into my body?
You may have been exposed to lead if youve been involved in:
Self or partner working in a lead occupation there are over 75 occupations which use lead, including building and automotive trades, jeweller, ceramics, glassmaking, chemical and petroleum industries, mining and smelting.
Renovating a pre-1970 house the older the house, the more likely it is to be lead contaminated.
Diet high in lead including beverages - This means eating unwashed, especially inner city home grown vegetables or unpeeled root crops. Lead also enters our diet through the containers we use.
Many traditional medicines and cosmetics contain lead
Many "non-Western" medicines and cosmetics contain high amounts of lead and other metals. Often these are made by "Traditional healers" and brought into Australia by friends and relatives to recently arrived immigrants. Especially those from Arab cultures, the Indo-Pakistan subcontinent, China and Latin America should be avoided. Folk Remedies containing lead include:
Alkohl, Azarcon, Bali Goli, Coral Ghasard, Greta Liga, Pay-loo-ah, Rueda
How can I reduce the risk?
Maintain optimal calcium intake
Eat a balanced diet
Eat small amounts often
Use the tips for lead safe house cleaning and renovating in Lead Safe factsheets.
Avoid using lead containing medicines or cosmetics on yourself or your baby.
Wipe with a wet cloth the rim of any wine bottle after the cork has been removed if the bottle has a tin-lead foil capsule, even if you are unsure as to the composition of the capsule (generally only smaller wineries have used lead capsules since 1994.).
Who can I talk to?
Extensive advice is available through the Global Lead Advice & Support Service, which will discuss your level of risk and offer suggestions to reduce lead exposure.
The following are no longer available from the Lead Pollution Line of the NSW Environment Protection Authority:
For more information ring:
Lead Advice & Support Service: 1800 626 086
Pollution Line (NSW): 131 555
Or visit the website of
the US National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences http://ehp03.niehs.nih.gov/article/fetchArticle.action?articleURI=info%3Adoi%2F10.1289%
This fact sheet is based on recently completed research into lead in breastmilk by Professor Brian Gulson et al at CSIRO and Macquarie University, supported by the US National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences.
We extend our thanks to Prof. Gulson, Dr Garth Alperstein and Prof. Geoff Duggin for giving their valuable time to review our fact sheet.
The LEAD Group Inc. Fact Sheet Index
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Updated 18 November 2013