When writer Florence Williams was nursing her second child, she read a research study about toxins found in human breast milk. She decided to test her own breast milk and shipped a sample to a lab in Germany.
What came back surprised her.
Trace amounts of pesticides, dioxin and a jet fuel ingredient — as well as high to average levels of flame retardants — were all found in her breast milk. How could something like this happen?
"It turns out that our breasts are almost like sponges, the way they can soak up some of these chemicals, especially the ones that are fat-loving — the ones [that] tend to accumulate in fat tissue," Williams tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross. "Unfortunately, the breast is also masterful at converting these molecules into food in the way of breast milk.
Learning that breasts soak up lots of chemicals made Williams wonder just what else was going on with breasts. A lot, as it turns out. In her new book, Breasts: A Natural and Unnatural History, Williams offers her take on — among other things — why breasts are getting bigger and developing earlier, why tumors seem to gravitate toward the breast, and how toxins from the environment may be affecting hormones and breast development.
She says many of those toxins, including the flame retardants found in her breast milk, may come from ordinary household items like couches and electronics, which often contain flame retardants. Some animal studies have shown that certain types of flame retardants interact with hormone levels.
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