Article Guideline Breastfeeding Dioxins


In recent weeks there have been an increasing number of reports in the press about the problems caused by dioxins.

Dioxins are produced during various industrial processes, particularly during burning and incineration. They are environmental contaminants and are found mainly in the food chain where they are absorbed by humans. Dioxins are stored in body fat and are extremely persistent. Absorption takes place mainly through the food

we eat (90-95%) but also through the air we breathe (5-10%). Breastmilk is often cited as a source of dioxins

– but this is because fat soluble contaminants are relatively easily measured in breastmilk, not because breastmilk is any more contaminated than other body parts.

A recent review noted that studies have shown that the effects from dioxins were associated with exposure

via the placenta rather than via breastmilk. Globally studies have shown high contamination levels due to industrial processes or accidents. Available scientific literature indicates that a high level of dioxin

contamination during pregnancy can lead to the impairment of child growth and development. Importantly however, it was concluded that breastfeeding, even in a contaminated environment, has a positive impact on the development of children as compared to those artificially fed.

As a result of these findings, a number of countries have advocated that breastfeeding should continue to be “encouraged and promoted on the basis of convincing evidence of its benefits to the overall health and development of the infant”.

The International Baby Food Action Network (IBFAN) agrees with this recommendation and further

recommends that the debate about dioxin contamination should not unduly influence a mothers decision to breastfeed.

* Breastmilk provides optimal, unique and perfectly balanced nutrition for a baby

* Breastfeeding affords many irreplaceable health advantages for both mother and child

* Pregnant women and breastfeeding mothers should be alert to the problems caused by chemical contaminants.

* All citizens should work to raise awareness of the dangers of environmental pollution.

IBFAN urgently calls upon decision makers in industry and politics to adopt environmentally-friendly initiatives

in production and waste-disposal, to promote political awareness of ecological dangers, and to create the appropriate legal framework to prevent the harmful contamination of our environment and to protect the

health of our children, both present and future generations.


Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Fisheries (1996) Dioxins in human milk, Food Surveillance Information Sheet, MAFF, UK.

National Breastfeeding Commission (1995) Residues in Breastmilk, Bulletin of the Ministry of Health (Germany), 2/96 

Documents for further information

* WHO Press Office (1999) Dioxins and their effects on human health, Fact Sheet No. 225, June 1999, WHO; Geneva.

UNICEF (1997) Breastfeeding and Environmental Contamination: a discussion paper, Nutrition Section, UNICEF, New York.

* United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)

website: (see Frequently Asked Questions, no. 9, Is it safe to nurse my infant?)

* Van Leeuwen F. X. R, Younes M. M (1998) Assessment of the health risk of dioxins: re-evaluation of the tolerable daily intake, Food Additives & Contaminants (WHO Regional Office for Europe), Volume 17, No. 4 April 2000 (p. 237)

* Schutz D, Moy G. G & Kferstein F. K (1998) GEMS/Food International Dietary Survey: Infant exposure to

certain organochlorine contaminants from breastmilk – a risk assessment, Food Safety Unit, World Health Organisation, Geneva.


IBFAN provides further information on the work of the International Baby Food Action Network (IBFAN). IBFAN

is a global network comprising over 150 health and consumer groups in over 90 countries. The aim of IBFAN is to support, protect and promote breastfeeding, to monitor the appropriate marketing and distribution of breastmilk substitutes and complementary foods, and to promote and support timely complementary feeding practices using adequate local food resources.

This statement was developed by the IBFAN working group on Contaminants in Baby Foods in response to media scares on this issue. It was reviewed by members of the IBFAN Co-ordinating Council in November 2000. This statement is intended as a guideline to assist IBFAN groups in preparing a response to press reports and will be shared with other concerned NGOs. We would like to express our thanks to the toxicologists of the International Programme on Chemical Safety at the World Health Organisation for their valuable comments on this statement.

This guideline statement is at present being discussed with a wider group of breastfeeding advocacy groups, with a view to publishing a joint statement addressing the problem of body burdens. Everybody and every

body carries a burden of pollutants from conception onwards and this problem needs to be addressed as involving all of us.