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Breast-feeding Protects against Arsenic Exposure in Bangladeshi Infants

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      BackgroundChronic arsenic exposure causes a wide range of health effects, but little is known about critical windows of exposure. Arsenic readily crosses the placenta, but the few available data on postnatal exposure to arsenic via breast milk are not conclusive.AimOur goal was to assess the arsenic exposure through breast milk in Bangladeshi infants, living in an area with high prevalence of arsenic-rich tube-well water.MethodsWe analyzed metabolites of inorganic arsenic in breast milk and infant urine at 3 months of age and compared them with detailed information on breast-feeding practices and maternal arsenic exposure, as measured by concentrations in blood, urine, and saliva.ResultsArsenic concentrations in breast-milk samples were low (median, 1 μg/kg; range, 0.25–19 μg/kg), despite high arsenic exposures via drinking water (10–1,100 μg/L in urine and 2–40 μg/L in red blood cells). Accordingly, the arsenic concentrations in urine of infants whose mothers reported exclusive breast-feeding were low (median, 1.1 μg/L; range, 0.3–29 μg/L), whereas concentrations for those whose mothers reported partial breast-feeding ranged from 0.4 to 1,520 μg/L (median 1.9 μg/L). The major part of arsenic in milk was inorganic. Still, the infants had a high fraction (median, 87%) of the dimethylated arsenic metabolite in urine. Arsenic in breast milk was associated with arsenic in maternal blood, urine, and saliva.ConclusionVery little arsenic is excreted in breast milk, even in women with high exposure from drinking water. Thus, exclusive breast-feeding protects the infant from exposure to arsenic.

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      Neurodevelopmental disorders such as autism, attention deficit disorder, mental retardation, and cerebral palsy are common, costly, and can cause lifelong disability. Their causes are mostly unknown. A few industrial chemicals (eg, lead, methylmercury, polychlorinated biphenyls [PCBs], arsenic, and toluene) are recognised causes of neurodevelopmental disorders and subclinical brain dysfunction. Exposure to these chemicals during early fetal development can cause brain injury at doses much lower than those affecting adult brain function. Recognition of these risks has led to evidence-based programmes of prevention, such as elimination of lead additives in petrol. Although these prevention campaigns are highly successful, most were initiated only after substantial delays. Another 200 chemicals are known to cause clinical neurotoxic effects in adults. Despite an absence of systematic testing, many additional chemicals have been shown to be neurotoxic in laboratory models. The toxic effects of such chemicals in the developing human brain are not known and they are not regulated to protect children. The two main impediments to prevention of neurodevelopmental deficits of chemical origin are the great gaps in testing chemicals for developmental neurotoxicity and the high level of proof required for regulation. New, precautionary approaches that recognise the unique vulnerability of the developing brain are needed for testing and control of chemicals.
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            Author and article information

            [1 ] Institute of Environmental Medicine, Karolinska Institutet, Stockholm, Sweden
            [2 ] MRC International Nutrition Group, London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, London, United Kingdom, and MRC Keneba, The Gambia
            [3 ] Institut für Chemie, Analytische Chemie, Karl-Franzens-Universität, Graz, Austria
            [4 ] International Center for Diarrhoeal Disease Research, Bangladesh
            Author notes
            Address correspondence to M. Vahter, Institute of Environmental Medicine, Karolinska Institutet, Box 210, 171 77 Stockholm, Sweden. Telephone: 46 8 524 87540. Fax: 46 8 336981. E-mail: marie.vahter@

            The authors declare they have no competing financial interests.

            Environ Health Perspect
            Environmental Health Perspectives
            National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences
            July 2008
            6 March 2008
            : 116
            : 7
            : 963-969
            This is an Open Access article: verbatim copying and redistribution of this article are permitted in all media for any purpose, provided this notice is preserved along with the article's original DOI.
            Children's Health

            Public health

            breast milk, saliva, urine, blood, drinking water, arsenic, infants


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