Does your MOS/rating involve exposure to hazardous materials? Find the information you need on HAZMAT exposure and breastfeeding in the military to make an informed decision here.
Hazardous materials are a fact of life in the military. Many job specialties within the military involve working with potentially harmful chemicals, such as fuels, solvents, pesticides, heavy metals, certain medical drugs and gases, and lead. During training scenarios, service members are subjected to tear gas; and if stationed overseas, service members may be exposed to pathogens or biological/chemical warfare agents. Many of these hazardous and toxic materials can potentially be passed through breastmilk to the nursing infant. This page will give you an overview of the potential risks associated with HAZMAT exposure in the military, how to weigh those risks, and precautions you can take to minimize your exposure. However, this is not a replacement for speaking with your Occupational Health representative or Medical.
Weighing the Risks
Exposure levels to HAZMAT at military worksites are monitored and kept within established safety limits for adults. However, military mothers in certain occupations are exposed to higher levels than the general population, and there are not many studies measuring the levels of potentially harmful chemicals in the breastmilk of active-duty women. Some of these chemicals do concentrate in breastmilk and may exceed safe does for infants, even though they are within safe levels for you. Further, a few studies do show that high occupational exposures can have adverse health effects on breastfed infants (3, 5, 6) .
But, this does not meant that you cannot safely breastfeed while continuing your job in the military. It is important to weigh the risk of exposure and balance it against the substantial benefits of breastfeeding (and the well-known hazards of formula). When determining what the risk of exposure is for a certain hazardous material, it is important to look at the following: chemical characteristics, how the toxin transfers into milk (does it concentrate in fat, have high or low acidity, what is the protein binding and molecular mass, what is the half-life) (3, 4, 6). In addition your age, number of previously breastfed children can affect absorption of chemicals and toxins. Unlike medications, many toxic substances stay in the body long-term and oftentimes most of it is passed on to the fetus while still pregnant. Furthermore, due to long-term accumulation, first-born breastfed children are potentially exposed to more chemicals than subsequently breast-fed children (1,2).
There are a number of other questions to consider when weighing the risks of exposure to HAZMAT while breastfeeding:
- What is the probability of exposure to toxic substances in your workplace?
- What is the level of exposure (is it daily, once a week, once a quarter)?
- What is the route of exposure (ingestion, inhalation, topical)?
- What is the effect of the substance on your baby?
- How old is your baby?
- How often do you pump or breastfeed?
- Can you be reassigned to other job duties?
- Is there protective gear that you can wear to reduce exposure?
- What is your comfort level of exposure before you will decide to wean versus the known benefits of breastfeeding?
Precautions to Take
While the military is responsible for training and protection regarding hazardous materials in your workplace; you are equally responsible for learning about those hazardous materials, using personal protective equipment, and following proper work practices. Here are some steps you can take to ensure you and your baby’s safety:
- Store chemicals in sealed containers when they are not in use.
- Wash hands after contact with hazardous substances and before eating, drinking, or smoking.
- Avoid skin contact with chemicals.
- If chemicals contact the skin, follow the directions for washing in the material safety data sheet (MSDS). Military facilities are required to have copies of MSDSs for all hazardous materials used in their workplaces.
- Review all MSDSs to become familiar with any reproductive hazards used in your workplace. If you are concerned about reproductive hazards in the workplace, consult your Occupational Health department or healthcare provider.
- Participate in all safety and health education, training, and monitoring programs offered by your command.
- Learn about proper work practices and engineering controls (such as improved ventilation).
- Use personal protective equipment (gloves, respirators, and personal protective clothing) to reduce exposures to workplace hazards.
- Follow your command’s safety and health work practices and procedures to prevent exposures to reproductive hazards.
- Prevent home contamination with the following steps:
- Change out of contaminated clothing and wash with soap and water before going home.
- Store street clothes in a separate area of the workplace to prevent contamination.
- Wash work clothing separately from other laundry (at work if possible).
- Avoid bringing contaminated clothing or other objects home. If work clothes must be brought home, transport them in a sealed plastic bag.
Hazardous chemicals are not to be taken lightly, nor is your baby’s health. If your job depends on you working in an environment that will put your baby in danger of exposure to hazardous materials, then you certainly have every right to decide NOT to take any risks and make the decision to wean your baby. Just be sure to check out all the facts regarding the toxic chemical(s) in question, and look at all your options before making any permanent decisions. If you have specific questions regarding exposure to chemicals or toxins at your command you can visit the Infant Risk Center or call them at (806) 352-2519 for further information.
1. Condon, M. (2005). Breast is Best, but it Could Be Better: What is in Breast Milk That Should Not Be? Pediatric nursing, 31(4), 333.
2. Fisher, J., Mahle, D., Bankston, L., Greene, R., & Gearhart, J. (1997). Lactational transfer of volatile chemicals in breast milk. American Industrial Hygiene Association Journal, 58(6), 425.
3. Giroux, D., Lapointe, G., & Baril, M. (1992). Toxicological index and the presence in the workplace of chemical hazards for workers who breast-feed infants. Am Ind Hyg Assoc J, 53(7), 471-474.
4. Hale, T. W. (2012). Medications and mothers’ milk (Fifteenth ed.). Amarillo, TX: Hale Publishing.
5. Navy Environmental Health Center, N. (2008). Reproductive and Developmental Hazards: A Guide for Occupational Health Professionals. Norfolk, VA: Navy Environmental Health Center.
6. Schaefer, C. (2007). Drugs during pregnancy and lactation : Treatment options and risk assessment (2nd ed.). Amsterdam ; New York: Elsevier.