Levels of lead in breast milk and their relation to maternal blood and bone lead levels at one month postpartum

Adrienne S. Ettinger, Martha M. Téllez-Rojo, Chitra Amarasiriwardena, Teresa González-Cossío, Karen Peterson, Antonio Aro, Howard Hu, Mauricio Hernández-Avila

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59 Scopus citations


Despite the many well-recognized benefits of breast-feeding for both mothers and infants, detectable levels of lead in breast milk have been documented in population studies of women with no current environmental or occupational exposures. Mobilization of maternal bone lead stores has been suggested as a potential endogenous source of lead in breast milk. We measured lead in breast milk to quantify the relation between maternal blood and bone lead levels and breast-feeding status (exclusive vs. partial) among 310 lactating women in Mexico City, Mexico, at 1 month postpartum. Umbilical cord and maternal blood samples were collected at delivery. Maternal breast milk, blood, and bone lead levels were obtained at 1 month postpartum. Levels of lead in breast milk ranged from 0.21 to 8.02 μg/L (ppb), with a geometric mean (GM) of 1.1 μ g/L; blood lead ranged from 1.8 to 29.9 μg/dL (GM = 8.4 μg/dL); bone lead ranged from < 1 to 67.2 μg/g bone mineral (patella) and from < 1 to 76.6 μg/g bone mineral (tibia) at 1 month postpartum. Breast milk lead was significantly correlated with umbilical cord lead [Spearman correlation coefficient (rS) = 0.36, p < 0.0001] and maternal blood lead (rS = 0.38, P < 0.0001) at delivery and with maternal blood lead (rS = 0.42, p < 0.0001) and patella lead (rS = 0.15, P < 0.01) at 1 month postpartum. Mother's age, years living in Mexico City, and use of lead-glazed ceramics, all predictive of cumulative lead exposure, were not significant predictors of breast milk lead levels. Adjusting for parity, daily dietary calcium intake (milligrams), infant weight change (grams), and breast-feeding status (exclusive or partial lactation), the estimated effect of an interquartile range (IQR) increase in blood lead (5.0 μg/dL) was associated with a 33% increase in breast milk lead [95% confidence interval (CI), 24 to 43%], whereas an IQR increase in patella lead (20 μg/g) was associated with a 14% increase in breast milk lead (95% CI, 5 to 25%). An IQR increase in tibia lead (12.0 μ g/g) was associated with a 5% increase in breast milk lead (95% CI, -3% to 14%). Our results indicate that even among a population of women with relatively high lifetime exposure to lead, levels of lead in breast milk are low, influenced both by current lead exposure and by redistribution of bone lead accumulated from past environmental exposures.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)926-931
Number of pages6
JournalEnvironmental Health Perspectives
Issue number8
StatePublished - Jun 2004
Externally publishedYes


  • Blood lead
  • Breast milk lead
  • Breast-feeding
  • KXRF bone lead
  • Lactation


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