Tainted breast milk

I’ll start this post with a disclaimer: I’m not a mother.

But, as a human and as someone who hopes to have kids someday, I’ve always been troubled by the practice of purchasing breast milk on the Internet. Or, if not purchasing, then using donated breast milk obtained over the Internet.

Breast milk-sharing websites and Facebook pages have popped up all over the Internet. Well-meaning mothers offer the breast milk they’ve had in the freezer to mothers in need of breast milk for their babies. Mothers in need scour the ads for milk they can use.

The scary thing is you never really know what you’re getting.

Sure, the donors may provide information about themselves and how the milk has been stored. But that means you’re essentially trusting a stranger with something as serious as a child’s health.

A new study reinforces my milk-sharing fears.

A team of researchers at Nationwide Children’s Hospital found more than 75 percent of breast milk samples purchased on the Internet were contaminated with bacteria that can cause illness.

The researchers responded to ads from milk sellers who didn’t ask about the infant receiving milk and who did not require a phone call before selling the milk. They then analyzed 101 samples and compared the findings to 20 samples obtained from a milk bank.

Because milk banks pasteurize their milk, harmful bacteria are killed before the milk reaches an infant. Even before pasteurization, the milk bank samples were less likely to contain several types of bacteria and had lower bacterial growth in many instances, according to the researchers.

Of the 101 milk samples purchased on the Internet, 64 samples had staph bacteria, 36 had strep bacteria and three had salmonella.

“We were surprised so many samples had such high bacterial counts and even fecal contamination in the milk, most likely from poor hand hygiene. We were also surprised a few samples contained salmonella,” researcher Sarah Keim said. “Other harmful bacteria may have come from the use of either unclean containers or unsanitary breast milk pump parts.”

Shipping time also played a role. About 19 percent of sellers did not include dry ice or another cooling method, and the temperature of the milk was outside of the recommended range for storage, according to researchers.

And while sellers’ ads often included statements about the milk, such as “I eat an organic diet” or “great quality,” they often did not include information about the use of hygienic milk handling or storage practices, screening for diseases transmissible by milk, or limiting or abstaining from legal or illegal drugs, according to researchers.

“Based on our research, it is not safe to buy breast milk online, and the Food and Drug Administration recommends against sharing milk obtained in that way. Recipients are not able to determine for sure if the milk has been tampered with, or contains harmful drugs or pharmaceuticals, or if the information the provider supplied about their health was truthful,” Keim said.

Marissa Harshman

Marissa Harshman

I'm the health reporter for The Columbian newspaper in Vancouver, Wash. I started at The Columbian -- my hometown newspaper -- in September 2009. Reach me at marissa.harshman@columbian.com or 360-735-4546.

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