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The Green Room: Breastmilk-Natures Most Perfect Food?

Some consider breastfeeding to be one of the best ways to promote both human and environmental health. In this installment of WEMU’s “The Green Room,” Barbara Lucas explores the benefits and challenges of ensuring that all babies have access to breastmilk.

Over four new babies are added to this earth every second. The cumulative impacts add up. In this installment of WEMU’s “The Green Room,” Barbara Lucas explores one of the most basic ways we can reduce the environmental footprints of our smallest citizens.

Barbara Lucas:  Jennifer Canvasser is the proud mother of three year-old Zachary [Zachary singing] and two week-old Elijah.

Jennifer Canvasser:  [baby coughs] Oh my goodness!

BL:  She is also is an environmental health consultant with the Ecology Center of Ann Arbor. 

Canvasser:  Time for a diaper change…

BL: To minimize the use of resources and energy, she avoids buying new things.  She shows me around their house, pointing out the many second-hand items.

Canvasser: Our diaper-changing table we also got on Craig’s List.

BL:  No disposable diapers here.  She reaches for a cloth diaper wipe.

Canvasser:  We have reusable wipes here and a water bottle here, so there’s no chemicals or anything that we are putting on his little bum!

BL:  When shopping, she asks herself “Do we really need it?”

Canvasser:  They grow so quickly at this age.  They only fit into their clothes for a short amount of time.  So we get the most out of the clothes they do have.  Same thing with toys, and other baby products.

BL:  What is the baby product she is most happy to do without? Infant formula.  She believes breast milk is far healthier, and has no eco-footprint, as opposed to formula. 

Canvasser:  Just the packaging alone, and the washing of the bottles, the manufacturing the production, and whatever is used to make the formula, especially if you're not using formula that is organic.

BL:  Dairy and soy production takes water and land.  Cow methane is a potent greenhouse gas.  Manure runoff can cause algal blooms. Jennifer points out all this is bypassed with breastfeeding.  But what about those who can’t breastfeed—for medical reasons, or they’ve adopted?  Jennifer has a ready answer:

Canvasser:  Donor milk!

BL:  She says it’s a growing trend:  new moms with extra pump and share.  Some donate informally, via Facebook sites.  Others go through a milk bank.  In Michigan, there’s only one, at Bronson Hospital in Kalamazoo.  The procedure for potential donors?

Canvasser: They call the Bronson’s Mother’s Milk Bank, and they get screened, and they have a blood test done. 

BL:  Once they get clearance from the donor’s doctor…

Canvasser:  …and then the mom sends frozen milk to the milk bank where it’s pasteurized, and then the milk bank sends it back to the hospitals.

BL:    She says some premies can’t digest the formula that is given to them to boost their calories, such as Zachary’s twin brother Micah.  He died of NEC, short for NecrotizingEnterocolitis—tissue death of the bowels. 

BL:  So that kind of started your campaign? 

Canvasser:  Yeah. 

BL:  After Micah’s death, Jennifer founded the NecrotizingEnterocolitis Society, at NECsociety.org. The incidence of NEC goes down as use of breast milk goes up. 

Canvasser:  The quicker you can get these fragile babies out of the hospital and at home, which is more likely to happen when they are on a breast milk diet rather than they are on formula.  So… Hugely important for both health and environmental reasons.

BL:  The U.S. Department of Energy says that hospitals produce more than two and a half times the carbon dioxide emissions of commercial office buildings.

Canvasser:  The energy use, and just the amount of trash and disposable items. I mean, my twins were in the hospital for a long time when they were born and it was really disturbing to see how much trash was created every single day just by them being in the hospital.   It’s really sad. 

BL:  She wants all lactating women to know about the donor programs.

Canvasser:  I have known plenty of moms who have just thrown their milk away and just dumped it down the drain because they didn't know what to do with it.  And that’s so sad to hear because there are so many fragile babies that need it!

BL:  One of these fragile babies is Michael, son of Mary and Graham Lapp.  Michael was born two months prematurely. 

Mary Lapp:  Isn’t he cute?

BL:  Mary and baby Michael have been patients at Mott Children’s Hospital in Ann Arbor for two whole weeks. 

Lapp:  Oh my gosh, I am still in shock, to be honest.  No one expects their baby to come two months early.

BL:  Because Michael’s sucking reflex is underdeveloped, he has a nasal feeding tube. The nurse changes the tape on the line, and Michael does not like it.

BL:  Mary’s milk is insufficient, a common problem with premature births.  Despite pumping round the clock. 

Lapp: At the most I’ve ever gotten is like that much.  I have about only about three quarters of an ounce every time.  Hey, better than nothing!

BL:  But Michael needs more, and Mary is insisting on donor milk, instead of formula.  She opens the mini-fridge in their hospital room.

Lapp:  Here it is.  It comes fresh from Kalamazoo, it gets delivered—shipped here—every day! 

BL:  Her insurance doesn’t cover it.  She says it costs them $10 each feeding, $80 a day, due to the high costs of running a milk bank.

Lapp:  A lot of the milk that we get, ironically, actually comes from donors in Ann Arbor that donate it here.  And then it is shipped to Kalamazoo to be processed, and then we then we pay for it to get shipped back.

BL:  Even with the energy required to pasteurize and transport it, Mary feels donor milk is an environmental positive.  She takes me to the formula storage room.

Lapp:  For each bottle here, this is like a disposable container.  I mean, I f you think about it, if your child goes through eight of these a day…

BL:  The health of her baby is her main concern.  She believes breast milk is crucial to Michael, to prevent food allergies, and boost his immune system. Trouble is, unless donor milk is prescribed by doctors as medically necessary, insurance doesn’t cover it.  Their savings are running out.

BL:  But what about breastmilk for preventative reasons?  I spoke with Dr. Paula Schreck, with the Baby-friendly Hospital initiative, which encourages doctors to encourage breastfeeding.  She says breastfed children have less otitis media, pneumonia, intestinal diseases….

Paula Schreck: …decrease in incidence of obesity, and its subsequent complications including things like hypertension and diabetes.  For the mother, the benefits of breastfeeding include a decrease incidence of breast cancer, ovarian cancer, and cardiovascular disease…

BL:  Less hospital time for mother and child means less toll on both humans and the earth. Dr. Schreck says societal norms need changing, and finds the “Hooter mentality” frustrating.

Schreck:  There’s a whole restaurant chain that’s very popular that’s considered to be a family restaurant.  You can take kids there, they even have crayons!  And no one has a problem with that.  The same people would be horrified if someone tried breasting feed in public.

BL:  Dr. Shreck says least likely to breast feed are women of color, or women with low income—populations most in need of breastmilk’s advantages.  These groups are also most likely to give birth prematurely.

BL:  Kim Updegrove is the Director of the Mother’s Milk Bank of Austin, Texas.  She says their goal is to reduce the incidence of NecrotizingEnterocolitis in premature babies. 

Kim Updegrove:  This is our teaching wall.  And noises are because of freezers.

BL:  After a tour of the lab where milk is pasteurized and tested, she shows me the final product.

Updegrove:  The milk that is ready to be sent to hospitals looks like this.  Cute little three ounce bottles.

BL:  At 60,000 new premies each year in the U.S…

Updegrove:  It’s a challenge to get enough donors every day to donate enough milk for those babies.

BL:  She says on average, mothers of premies provide only about half the milk their babies need.  Should the balance be made up of purchased formula, or human milk?  Updegrove believes breastmilk benefits mother, child, and earth.

Updegrove:  Breast-feeding requires you to eat healthy, to stay hydrated, and to remain with your infant. Those are cost-effective, easy things to do.  And they don't leave a carbon footprint.

Barbara received a master's degree in Environmental Policy from the University of Michigan. She began her association with WEMU in 2003 as an intern with Washtenaw County, assisting with the weekly "Issues of the Environment" show. In 2003 she also began working in documentary film, and later established her own video production company.