Book Review of “Breasts: A Natural and Unnatural History”

Listening to an interview with Florence Williams, author of the book Breasts: A Natural and Unnatural History, I was intrigued. So I read the book.

Florence Williams covers a lot of territory in her investigation of breasts in our culture and for our health. The most important topic to me concerned alterations in breast development. At all stages in our lives, chemical pollutants affect our hormonal balance and thus, the intricate balance that prompts mammary growth and our general well being.

Environmental pollutants affect the female and male breast. Camp LeJeune in North Carolina has the “largest cluster of male breast cancers ever identified” (pg.239). From the mid 1950’s to the mid 1980’s TCE (trichloroethylene) and PCE (perchlorethylene) was leaking from storage tanks. Many of the wells for drinking water were contaminated with these chemicals. Now these men and their families are taking action.

To understand the influence of chemicals in our daily lives, Ms. Williams had her blood tested before and after a ‘chemical fast’. Reducing her exposure required eating certified organic produce, of course. She also avoided shampoo, make up, plastic bags, riding in cars, handling store receipts and myriad unnoticed chemical events. It was surprising to learn how pervasive the Bisphenol A (BPA ) and phthalates are. (To make changes in your habits, you can review   practical steps from the Environmental Working Group.)

The question arises: Because babies absorb pollutants from their mothers milk, is it safe to breastfeed? It feels sad and surreal to suggest we mammals should stop nursing.

Would the alternative to breast milk be safer? Artificial infant food is not pure; the powdered form is not sterile and requires boiled, clean water. It’s important to know the why and how of preparing formula powder. The Environmental Working Group notes that infant formula is stored in cans with plastic liners that contain…. BPA. Argh.

The obvious and wiser alternative is to improve conditions for all mothers’ health and improve donor milk bank networks. And when we clean up the environment…every body wins. 

Florence Williams’ research is thorough, interesting and disturbing. Her style is easy to read with some slightly irreverent humor at times. It’s to her credit that worrying, technical discussions of endocrine disrupters were actually engaging and informative.

However, I was disappointed when I read “Today some breast-feeding advocates, the lactivists or nutricionistas, as they’re sometimes called- make you out to be a freak of nature if you don’t breast-feed.”  Groan. Reading further, she refers again to Lechistas with no distinction as to who that includes. In the history of the breast, the IBCLC credential is important. It was created, in part, to assure that women were receiving accurate, evidence -based, quality information. (And please, if you feel someone is ‘making you out to be a freak’, politely tell them so.) Ms. Williams does credit “lactavists’ with influencing positive changes in hospital policies. She had her own positive experience with a lactation consultant. It would have been appropriate for this research book to offer more clarification about breastfeeding support.

Thank you for the informative book about breast health, Ms. Williams. I learned more about the importance (and complexity) of reducing phlalates and plastics in my life.