How an At-Home Breast Milk Test Helped Uncover My Baby’s Lead Poisoning

Editor’s Note: This post is not intended as medical advice. Always consult a medical professional or physician before treatment of any kind.

Image Source: Sarah Cottrell

As a parent, my number one goal is to keep my children healthy and safe. For me, this means that all of my babies would be breastfed. So it wasn’t even a question that my 9-month-old daughter would spend her first year getting her primary nutrition through me. But as any nursing mom can attest, there is a certain amount of nagging curiosity — or even fear — that her milk isn’t as nutritious as it could be. So, when I was offered a chance to have my breast milk tested in a medical lab, I jumped on it.

Lactation Lab based in California, features two different kits to screen breast milk for nursing mothers. The basic kit, which costs $169, tests breast milk for calories, carbohydrates, fats, and proteins. The premium test kit, which costs $399, screens for protein, carbohydrates, fat, and calories just like the basic kit, but also includes screening for calcium, iron, vitamins A, C, and B-12, DHA Omega-3, ALA Omega-3, LA Omega-6, and ARA Omega-6. It also includes toxin screenings for arsenic, cadmium, lead, and mercury.

When my test kit arrived, it came in a white cardboard box with bright teal bubble wrap padding for the return envelope, two test tubes, and simple instructions. Per the directions, I was to pump over the course of 24 hours and collect two samples. While doing that, I popped the two complimentary ice packs that came with the kit into the freezer. When I was ready, I carefully placed the two test tubes and frozen ice packs in the cute return package and dropped it off at my local post office.

The testing lab is the brainchild of Dr. Canale, a mother who, like me, had wondered about the health quality of her breast milk and whether there was anything she could do to empower herself to know more.

Image Source: Sarah Cottrell

Dr. Canale tells Babble:

“I was trying to balance working full-time, being on call and caring for a very active 2-year-old boy while pumping for my daughter. Despite having a good volume of milk, at one point my daughter was not gaining weight, and I said to myself, ‘Of all the things I test, why is there no way of knowing what is in MY milk?’ I did some research, talked to colleagues, chemists, and moms and saw that a comprehensive breast milk was scientifically achievable and could improve the health mothers and their babies.”

Knowing that my breast milk was going to a lab of moms who genuinely cared about the health of my breast milk was reassuring.

But then I got my results.

My report was 10 pages long and included easy-to-read bar graphs and explanations of what the results revealed. It also included tailored recommendations of how I could adjust my diet to better support healthy breast milk production. For example, I learned that I am woefully deficient in vitamin D, which makes sense given that I live in the Northeast where the sun doesn’t like to hang out.

But there was one aspect of this report that scared the living toast out of me. My mercury levels were reading so high, they literally straddled the narrow line between safe and dangerous, according to the report. I already avoid fish and I am fatally allergic to shellfish, so I deduced that the source of mercury must be the well water at my house … which meant that my entire family might be at risk for mercury poisoning.

Obviously, I had feelings about this.

Image Source: Sarah Cottrell

“I never want to alarm or worry mothers about the presence of heavy metals in their breast milk. Mercury, cadmium, arsenic, and lead are in our environment and we are all exposed to them at some level,” Dr. Canale tells Babble. “The goal of our toxin screening is to help moms become aware of how their diet and local environment might be affecting these levels in their milk supply. There are no published norms of what is ‘allowed’ or considered to be toxic in human milk. The Environmental Protection Agency has established standards for drinking water, so we use those same standards for breast milk.”

Even so, I was understandably freaked out and immediately called my family doctor. That very afternoon my daughter was scheduled for a blood draw at the hospital.

“Mercury is most often ingested through eating fish and has even been found in some fish oil supplements,” explains Dr. Canale. “So for that reason, I recommend eliminating certain fish from a breastfeeding mom’s diet and using plant-based omega 3 and 6 supplements instead.”

Dr. Canale advises all expectant and breastfeeding mothers read this article about consuming fish by the FDA.

Image Source: Sarah Cottrell

A few days after my daughter was tested for mercury, we got the call that her test was negative. Our family doctor explained that the mercury most likely tested for was ethylmercury, which is water soluble and likely flushed out of my daughter before being picked up on a test, unlike methylmercury, which sticks to fat in the body and can becomes dangerous, especially to a growing child.

Relieved, I went about my business until the state CDC called to inform me that my daughter had lead poisoning. The lab that tested her for mercury also tested her for lead. This led to a full week of having everyone in my house visit the hospital for heavy metal screenings of their blood, and the state lead inspector testing every single wall, floor, ceiling, doors, windows, toys, clothing, car seats, cars, and anything else that could be contaminated in our home.

Despite the drama unfolding at my house, the breast milk test kit proved to be illuminating and educational. Not only did I get a better understanding of how diet and environment affect my milk supply, I also better understood the significance of my role in making healthy choices for myself and my baby.

Dr. Canale shares with Babble that her lab takes the mother’s role very seriously, which is why they offer such personalized service. Not only did I receive a detailed report, but I was also invited to chat with Dr. Canale over the phone to address any concerns I had.

“Since early 2017, I’ve been offering breast milk testing to my patients and used the results to help modify their diets and improve milk quality,” says Dr. Canale. “I have had great responses and when the moms saw their results, they went on to breastfeed longer than they anticipated.”

Dr. Canale shared one emotional story with me about why nutrition matters so much:

“One mom whose baby wasn’t gaining weight took the test and found that her breast milk was extremely low in fat and calories. A simple switch to a fuller fat diet helped her baby start gaining weight. Another mom took the premium test and found elevated levels of arsenic in her breast milk, originating from regular consumption of rice at dinnertime. This was easily remedied by reducing her rice intake.”

Image Source: Sarah Cottrell

So far, the public reception of Lactation Lab has been overwhelmingly positive, and the personalized attention may be why.

“We have a panel of three MDs and a lactation consultant and work with two environmental chemists to provide personalized recommendations based on test results,” explains Dr. Canale. “Our tests are very unique and this is opening up a whole new field of science. We are not just educating moms, we are trying to learn from them and how to optimize babies’ health and development across the board. I enjoy having these conversations with moms and the learning process is a two-way street.”

My family and I are still in the middle of this big adventure of learning whether we are affected by lead, and if so, to what extent. It is worth mentioning that tests like this do not always show the gritty details of what a heavy metal score really means, so always follow up with your family doctor to make sure the results you receive are accurate and fully understood before making decisions about diet modification or breastfeeding as a whole.

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