CHICAGO - Human breast milk is sold for babies on several online sites for a few dollars an ounce, but a new study says buyer beware: Testing showed it can contain potentially dangerous bacteria including salmonella.
The warning comes from researchers who bought and tested 101 breast milk samples sold by women on one popular site. Three-fourths of the samples contained high amounts of bacteria that could potentially sicken babies, the researchers found. They did not identify the website.
The results are "pretty scary," said Dr. Kenneth Boyer, pediatrics chief at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago, who was not involved in the study. "Just imagine if the donor happens to be a drug user. You don't know."
The research cites several cases of infants getting sick from strangers' milk published in medical literature.
Breast milk is also provided through milk banks, whose clients include hospitals. They also charge fees but screen donors and pasteurize donated milk to kill any germs.
With Internet sites, "you have very few ways to know for sure what you are getting is really breast milk and that it's safe to feed your baby," said Sarah Keim, the lead author and a researcher at Nationwide Children's Hospital in Columbus, Ohio. "Because the consequences can be serious, it is not a good idea to obtain breast milk in this way."
The advice echoes a 2010 recommendation from the federal Food and Drug Administration.
"When human milk is obtained directly from individuals or through the Internet, the donor is unlikely to have been adequately screened for infectious disease or contamination risk," the FDA says. "In addition, it is not likely that the human milk has been collected, processed, tested or stored in a way that reduces possible safety risks to the baby."
The researchers believe theirs is the first study to test the safety of Internet-sold milk, although several others have documented bacteria in mothers' own milk or in milk bank donations. Some bacteria may not be harmful, but salmonella is among germs that could pose a threat to infants, Boyer said.
Sources for bacteria found in the study aren't known but could include donors' skin, breast pumps used to extract milk, or contamination from improper shipping methods, Keim said.
The study was published online Monday in the journal Pediatrics.
There are many milk-sharing sites online, including several that provide milk for free. Sellers or donors tend to be new mothers who produce more milk than their own babies can consume. Users include mothers who have difficulty breast-feeding and don't want to use formula and people with adopted infants.
Breanna Clemons of Dickinson, N.D., is a donor who found a local woman who needed breast milk through one of the online sites where milk is offered free.
"A lot of people are like, 'Ewww, it's weird,' but they haven't been in a situation where they didn't want their child to have formula," or couldn't produce enough milk, Clemons said. She said she shared her medical history with the recipient.
Clemons is breast-feeding her 7-month-old and stores excess milk in her freezer. Every few weeks, she meets up with the recipient and gives her about 20 6-ounce bags. Clemons said the woman has a healthy 9-month-old who "loves my milk."
Keim said it's unclear if milk from sites offering donated milk would have the same risks because donors might be different from those seeking money for their milk. And in a comparison, the researchers found more bacteria in breast milk purchased online than in 20 unpasteurized samples donated to a milk bank.
Bekki Hill is a co-founder of Modern Milksharing, an online support group that offers advice on milk donation. She said there's a difference between milk sellers and donors; milk donors "don't stand to gain anything from donating so they have no reason to lie about their health."
Hill, of Red Hook, N.Y., used a donor's milk for her first two children and plans to do so for her third, due in February, because she doesn't produce enough of her own.
"Breast milk is obviously the preferred food" for babies, she said.
Brittany Warfield, a mother of three from Texas, <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/01/07/hollister-nurse-in_n_2425541.html" target="_blank">was nursing her 7-month-old outside of a Hollister store in a Houston mall, she says a manager forced her to move</a>. “He said, ‘You can’t do this here. This is not where you do that. You can’t do that on Hollister property. We don’t allow that.’ I said, ‘It’s Texas. I can breastfeed anywhere I like.’ He said, ‘Not at Hollister. Your stroller is blocking the way. You have to go,’” she recalls.
Mom and breastfeeding advocate <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/01/12/emma-kwasnica-breastfeeding-mom-facebook_n_1203198.html" target="_hplink">Emma Kwasnica</a>had posted over 200 photos on Facebook of herself nursing her own three children and told the Huffington Post that her account has been suspended at least five times as a result. She organized a nurse-in in front of Facebook headquarters to challenge the company's policy that says photos depicting breastfeeding are "inappropriate."
Houston mother Michelle Hickman says she was <a href="http://www.bestforbabes.org/target-employees-bully-breastfeeding-mom-despite-corporate-policy" target="_hplink">harassed and humiliated by Target staff </a>when she found a quiet space in the store to breastfeed her infant. She organized an international "nurse-in" at several Target locations on Tuesday December 28th. Pictured above is mom who participated, Brittany Hinson and her 4-month-old son, Kennedy, in front of the Super Target store, in Webster, Texas.
At A Cafe
<a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/12/16/breastfeeding-flash-mob_n_1153963.html?ref=parents" target="_hplink">Claire Jones-Hughes wrote</a>: "After being verbally attacked for not covering up while feeding my four-month-old, I decided it was time to make a statement to show that mothers will no longer tolerate being harassed for feeding our babies in public." She then staged a breastfeeding flash mob at the Clock Tower in Brighton, UK.
In A Government Building
Simone dos Santos was breastfeeding her four-month-old in the hallway of a D.C. government building when <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/12/14/simone-dos-santos_n_1148455.html#s542782&title=McDonalds_" target="_hplink">two female security guards told her to stop</a> because it was indecent. "I was shocked, upset and angry that by providing food for my son, I was being treated like a criminal," she wrote in a blog post for the <a href="http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/therootdc/post/dc-guard-no-breastfeeding-in-public/2011/12/12/gIQA2xYvtO_blog.html" target="_hplink">Washington Post</a>.
In The Courtroom
In November, Natalie Hegedus, a Michigan resident, was <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/11/14/natalie-hegedus-courtroom-breastfeeding_n_1089271.html" target="_hplink">asked to leave a courtroom</a> by a district judge. Her post on the community forum, <a href="http://community.babycenter.com/post/a30189175/bf_inappropriate_judge_thinks_so" target="_hplink">BabyCenter</a>, caused a national uproar.
In Another Courtroom
In August 2010, Nicole House was asked to leave the courtroom because a bailiff noticed her breastfeeding.
On A Bus
This past June, a mom was <a href="http://blogs.babycenter.com/mom_stories/07052011breastfeeding-mom-harassed-on-city-bus/" target="_hplink">harassed by a bus driver</a> for breastfeeding on a Detroit-area bus.
On A Plane
Back in 2006, 27-year-old mom, Emily Gillette, was <a href="http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/15720339/ns/travel-news/t/woman-kicked-plane-breast-feeding-baby/#.Tr2Eh1ZSmGg" target="_hplink">removed from a Delta flight</a> for breastfeeding. Watch a news clip about this story <a href="http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q0r6gbJpc18" target="_hplink">here</a>.
At The Mall
Ohio mom Rhonda claimed that she was <a href="http://consumerist.com/2011/02/woman-says-mall-made-her-leave-for-breastfeeding-in-public.html" target="_hplink">kicked out of her local mall</a> for breastfeeding, back in February. Mall security even called for back-up.
At The Pool
We've heard about <a href="http://blogs.babble.com/strollerderby/2011/07/21/mom-asked-to-leave-ymca-pool-while-breastfeeding-it-made-others-uncomfortable-and-breastmilk-is-considered-a-contaminating-bodily-fluid/" target="_hplink">these incidents</a> from coast to coast. In 2001, a mother nursing her 9-month-old was told to <a href="http://www.komonews.com/news/archive/4015441.html?tab=video" target="_hplink">move away from the edge of the pool</a> so as to avoid contaminating the water with her breast milk.
In Her Religious Community
One mom <a href="http://www.mothering.com/community/t/567001/basically-forced-out-of-church-for-breastfeeding" target="_hplink">posted a frustrated essay</a> in November 2006, detailing her pastor telling her that photos of her breastfeeding were equivalent to pornography. She and her husband decided to leave the church after this incident.
Clarissa Bradford was <a href="http://www.abc15.com/dpp/news/region_phoenix_metro/north_phoenix/nursing-mother-kicked-out-of-mcdonald's" target="_hplink">kicked out of a McDonald's</a> by an assistant manager for breastfeeding her 6-month-old child in August 2010.