Will the Pesticides on the Fruit I Pick Harm My Breast-Feeding Baby?

I am a Canadian breast-feeding mother, and I will be returning to work when my son is 10 months old. I am fortunate enough to have the luxury of being able to continue breast-feeding. However, I am a fruit picker in British Columbia's Okanogan Valley, picking cherries, apples and grapes. I have been trying to decide if going back to work will cause harm to my baby, but I do not know what kinds of pesticides are used or which ones to look out for. I would really appreciate any advice or information you could offer. 

Gina Solomon responds:

Thanks for your inquiry, and congratulations on successfully breast-feeding your son! As you obviously know, breast milk is the best possible nutrition for your baby, and you have given him a healthy start.

Returning to work can pose problems for breast-feeding moms—and I'm not just talking about finding a private space to pump milk and a cool place to store it. Many workplaces contain chemicals that can get into breast milk.

High on the list of workplace chemicals of concern are pesticides and solvents. The latter are often used as "inert ingredients" in pesticides. From your e-mail, it seems that you are not likely to be entering freshly sprayed fields or handling pesticides directly. That will certainly minimize your contact with the solvents (since they evaporate quickly after pesticides are applied). The pesticides themselves may or may not be a problem. Pesticides are a motley mix of chemicals; some can get into breast milk and others can't; some are dangerous for babies and others probably aren't. 

For example, the pesticide that's used most heavily on grapes is sulfur. Sulfur is used as a fungicide, and it can cause problems for workers because it is irritating to the skin and can also cause allergic reactions. However, it's not something I worry about for a breast-feeding mom. On the other hand, apples and cherries are frequently sprayed with insecticides in the organophosphate class. These chemicals—with names like chlorpyrifos (Lorsban), methyl-parathion and azinphos-methyl (Guthion)—can be really dangerous. They can be absorbed through the skin, and they most likely do get into breast milk. Studies have shown that these chemicals interfere with normal nerve development in the brain. 

I suggest that you do the following: 1) Try to find out what has been sprayed in the days prior to picking. 2) Check out www.pesticideinfo.org for information about what is used on cherries, apples and grapes in California, recognizing that it may be different where you work; this site also has some useful information on toxicity. 3) wear gloves and long-sleeve coveralls when you pick, if at all possible. The best gloves are ones made of nitrile, since these are more chemical-resistant than latex or cloth gloves. The biggest exposure pathway will probably be from skin absorption (unless someone is actually spraying near you), so if you protect your skin then you will help protect your baby. 

A few other things: I know it will be difficult, but try not to hug your baby until after you shower and change out of your work clothes. Keep your work clothes separate from other clothes (especially baby things) in the laundry. And don't wear your work shoes in your home, since the floor where your child may crawl should be kept free of dirt from the fields.

Good luck, and I hope you have a smooth transition back to work.

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