CHICAGO – Humanábreastámilkáis 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 101ábreastámilkásamples 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’ámilkápublished in medical literature.
Breastámilkáis also provided throughámilkábanks, whose clients include hospitals. They also charge fees but screen donors and pasteurize donatedámilkáto kill any germs.
With Internet sites, “you have very few ways to know for sure what you are getting is reallyábreastámilkáand 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 breastámilkáin this way.”
The advice echoes a 2010 recommendation from the federal Food and Drug Administration.
“When humanámilkáis 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 humanámilkáhas 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-soldámilk, although several others have documented bacteria in mothers’ ownámilkáor inámilkábank 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,ábreastápumps used to extractámilk, 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 provideámilkáfor free. Sellers or donors tend to be new mothers who produce moreámilkáthan 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 neededábreastámilkáthrough one of the online sites whereámilkáis 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 enoughámilk, Clemons said. She said she shared her medical history with the recipient.
Clemons is breast-feeding her 7-month-old and stores excessámilkáin 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 myámilk.”
Keim said it’s unclear ifámilkáfrom sites offering donatedámilkáwould have the same risks because donors might be different from those seeking money for theirámilk. And in a comparison, the researchers found more bacteria inábreastámilkápurchased online than in 20 unpasteurized samples donated to aámilkábank.
Bekki Hill is a co-founder of Modern Milksharing, an online support group that offers advice onámilkádonation. She said there’s a difference betweenámilkásellers and donors;ámilkádonors “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’sámilkáfor her first two children and plans to do so for her third, due in February, because she doesn’t produce enough of her own.
“Breastámilkáis obviously the preferred food” for babies, she said.