What the West Virginia Water Contamination Teaches Us About Breastfeeding

Meagan Church | January 17, 2014

Felci Sanam Opat is learning about the nutritional importance of breastfeeding her 6 month old son in a CWS health program for mothers in Indonesia. Photo: CWS

Felci Sanam Opat is learning about the nutritional importance of breastfeeding her 6 month old son in a CWS health program for mothers in Indonesia. Photo: CWS

When a woman in the United States decides whether or not to breastfeed, she might consider a variety of factors, but access to clean water is not typically one of them. In a country where clean water is abundantly available at the turn of a faucet handle, a U.S. mother doesn’t have to worry about that part of the equation. At least that’s typically the case. But recently, 300,000 West Virginians learned that access to clean water isn’t just a problem a world away.

On January 9, 7,500 gallons of a chemical used in coal processing leaked from a storage tank and contaminated the water supply treatment facility just north of the West Virginia capital, Charleston. Those affected were instructed not to drink, cook or wash with the contaminated water for days. In many areas, the contamination is now below toxic levels and residents have been told it is safe to once again consume. In the aftermath, communities upstream are concerned for their own water supplies and are taking precautions to avoid exposure to the contaminated water.

For adults, this water crisis means having to find alternative sources of water or creative ways of avoiding it all together. But, for an infant, especially below the age of one whose main nutrition comes from formula, access to clean water is vital. For parents who formula feed and are affected by this water contamination, finding a source of clean water is suddenly an issue they have not previously encountered.

For millions around the world, a clean water source is a daily struggle, not just a temporary inconvenience. According to the United Nations:

  • One in nine people worldwide don’t have access to improved sources of drinking water and one in three lacks improved sanitation.
  • 827.6 million people live in slums, often lacking adequate water and sanitation services.
  • Approximately 3.5 million people die each year due to inadequate water supply sanitation and hygiene.
  • The major sources of water pollution are from human settlements and industrial and agricultural activities.
  • By 2025, 1.8 billion people will be living in countries or regions with absolute water scarcity and two-thirds of the world population could be under stress conditions.

When a mother breastfeeds instead of formula feeds her infant, the child no longer has a direct need for water. According to UNICEF, the following benefits are realized:

  • Breastfeeding protects the child from direct contamination of water-borne pathogens.
  • Breast milk provides significant protection against diarrhea and other intestinal diseases.
  • Breastfeeding children under two years of age has the potential to prevent over 800,000 deaths in children under the age of five in the developing world.
  • Breastfed children have at least a six times greater chance of survival in the early months, compared to non-breastfed children.

This is part of the reason why the World Health Organization and UNICEF recommend that breastfeeding be initiated within the first hour after birth; that the child be exclusively breastfed for the first six months; and that the child continues breastfeeding for two or more years. This is also why during the 1,000-day window from a mother’s pregnancy to her child’s second birthday, breastfeeding is central in giving kids the right, healthy and most nutritious start to life.

Breast milk is a unique substance that has not been replicated in any artificial form, including formula. It changes as the child grows to meet his/her needs in each stage of development. It impacts the child’s survival, health, nutrition and development by providing the specific nutrients, vitamins and minerals that the child needs to grow.

According to UNICEF, “Formula is not an acceptable substitute for breast milk because formula, at its best, only replaces most of the nutritional components of breast milk: it is just a food, whereas breast milk is a complex living nutritional fluid containing anti-bodies, enzymes, long chain fatty acids and hormones, many of which simply cannot be included in formula.”

Careful research has shown that nearly every mother can breastfeed and provide the nutrition that her body specially makes for her infant, if she receives appropriate support, advice and encouragement. That’s why more education, acceptance and encouragement of breastfeeding at the start of the 1,000-day window is important for both mothers and infants. When a mother is given the tools and support to breastfeed, a temporary crisis like West Virginia’s water contamination or an ongoing struggle for access to clean water no longer directly impacts an infant’s nutritional needs, and his/her ability to survive and thrive greatly increases.

While what happened in West Virginia has created an opportunity for education in a lot of areas, including proper waste containment and storage, it is also a chance for mothers to consider yet another factor when deciding to formula feed their infants. Even within the comforts of the United States, basic access to safe, clean water is not always guaranteed, but with proper support and education, uniquely-created breast milk can safely provide infants with the precise nutrition their bodies require.

Meagan Church is married to her high-school sweetheart and is the mother of 3 kids. She is a writer and children’s book author. She is also the brainpower of the online resource Unexpectant, exploring the realities of birth, babies and beyond.





For a more complete list of benefits, read The Short- and Long-Term Benefits of Breastfeeding.