MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
Selling breast milk is a growing business. Tens of thousands of women buy and sell breast milk over the Internet. But a new study this week finds that some milk bought off the web may be unsafe for babies. NPR's Michaeleen Doucleff is following this story. And, Michaeleen, just how big a business is this?
MICHAELEEN DOUCLEFF, BYLINE: Buying and selling breast milk through the Internet is just exploding in popularity. One researcher that I talked to estimated that about 55,000 women now buy, sell and share their breast milk through the web. And that's about five times more than we saw just a few years ago.
Now, I do want to make a distinction here - I'm talking about individual women who are posting ads online to sell their milk to women that they don't know for a profit - for $1, $2, $3 an ounce. This is really different than a milk bank, which typically are nonprofits that actually screen donors, pasteurize the milk and check it for pathogens and diseases.
BLOCK: And, Michaeleen, that brings us to the study we mentioned that looked at the safety of this milk. What did that study find?
DOUCLEFF: So yeah - so a group of researchers went online and bought about a hundred breast milk samples at different price points - so some cheaper ones and some more expensive ones. And then they wanted to check to see if actually what they bought was pure breast milk. And they did that by looking for cow's DNA in the samples. And they were actually surprised. The researcher I talked to said she was expecting that a few samples might have a little bit of contamination, but actually about 10 percent of the samples had at least 10 percent cow's milk in it.
BLOCK: And what would the concerns be about that - about cow's milk in breast milk?
DOUCLEFF: The cow's milk is definitely dangerous for babies that have cow's milk allergies, but another doctor I talked to was concerned about the nutritional properties of the contaminated breast milk. Pediatricians actually recommend that babies not drink regular cow's milk until they are 1 year old. And that's because the cow's milk doesn't have all the nutrition that a baby needs to grow and develop. For instance, it doesn't have enough iron in it.
BLOCK: So if a woman wants to breast-feed her baby, Michaeleen, can't do that herself, what options does she have?
DOUCLEFF: Yeah, so ideally she would get the breast milk from one of these milk banks. But typically, these milk banks have shortages, and the top priority for the milk is for preemies in the hospitals, so it can be really hard for a woman to get milk from a milk bank. Also, the milk there is very expensive - like, $4 or $5 an ounce. So a bunch of the doctors I talked to actually said, you know, if you have the choice between buying breast milk online from a seller you don't know and formula, then they would definitely recommend formula.
BLOCK: This does seem like a risky proposition, Michaeleen. There was an earlier study that looked at bacterial contamination in breast milk sold online. Now, this one showing that at least some proportion of those samples were contaminated with cow's milk. What other follow-up studies are planned on this?
DOUCLEFF: Yeah, so the same researchers are now looking for other substances that could be in the breast milk, like prescription drugs, illegal drugs. If the donor is a heavy drinker or a heavy smoker then she can pass alcohol and nicotine on to the baby, so they want to see what else is in these samples.
BLOCK: So why isn't this market regulated then?
DOUCLEFF: I think, you know, a few years ago, there wasn't really much of a need for regulation, but now with popularity just skyrocketing, a lot of researchers are calling for regulation.
BLOCK: OK. NPR's Michaeleen Doucleff - we were talking about a new study published this week in the journal Pediatrics that shows breast milk sold online could contain cow's milk. Michaeleen, thanks very much.
DOUCLEFF: Thank you.
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