Posted: 11:19 a.m. Wednesday, Nov. 20, 2013

9 Investigates black market breast milk sales

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breast milk
breast milk

ORLANDO, Fla. —

The health benefits of breast feeding are well-documented, with many studies suggesting decreased risks of infection and certain cancers as a result of breast feeding.

However, a growing new trend among parents who are breast-feeding babies could be putting their newborns at risk.

Parents who cannot provide breast milk themselves are going online and buying breast milk from strangers. Channel 9's Vanessa Welch started investigating the trend after she returned to work from maternity leave in August.

9 Investigates bought some of the milk advertised online and had it tested with no idea as to what the lab results would ultimately show. What we found surprised us, as well as medical experts who study the effects of breast milk on young children.

The milk was easy to find online. It's sold for $1 or $2 an ounce and is advertised on Craigslist, so 9 Investigates answered several ads offering breast milk locally.

We met one dad in an Orange County parking lot, and a couple met us near Disney. It was their first sale, and they told us it felt like a "drug deal."

All told, 9 Investigates ended up buying 110 ounces from four different parents. If you think such anonymous purchases sound risky, you're right.

Dr. Sarah Keim with the Nationwide Children's Hospital in Columbus, Ohio, was so concerned about the unregulated black market for breast milk that she tested 101 samples she bought online.

"Three quarters of the milk that we studied was contaminated either with high levels of bacteria or certain disease-causing bacteria, like the kind found in human waste," said Keim, adding that these bacteria can make babies very sick.

9 Investigates wanted to know if the milk we bought in Orlando was contaminated so we took it from the freezer and shipped it on dry ice to researchers at Boston College. They tested for the same bacteria and the findings were similar to Keim's research.

"There is significant risk in these random milk samples," said Dr. David Newburg, a biology professor and director of the Glyco-biology program at Boston College.

Newburg ran the lab tests for 9 Investigates and found bacteria in two of three samples we purchased undercover. That bacterial family includes staphylococcus, E. coli, salmonella and bacteria found in human waste.

Newburg insisted that parents should avoid transmission of these diseases to babies.

One sample we purchased had bacteria levels so high there were too many to count. Newburg said naturally occurring antibodies in breast milk can counter the effects of harmful bacteria but not at these high levels.

"This milk has the potential to make the baby ill, and the whole point of promoting breast feeding is to have healthier babies," Newburg said.

That's exactly why Holly Darrow breastfeeds her children.

"It helps to fight off sickness. My children have never been on antibiotics," said Darrow, who lives in central Florida.

Darrow put an ad on Craigslist to sell milk her baby did not need for $1 an ounce. A newborn's father responded saying his wife died in a car accident and his baby will not take formula.

"My heart just broke for them," Darrow told Welch. "That's why I'm doing this."

Despite all the health benefits breast milk provides, the FDA, the American Academy of Pediatrics and many other medical experts warn against buying it online or from unknown sources.

"The risk of the contamination outweighs the benefits that the milk might confer," Newburg said.

9 Investigates could not find any reports of babies getting sick from milk bought online, but experts maintain that if you cannot breastfeed, the next best option is to go through a milk bank.

Milk banks offer milk from screened donors that has been pasteurized to kill any bacteria and disease.  While pasteurizing does remove some antibodies, experts say it's still the safest way to use donated breast milk with your baby.

The milk is generally more expensive than milk bought online, and premature babies get top priority.

9 Investigates also had Any Lab Test Now in Winter Park test the milk we purchased for alcohol, tobacco and drugs. All of our samples came back clean for those substances.

Newburg told 9 Investigates that we could not have contributed to the contamination of the milk that was frozen in the sample bags.


If you are interested in learning more about the studies on milk bought online or where to buy milk from screened donors, we have several links here:

  • Human Milk Banking Association of North America: Offers milk from screened donors that has been pasturized. They do not have bank in Florida but can ship milk overnight. https://www.hmbana.org/
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