Most seriously, an authoritative scientific report to be published tomorrow will show that two-month-old British infants are taking in 42 times the safe level of dioxin in breast milk.
The Government is to start a major survey to gather further evidence on the extent of the contamination. The survey will analyse the milk for a vast range of pollutants, including dioxins, pesticides, "gender bender" chemicals that disrupt hormones and have been found to cause bizarre sex changes in animals, and toxic metals such as lead, mercury and arsenic.
The report was commissioned by the World Wide Fund for Nature, UK, from Gwynne Lyons, a new member of the Health and Safety Executive's advisory committee on toxic substances. It discloses "widespread contamination of mother's milk".
The report not only shows that highly poisonous dioxins have been found in breast milk, but pesticides like DDT and lindane have also been found, as have PCBs, notoriously toxic chemicals used in a whole range of applications from electrical transformers to paint. Chemicals from dry-cleaning and nappy-bucket disinfectants had also been found.
In all, the report says, more than 350 chemicals have been found in breast milk in different studies around the world. "Some of the contaminants identified are known to have the ability to cause cancer and some are able to impair the immune system," it says. "Others are known to interfere with the normal functioning of the bodies' hormones." Mothers pass on chemicals that they have stored in their fat all their lives to their babies in their milk.
The report calls for "urgent action to reduce exposures". The Ministry of Agriculture is finalising the contract for a pilot study with Leeds University, which will take milk from more than 1,000 mothers in Yorkshire over the next 15 months, and analyse it and store it in an "archive". The plan is to expand this study nationwide.
Both the report and survey break a long-standing taboo because both environmentalists and Government have long been wary of calling attention to the pollution of breast milk, fearing that mothers might stop suckling their babies. They stress that breast milk is still best because it immunises children against infection, strengthens bonds with their mother and provides a better food than artificial formulas.
"Mothers should not give up breast feeding," Ms Lyons said yesterday. "Regulators should act to phase out substances that will pass on this toxic inheritance to the next generation."