The impact of the 2019/2020 Australian landscape fires on infant feeding and contaminants in breast milk in women with asthma

Publication Name

International Breastfeeding Journal


Background: The 2019/2020 Australian landscape fires (bushfires) resulted in prolonged extreme air pollution; little is known about the effects on breastfeeding women and their infants. This study aimed to examine the impact of prolonged landscape fires on infant feeding methods and assess the concentration of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) and elements in breast milk samples. Methods: From May – December 2020, women with asthma, who were feeding their infants during the fires, were recruited from an existing cohort. Data on infant feeding and maternal concern during the fires were retrospectively collected. Breast milk samples were collected from a sample of women during the fire period and compared with samples collected outside of the fire period for levels of 16 PAHs (gas chromatography coupled with mass spectrometry), and 20 elements (inductively coupled plasma-mass spectrometry). Results: One-hundred-and-two women who were feeding infants completed the survey, and 77 provided 92 breast milk samples. Two women reported concern about the impact of fire events on their infant feeding method, while four reported the events influenced their decision. PAHs were detected in 34% of samples collected during, versus no samples collected outside, the fire period (cross-sectional analysis); specifically, fluoranthene (median concentration 0.015 mg/kg) and pyrene (median concentration 0.008 mg/kg) were detected. Women whose samples contained fluoranthene and pyrene were exposed to higher levels of fire-related fine particulate matter and more fire days, versus women whose samples had no detectable fluoranthene and pyrene. Calcium, potassium, magnesium, sodium, sulphur, and copper were detected in all samples. No samples contained chromium, lead, nickel, barium, or aluminium. No statistically significant difference was observed in the concentration of elements between samples collected during the fire period versus outside the fire period. Conclusions: Few women had concerns about the impact of fire events on infant feeding. Detection of fluoranthene and pyrene in breast milk samples was more likely during the 2019/2020 Australian fire period; however, levels detected were much lower than levels expected to be related to adverse health outcomes.

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Funding Sponsor

National Health and Medical Research Council



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