SANTA ANA, Calif. – A woman who was forced to throw away her breast milk at an airport this month is fighting to change the way nursing mothers are treated in the changing world of high-security travel.

Airport security agents in Las Vegas earlier this month banned Rachel Popplewell of Capistrano Beach, Calif., from bringing her breast milk on a flight to California because she didn’t have her baby with her.

Popplewell, who says she followed all the rules for bringing liquids on a plane, sent a written complaint to the Transportation Security Administration, which oversees airport screening.

“You should be allowed to carry it, and you should be treated like a human being who is feeding your child,” Popplewell said.

A spokesman for the federal agency said he had not seen a record of the incident.

“If she had exactly what was required, I don’t understand what happened,” Nico Melendez said. “It should not have happened. Please accept our apology.”

Popplewell, a marketing director, flew to Las Vegas for a one-day business trip to a footwear trade show. While there, she used her breast pump to collect 6 ounces of milk, which she planned to bring home to her 9-month-old son, Mason.

Popplewell divided the milk into two 3-ounce bottles and placed the bottles in a zip-top plastic bag, as stipulated by security regulations. But when Popplewell, 40, told a screener at McCarran International Airport what was in the bottles, she was forced to throw her milk away.

The Transportation Security Administration has restricted carry-on liquids since summer after an incident in England alleged to have been a terrorism plot involving liquid explosives. Liquids must be in 3-ounce containers, which must be in plastic bags.

“If you put your liquid in your 3-ounce container, then you meet the requirements of transporting,” spokesman Melendez said. “It could be shampoo, toothpaste or breast milk.”

The agency will let a parent carry a larger container of breast milk or baby formula if the parent is traveling with a baby or a toddler.

But Popplewell was told – incorrectly, according to Transportation Security Administration officials – that she needed to have her baby even to carry on 3-ounce bottles of breast milk.

The agency’s Web site states that to carry breast milk on a plane “you must be traveling with a baby or toddler” but leaves out the fact that anyone can carry the milk in the appropriate small bottles, with or without a baby.

Popplewell says that if she had her baby with her, she wouldn’t need to bring bottles at all.

The confusion has breast-feeding advocates criticizing the policy, which they say creates more headaches for a mother traveling without her child.

“That is probably one of the unfortunate circumstances of this liquid ban,” Melendez said. “There’s no way for us to know what it is, or to verify that specific need, if there’s not a baby with the person.”

Popplewell, who has breast-fed all three of her children, said she was heartbroken and outraged at having to throw away her milk. Her meticulous planning, she said, made the loss even more frustrating.

Before leaving on the trip, Popplewell bought a battery pack for her pump and consulted a lactation specialist on how to pump and carry milk while traveling. She then confirmed with John Wayne Airport security officials that she was doing everything the right way.

“I got the feeling that it depended on the TSA person you encountered,” she said. “Anybody who knows anything about pumping knows this is ridiculous. A man must have written the rules or something.”

At least one working mother says the rules create additional barriers to breast-feeding, which is recommended by government health experts for a baby’s first year.

“It’s the world saying you can’t have it all. You can’t breast-feed your kid and go on a business trip,” said Lindsay Sterling, a food writer from Maine who wrote about having to throw away her breast milk before a flight in October.

“It felt worse than throwing dollars in the trash,” she said. “You have to work really hard for that milk. That breast milk is a symbol of your connection to your child.”

It’s unclear how often the breast-milk rules prompt complaints. Melendez said his Western region received one complaint before hearing about Popplewell.

Nursing mothers who are away from their babies need to pump and collect milk at regular intervals to maintain their milk supply and prevent pain and swelling.

While many working mothers continue to pump, returning to work is cited as the No. 1 reason mothers stop nursing.

Studies have consistently shown that breast milk is superior to formula because it offers protection from infections, among other benefits. Long-term studies show that breast-fed babies also have lower rates of obesity, diabetes, allergies and asthma.

Breast milk should receive the same exemptions that apply to blood or bone marrow, advocates say.

“If you are allowed to bring life-sustaining liquids on a plane, then breast milk needs to be considered in that category,” said Kristie Holt, president of the Orange County Breastfeeding Coalition. “It’s not like throwing away a Coke.”

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