For babies born prematurely or with health problems, human milk can drastically reduce the risk of complications — but until now, breast milk donated from Utah has had to be shipped around the Mountain West before it could be fed safely to babies here.

With a new human milk pasteurization facility now open in Utah, donated breast milk can be sent directly to Utah babies, making the process more efficient and cutting down on potential losses to the supply available to hospitals.

“Now we can get it there more quickly,” said Elizabeth Smith, board chairwoman of the nonprofit Mountain West Mothers’ Milk Bank, Utah’s first fully operational milk bank. The facility is located in South Salt Lake at 2995 S. West Temple.

Previously, Utah donations had to be shipped to Denver, where the milk would be pasteurized and distributed to hospitals, including those in Utah. But any problem in shipping — for instance, a case being left on a dock or a truck being stopped in hot temperatures, Smith said — could warm the frozen milk and invite bacteria growth.

“Up to 10% of the milk in a batch could be lost,” Smith said.

Hospitals cannot afford those losses; just a month ago, the region’s milk supply was running low, Smith said, prompting worries in Utah’s neonatal intensive care units.

Babies who are born prematurely are at risk of necrotizing enterocolitis, a potentially life-threatening intestinal disease; human milk can reduce the risk six- to tenfold, according to UNICEF. It also can protect babies with heart-related disorders from complications, Smith said.

At any given time, the state’s largest NICUs have up to 60 babies each who would benefit from donated milk, Smith said.

Utah has been expanding the number of donation stations for years while it worked toward opening its own milk bank, expecting the move to lower costs and increase donations.

At the new pasteurizing facility, milk is collected from about 550 lactating donors — usually new moms who are overproducing breast milk, Smith said. The donors undergo screening and obtain approval from their doctors and the pediatricians of any other children they are nursing.

Donors drop off the milk frozen at collection centers around Utah, and it is taken to the facility in South Salt Lake. There it is sorted, thawed, treated and then frozen again. Batch tests are performed by outside labs to ensure the supply is safe, Smith said.

“We’re dealing with the most fragile NICU babies, so we have to be extra, extra careful,” said Abby Heiland, who screens the donors. “Staying organized and making sure we stay neat and clean is how we make sure the milk is safe.”