Intervenor: vol. 26, no. 4 September - December 2001

Tale Of Motherhood Both Alarms And Delights

(Reproduced with permission from the Toronto Star)

NEWS, Sunday, November 18, 2001, p. A02

The best way I can describe the astonishing range of Sandra Steingraber's new book - lyrical, funny, toughly scientific and unflinchingly truthful - is to single out one of the many revelatory passages.

Take this one. Steingraber is pregnant at the age of 38. A biologist on the faculty at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., an environmentalist, an adoptee and a woman who had bladder cancer at the age of 20, she has ambivalently decided to have the amniocentesis test to learn if her fetus has chromosomal damage.

The obstetrician lets her hold one of the two vials of amniotic fluid that have just been drawn from her womb. It's "hot as blood." The colour is pale gold. "It's like an amber jewel!" exclaims Steingraber. She has been thinking about this fluid which turned from drinking water to blood plasma in her body before suffusing the amniotic sac and surrounding the baby. Before that, it was rain, rivers, creeks, wells, juice of oranges, milk in her cereal, honey in her tea. "When I look at amniotic fluid, I am looking at rain falling on orange groves," thinks Steingraber.

"That's baby pee," says the obstetrician cheerfully. "We like it yellow. It's a sign of good kidney functioning."

Like a cross between Rachel Carson and Oliver Sacks, Steingraber writes science as though it is poetry and prose that combines storytelling and a call to action. This is the most extraordinary pregnancy and birthing book I've ever read, as powerfully relevant to men as to women, as accessible to science dolts like me as it is persuasive to the more informed. Using women's bodies as her prime example, Steingraber makes a powerful case against the harms done by the reckless use of toxic chemicals and processes.

Having Faith, An Ecologist's Journey to Motherhood, weaves together the intimate experience of Steingraber's pregnancy, the birth and breast-feeding of her daughter Faith, with sparkling reveries on the condition of nature and nature of nurture.

Many of us have backslid from our concern with the environment as we struggle through thorny times of terrorism and war. This book reawakened me to the cause.

At every step, Steingraber probes the science of procreation and questions received opinion. Amniocentesis, for example: All it can tell is whether there is chromosomal damage. Yet this very narrow test is ritualized as a rite of passage for the pregnant woman "as though pregnancy took place in a sealed chamber, apart from the water cycles and food chains."

Of course, it does not.

The medical emphasis is all on a search for rare genetic defects; no one is tested for environmental toxins in the body that nourishes the fetus. (Only one study looked for contaminants in amniotic fluid, which the fetus swallows, inhales and swims in. One third of the samples had detectable levels of the long-banned DDT and PCBs).

Walking in the rain past neighbourhood lawns sprouting little white flags - TREATED WITH PESTICIDES. KEEP OFF - Steingraber thinks about the rain that runs on to the sidewalk and soaks her shoes.

This is a sobering book, not a scary one. Because Steingraber is constantly noticing and thinking about birds and the nature surrounding her, (she keeps her mind off the amniocentesis procedure by thinking of hummingbird nests, made of spiderwebs and dandelion down) every chapter rings with life-affirming delight. And also with reasonable alarm.

Anencephaly (missing brain), spina bifida, genital malformations, premature and low-weight births, neurological damage - all have been linked with the presence in the mother's body of toxic chemicals (especially POPs, or persistent organic pollutants) absorbed from the environment.

Over and over again, Steingraber says, governments and industries in the developed world have violated the "precautionary principle" that every mother practises when she fastens her child's seat belt or gets him vaccinated. When lead paint was first identified as the cause of brain-destroying lead poisoning, the U.S. paint industry went on a publicity campaign against "anti-lead propaganda." The National Lead Co. invented the Little Dutch Boy logo, merrily splashing "white lead" paint around as though it were especially good for children.

Steingraber also makes us marvel at the intricate and dazzling dance of bodily functions (invisible to us who so casually inhabit those bodies) that govern pregnancy, childbirth and breast-feeding.

Nothing is more miraculous than breast milk. It is alive with antibodies and anti-inflammatories. It boosts intelligence, kills E. coli and giardia, affords substantial and lasting protection against middle ear infections, bacterial meningitis, diabetes, asthma, allergies, various cancers, colitis, lymphoma and leukemia.

It is also the most contaminated of all human foods. POPs - persistent organic pollutants like dioxin, furans, PCBs, all the toxins we helplessly breathe, drink and eat - are concentrated in mother's milk. It is not "man" at the top of the food chain, despite the school charts, says Steingraber. It is the breast-fed baby.

This horrifying information should not stop anyone from breast-feeding (despite the contaminants, breast-fed children are still ahead), but it should arouse to furious political activism all of us who care about the threatened human future.

Steingraber will speak in Toronto tomorrow night at 7 p.m. at the OISE (Ontario Institute for Studies in Education) auditorium at 252 Bloor St. W. She will be breast-feeding her second child, the newborn Elijah. Her talk is free and sure to be electrifying.

She pointed out in a phone conversation this week that the international co-ordinator of the International POPs Elimination Network is Morag Carter, based right here in Toronto. (The phone number is 416-960-9244). Last spring, the nations of the world signed the Stockholm Convention to ban persistent organic pollutants; the IPEN is campaigning actively to get 50 nations to ratify the agreement and begin to implement it, fast.

If you want to get started, look up "toxins" at the excellent World Wildlife Fund Web site, www.worldwildlife.org, join the Toronto Environmental Alliance (416-596-0660), check out Greenpeace (www.greenpeace.org or 416-597-8408). Go hear Steingraber and buy her book. If I weren't going in my for second total knee replacement operation tomorrow, there's no way I would miss being recharged by this inspiring scientist.

Notes:

By Michele Landsberg, Columnist at the Toronto Star. Ms. Landsberg's column appears Saturday and Sunday. Her e-mail address is mlandsb@thestar.ca. This article appeared in the Toronto Star on November 18, 2001.

Reprinted with permission -The Toronto Star Syndicate. To obtain permission to copy this article visit www.thestar.com (click onto "Archives").

CELA and IPEN were among cosponsoring organizations for the Canadian launch of Dr. Sandra Steingraber's book, Having Faith: An Ecologist's Journey to Motherhood held in Toronto on November 19, 2001.