Living in a Polluted World


The differences that separate people are not that great. Conservatives know there is a dark side of human nature (and take secret pleasure in it) while liberals believe in altruism, and demonstrate its rarity. One would hope that the health of our children could transcend our tribal politics. Sandra Steingraber’s book, Having Faith, is a step in that direction, a unique and beautiful account, part science and part meditation, of the development and birth of her child. Dr. Steingraber is a survivor of childhood cancer, and a teacher and researcher at Cornell University. She has also published a book of poetry and has an eye for detail as well as an idiosyncratic way of explaining things that makes them fresh and interesting. Having Faith is as good an introduction a non-scientist is going to get to the wonders of human embryology, yet it has sufficient references to the scientific literature for the reader to follow up the stories she tells.

The narrative begins with her euphoria upon learning that she is pregnant, it proceeds through the development and birth of her baby, Faith, and ends with an afterward titled A Call to Precaution. As a rallying cry to the barricades, a call to precaution is somewhat lacking, but the idea is sound and timely. With regard to toxins that can build up in our body we should err on the side of caution when we put them into the environment for the simple reason that we won't know the danger until the damage to public health is done. Our present situation is an experiment no decent scientist would consciously propose: to see how much and what kinds of toxins we can get away with putting into our air and water.

The first part of the book is divided into nine short chapters, each of which is both a science lesson about what is occurring with the development of her baby during that month, and a meditation upon what her pregnancy feels like physically and emotionally. The book struck me as a bit like an ecologist’s field notes in which she is documenting an interesting but previously unappreciated ecological process, the creation of a new person within the environment that is her body. Trained in biology and ecology, Dr. Steingraber explains how and why the developing embryo is vulnerable to toxins that come to it through its mother.

Without pandering to fear, hers or our own, she uses past environmental disasters to illustrate what might otherwise be considered an abstract idea taught in biology class. To illustrate the bioaccumulation of environmental toxins she relates the sorry story of Minimata, Japan where mercury waste from a factory was dumped into a local stream. The contaminants washed into Minimata Bay and worked their way up the food chain, becoming more concentrated at each trophic level. The people who finally ate the contaminated fish from Minimata Bay became sick, many died, many were disfigured, many lives were ruined. This process of bioaccumulation can scrub the environment of toxins and increase their concentration in higher trophic level animals a million fold. Thus it should be small comfort to a pregnant or nursing mother when government and industry assure her that a toxin in the environment is at very low concentrations.

To illustrate how the timing of exposure to toxins can affect the developing baby she retells the story of the thalidomide and DES disasters. Thalidomide was considered a very safe drug. However when it was prescribed for pregnant women for morning sickness it was soon found to cause profound birth defects. Given early in pregnancy thalidomide probably killed most fetuses, given later in pregnancy it caused deformities in the body parts that were developing just when the drug was given. It was a stroke of luck the doctor at FDA who was assigned the thalidomide project knew enough to insist that further safety tests were needed. This postponed FDA approval of thalidomide in the U.S., in spite of industry pressure, until the scope of the disaster became apparent in deformed foreign children. The author uses this sad story to explain why a developing embryo can be more susceptible to a toxin than a fully formed person.

Environmental disasters such as Minimata and thalidomide catch media attention but chronic low-grade pollution has the potential to do far more damage by virtue of the fact that it is everywhere and everyone is exposed. We as humans are apex predators and thus are bioaccumulators of environmental toxins par excellence. Dr. Steingraber acutely points out a little-appreciated fact: human babies feeding on breast milk are at the absolute apex of the bioaccumulation process because mother's milk can concentrate fat soluble and other toxins that are in the mother’s body.

It is worth noting that after she digested the scientific literature the author chose to breast feed her daughter. The benefits to the child of the nutrients and immune system stimulants that are present in breast milk and not in commercial baby formula outweigh the risks of damage to the child from environmental contaminants. This is not a calculation one should have to make.

Health advisories are in place for most fresh water fish caught in the northeastern United States because of environmental contamination. Pregnant and nursing mothers are advised not to eat the fish. This is scandalous. This means that environmental contamination for much of the country is on the edge of being a health threat to the general population and is a demonstrated health threat to it’s most vulnerable members.

The operating principle of environmental toxicology is that below a certain level of exposure to a toxin, no damage is done. This idea has been used to permit low level contamination of the world environment, and yet its premise of no damage is both unproven and unlikely. The effects of heavy metals and organochlorines on children (or adults) can be subtle or not, and may be delayed for years. The human body can absorb some radiation and repair the damage, it can absorb small amounts of heavy metals or dioxins without apparent ill effects, but that does not mean they cause no harm. The premise that low doses of environmental toxins cause no harm is a faith-based initiative, which allows us to conduct business as usual.

The moral of the story is clear. As a society we are polluting our landscape with the toxic by-products of industry, transport and power generation. Our government assures us that the levels of pollution are within acceptable limits and tries to limit the damage. But there is no nation wide database of public health environmental toxicology, which would be necessary for a good faith assessment of the effects on public health of pollution.

There is no good reason for businesses to resist expensive pollution controls because we are all in this environment together. Recent events have shown that we can put aside our differences. Perhaps liberals can learn to enjoy life more, and conservatives can give in to the occasional altruistic impulse.

George Woodwell reviewed Having Faith for Science magazine and we spoke with him about the book and the issues it raises2. Dr. Woodwell received the Ph.D. in botany from Duke University. He is an ecologist with broad interests in global environmental issues and policies. Prior to founding the Woods Hole Research Center, he was founder and director of the Ecosystems Center of the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole and a senior scientist at Brookhaven National Laboratories. He was a founding trustee and is vice chairman of the board of the Natural Resources Defense Council. He is a former chairman of the board of trustees and currently a member of the National Council of the World Wildlife Fund, a founding trustee of the World Resources Institute, a founder and currently an honorary member of the board of trustees of the Environmental Defense Fund and a former president of the Ecological Society of America. He is the author of over 300 papers and books in ecology and is the recipient of several honorary degrees as well as the 1996 Heinz Environment Award, and the 2001 Volvo Environment Prize. He is a member of the National Academy of Sciences.

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