Do you breathe the water?

This entry is part 2 of 4 in the series Having Faith: An Ecologist's Journey to Motherhood

During my first pregnancy, I lived on a truck route.

My pregnancy manual, the ubiquitous and sometimes disturbing What to Expect When You’re Expecting, said that unless I was living in a bus terminal or a tollbooth, “breathing in the big city…isn’t as risky as you might think…. Even in the 1960s, when pollution was at its worst levels in such smoggy places as Los Angeles and New York, no damage to the unborn was documented.” Then it listed seven different strategies for avoiding exposure to air pollution.

As a newly pregnant woman, expecting for the first time, I was concerned. So I asked my nurse-midwife, who looked at me as if I were a bit loony and then basically gave me the same answer as the book, but in a more patronizing tone. But after reading the fourth and fifth chapters of Sandra Steingraber’s Having Faith: An Ecologist’s Journey to Motherhood, “Egg Moon” and “Mother’s Moon,” I am beginning to wonder.

In “Egg Moon,” Steingraber walks us through the process of amniocentesis. It’s a beautiful portrayal of a medical procedure; I loved the inter-weaving of bird-migration and song, the signs of the seasons, with her waiting for the results of her tests; the parallels between searching for a glimpse of the birds and waiting for a glimpse of her child.

What gave me pause as I read, though, was that the amniotic fluid is “re-cycled” to the baby from the mother, passing between them over and over. By delivery-time, this happens once every hour. Holding a tube of her own amniotic fluid, Steingraber says:

I drink water, and it becomes blood plasma, which suffuses through the amniotic sac and surrounds the baby–who also drinks it.

And what is it before that? Before it is drinking water, amniotic fluid is the creeks and rivers that fill reservoirs. It is the underground water that fills wells. And before it is creeks and rivers and groundwater, amniotic fluid is rain….When I look at amniotic fluid, I am looking at rain falling on orange groves. I am looking at melon fields, potatoes in wet earth, frost on pasture grasses….Whatever is in the world’s water is here in my hands.

Steingraber expresses frustration over the narrowness of this test. All this effort goes into examining the genome, but none of the horrific birth defects described in the previous chapter were due to chromosomal abnormalities. The majority of birth defects, in fact, are not due to genetic mistakes; nonetheless, amniocentesis looks only at the genes. What if, Steingraber asks, the test looked at exposure to environmental contaminants? DDT and PCBs have been found in samples of amniotic fluid; we don’t know what effects they might be having on our children.

This frustration over our ignorance continues in “Mother’s Moon,” as Steingraber looks at birth defects in more depth. We really have very little systematic information about the causes of birth defects. Many defects seem to be linked to exposure to various chemicals or pesticides used on farms or by fathers at work. She looks up just what is in her water supply, and visits the reservoirs that supply her home (something she recommends to others). The high level of pesticide use in southern Illinois prompts Steingraber to drink only bottled water.

Do I feel comfortable drinking water that may well contain levels of fertilizer sufficient to kill baby frogs? No….But I am not fooling myself. When people ask me if I drink the water here I answer yes. Every time I have soup in the faculty cafeteria. Every time I have a cup of tea with a student. Every time I breathe.

In both chapters, I see again the truth to the phrase, “you are what you eat,” but even more so were my babies. The air I breathed on a truck route in the middle of Chicago was shared, over and over again, by the two little people growing inside of me. They were born full-term and healthy. About six years ago, though, one of them was diagnosed with juvenile scleroderma, a rare autoimmune disease that results in too much collagen (the material in fingernails and hair) being produced in the cells. In the affected areas skin scars and hardens, muscles atrophy, growth is hindered. We fight it with prayer and medicine and exercise, with good results from all three, for which we are thankful. But no one really knows the cause of this disease, and I wonder, what are the consequences of living on a truck route for three years, where you could run your finger along the windowsill and pick up diesel grime?

I guess today I feel thankful for CSA farmers like Kriss at Circle M Farm and Claire at Troy Gardens who are committed to growing fruits and vegetables organically. I know that this is not easy. I remember a newsletter from Troy Gardens recounting their labors getting rid of potato-bugs by hand. Such local efforts seem small when I look at the immense amounts of toxins that are out there and available to pass through us. But it is a step in the right direction, and makes some of our food a little healthier.

So this week my questions are a little more practical:

  1. What are you eating? Do you know where it comes from?
  2. Do you know what is in the tap water that vaporizes in your home? How toxic is ten minutes of your shower? What does your family inhale from your dishwasher?

Here are some links to help:

Go have a look and let us know….

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  1. I felt the most shocking revelation in this chapter, and there are quite a few in each, is that TAKING A SHOWER is as toxic or more so than drinking contaminated tap water. I discussed this with a friend who was here at the farm to help me paint my kitchen this weekend. She, a mother of two and doula to many more, is one of the most environmentally-aware people I know and she’d never heard of such a thing. We both concluded that we are so very very under-informed, so at the mercy of our governments and corporations, so dependent on our providers to be truthful. Our conversation continued to the recent reports in the news of disastrous amounts of plastic bottled water containers now flooding landfills. Feeding your family and body bottled water seemed to be a healthy choice until so very recently.

    The thing is, most of the time I simply don’t what to know what I’m absorbing in the shower. I just want to enjoy my shower! But to live like that is to live sick and consign others to the same. It’s cowardly and lazy and I confess that I’m guilty.

    So what are we to do? I think maybe read, talk and read some more. Nicole’s recipe of prayer, medicine and exercise sounds pretty good, with “clean food” in the place of medicine most of the time for most of us. And then I think that when we find ourselves with energy, we should commit ourselves to making some impact of some kind. Even something as simple as eating a locally grown meal once a week, cleaning most often with vinegar instead of bleach or re-using plastic shopping bags can add up.

  2. Meredith Soyster says

    In reading these chapters I, too, was struck by my profound ignorance. The scope of the problem seems so very vast, almost as to be unsolvable. I think we are at a place, finally, where we’re really trying to wrap our collective heads around the confounding problem(s) of environmental degradation and global warming. But what is so hard is that there are no ready solutions. At least not comprehensive ones. And some days I just wonder how much more can I do?

    I recently attended the American Public Health Conference and there was a great panel discussion on health and global warming. Talk about near-future health implications — the disease burden is likely to expand dramatically — and it is expected to be the worst in places that aren’t major environmental polluters: Africa will be the worst hit. And I worry about that — and am enraged by the unfairness of it. It’s a whole new kind of injustice about to perpetrated by the wealthiest of nations.

    But back to KM’s earlier thought — that acting locally, even if you start slowly, is a start. And so we try to walk where we can. And we buy milk at a local dairy that doesn’t use hormones and feeds cows on grass, though not in winter. Not only does it seem better ecologically, the milk tastes amazing. And the process is warm and friendly. We know the people who produce our milk.

    That brings me to MK’s post from last week. I’ve been turning over her words — and the challenge of marketing the farm without the ‘label’ of organic. And it came to me today that community-based action shouldn’t really be about labels. In fact, in communities labels matter little. Because labels are just a short-cut to what something or someone really is. Labels deny complexity and nuance. And healthy communities are all about nuance. It’s about being who you are but accepting others for who they are too. In big cities, it’s pretty easy to be selective. To insist on the label being right. And its also pretty easy to find friends that have nearly identical belief systems. But when you live in community with others, one is forced to recognize the strengths in difference — otherwise the community flounders.

  3. What a life-giving post you’ve written there, MS. I think you’ve hit the nail on the head for me, in terms of visioning my farm for the future. You are right about community – it represents both an opportunity and a challenge for those who aspire to be providers. The accountability is very very high, a challenge. Yet that very closeness renders labels unnecessary and presents an opportunity to eliminate extra costs and paperwork. I wrote elsewhere recently that I really wished I could be one of those old-fashioned French “truck” farmers, living just outside of town, hauling my vegetables to the city and lovingly espousing their virtues to an appreciative public. That can’t happen in my tiny town right now, but providing my CSA customers with a bi-weekly box comes pretty close. Reading your words made me realize that what I need to build, in terms of a market, is really a community centered around care and appreciation for the land. I guess that’s really been what’s happened in an “organic” spontaneous way here at Circle M already, but in my heart I’ve felt less-than-legitimate for not being certified organic. And worried that I won’t be able to grow my business if I’m not. “Complexity and nuance.” I can live with that!

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