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:
- What are you eating? Do you know where it comes from?
- 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….