The Ecology of Women issue of On The Issue Magazine
How are women affected by toxins in water, air, products? And how can feminists respond? On The Issues Magazine, Spring 2011, looks at new frames for environmental activism.

A Tale of Two Nursing Mothers
by Chanda Chevannes


When my husband, Nathan, and I first announced that we were expecting a baby, we quickly received a lot of unsolicited advice — advice we usually ignored. But we did hear at least one good idea: Don’t change your life to fit your baby; fit your baby into your life.

As documentary filmmakers, we immediately saw the wisdom in this suggestion. Which is why, at seven o’clock one Saturday night in July 2008, I found myself, with my mother and my three-month-old baby, in the tiny, wood-paneled village hall of Congerville (population 502), in central Illinois. I was there with my small Canadian film crew to shoot the night’s events for my new documentary, Living Downstream. The subject of the film, acclaimed ecologist and cancer survivor Sandra Steingraber, was preparing to give a public speech. And we were preparing to shoot it.

Sandra’s topic — the links between synthetic chemicals and human health—was sure to challenge many of her audience members, including local farmers and their families. But, maybe because Sandra had grown up nearby, the mood was welcoming. A patchwork quilt hung on the wall behind the podium where Sandra would speak. Smells wafted from Crock Pots, casserole dishes, and serving platters brought by the local residents for the evening’s potluck. Rows of chairs filled the room, and all those chairs were filling with people who were strangers to me. Except for two familiar faces in the back row: my mother and my daughter, Hannah.

This is where my personal life met my public life: my milk — Hannah’s milk — was about to be used by Sandra as her sole visual aid of the evening. She was planning to hold the jar up for all to see. First, she would list off the amazing benefits of breast milk. Then she would pass the jar through the room and invite audience members to contemplate it. And then the reveal: Sandra would go on to say that breast milk is the most contaminated human food on the planet. Over two hundred chemicals have the ability to trespass into breast milk, including toilet deodorizers, mothproofing agents, and dry cleaning fluids. Organochlorines such as dioxins, DDT, and PCBs also make regular appearances in our milk. So do farm chemicals.

And the revelation of this evidence would lead Sandra to the main points of her lecture: that inherently toxic chemicals find their way into the most intimate parts of our lives, even our milk. That our environment is within us. That what we love, we must protect.

Mammal to Mammal

As a new mother, I was already sold on the benefits of breastfeeding. The World Health Organization recommends that infants be breastfed exclusively for the first six months, and then non-exclusively until at least the age of two. We know that babies who are breastfed have better immune systems, better hearing and eyesight, and higher IQs. They respond better to vaccinations, are less prone to infections, and have fewer allergies. We also know that breastfeeding means busy working mothers don’t have to waste time mixing (or money buying) formula. Breastfeeding seemed like a really good idea to me.

Unlike the beluga, we can do something about it

I had chosen to breastfeed Hannah for all of these compelling reasons. But what began as the logical choice became a deeply emotional activity. Nursing my daughter was a bonding experience. I could feel myself getting closer to her with each feeding. As I held her close to me, and watched her drink the milk I produced for her, a deep feeling grew inside of me. More than anything, I wanted to protect her.

As a filmmaker working on a scientific film, I also knew some worrisome facts about breast milk. For example, in an ongoing study, researchers at the University of Montreal have discovered that, compared to their male counterparts, female beluga whales in the St. Lawrence River have a lower burden of organochlorine chemicals in their tissues. What sounds like good news is not. According to the investigators, this finding is “best explained through massive transfer to the newborn during lactation, resulting in juvenile [organochlorine chemical] concentrations equal to or higher than in adult males."

To obtain this and other information, the researchers have been autopsying whales and collecting data for over twenty years. I had the opportunity to film one of these procedures for Living Downstream. An autopsy of a beluga takes more than four hours and about a dozen people. It is a smelly ordeal and by the end, the floor is slippery with blood. It’s a sad thing to witness the dissection of a whale. But this work could reveal at least a partial answer to the question of how these toxic chemicals may be affecting our health. About 25 percent of autopsied beluga whales in the highly polluted St. Lawrence River have been found to have cancer. And yet cancer has never been found in the belugas living in the less contaminated waters of the Arctic Ocean.

Standing in the autopsy room, I felt a strong connection to the mother beluga on the autopsy table. This feeling washed over me when veterinary professor Stéphane Lair, Ph.D., removed her mammary gland. Holding the whale’s breast in his gloved hands, Dr. Lair squeezed gently, and a greyish liquid oozed out. These were the last few drops of this mother’s milk. “What happened to her calf?" Dr. Lair wondered aloud. He spoke eloquently of the significance of this whale’s death. Not only does the population shrink when a mother whale dies, he said, but the entire community loses the knowledge she carried.

As he spoke, I thought of all the people who will meet a similar fate. One in four North Americans alive today will die of cancer. Even while breastfeeding clearly protects both mother and child against some types of cancer, the toxicants in our milk counteract its goodness.

Seeking Signs in Breast Milk

Back in Congerville, the camera rolled and the bright lights warmed the room, Sandra spoke with ease and humor. As she spoke tenderly about our children’s right to pure milk, I watched the audience absorb her words. But mostly, I watched the milk make its way through the audience. Some people passed it quickly, as if embarrassed to see human milk. Others looked at it with smiles of familiarity. A few even gripped the warm jar tightly, held it up to the light, swirled the creamy substance around and gazed at it as if they might catch a glimpse of one of the contaminants hidden within.

It was a meaningful moment for me. I knew the facts and figures Sandra was reciting, but I knew a few other things too. I knew these particular ounces of milk intimately. I had pumped and frozen them weeks ago when I was preparing for this trip. It had taken me three days to pump twelve ounces. (That’s four ounces each morning from my right breast. Now you know it intimately too.) My daughter also knew that milk. It was her sole source of energy and nutrition. She relied on it for her health and her survival.

I don’t want my newborn infant to be ingesting toxic chemicals in her milk.

Don’t fit your life to your baby; fit your baby to your life was good advice for me on a personal level. I wanted to stay independent. I wanted Hannah to learn how to live in the adult world. But that night as I watched my milk move through the audience of strangers, I realized that this motto doesn’t work at all on the public level. Bringing a child into a busy filmmaking family and asking her to adapt is one thing. Bringing her into a toxic world and continuing to ignore the practices that make it toxic is quite another. I don’t want my newborn infant to be ingesting toxic chemicals in her milk. I don’t want breast milk to become so contaminated with chemicals that infant formula suddenly seems like a good idea. (It’s not.) I don’t want to ask Hannah to live in the world the way it is. Instead, I want to change the world for her.

Strong evidence says that beluga whales are developing cancer and other health problems because of the toxicants that we have inserted into their habitat. Many researchers believe that the same is happening to humans. This unites us humans with the whales—as does the ability to feed our children from our own bodies, which is a distinct trait of all mammals. (We mammals are named for our mammary glands, after all.) But we are also united by the vulnerability of our bodies — and therefore the vulnerability of our children—to toxic chemicals. Like the beluga of the St. Lawrence, we have already lost a lot. Unlike the beluga, we can do something about it. This seems to me like the best idea of all.

Chanda Chevannes is the producer and director with The People’s Picture Company, based in Toronto, Canada. Her most recent project is the award-winning documentary, Living Downstream, which follows ecologist and cancer survivor, Sandra Steingraber, as she works to break the silence about cancer and its environmental links.

Also see: Acting As If Future Generations Matter by Carolyn Raffensperger in this edition of On The Issues Magazine

Also see: Message in BPA Baby Bottles: Don't Mess with Moms by Margie Kelly in this edition of On The Issues Magazine

Visit The Café of On The Issues Magazine for new stories and updates.

Rosemary Kavanagh posted: 2011-03-17 15:31:44

Excellent advocacy using personal experience. And a fascinating reflection. Thanks for putting this out there - food for thought is important especially when it is constructive and nurturing.

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