||I’m very pro-choice. . . but
if we’re interested in fetal protection we need
to ask ourselves more than who’s walking into a
Planned Parenthood clinic to end their pregnancy. We need
to be asking what farm chemicals are in the drinking water.
I have found personally--growing
up in a very conservative part of the Midwest--that there’s
a lot of traction in talking about miscarriage and pregnancy
loss from agricultural chemicals with farming communities,
because many of them are very pro-life. In fact my uncle,
who’s a farmer in Illinois, and members of his family
actually do what they call clinic defense, where they go to
abortion clinics and try to prevent women from having abortions.
Now, I couldn’t be more on the opposite side of the
fence than that, so here’s what I say when I talk to
farming communities. I lay out the fact that I’m very
pro-choice, that I've had an abortion myself and so has every
woman in my family for reasons you might think are good or
not, but if we’re interested in fetal protection we
need to ask ourselves more than who’s walking into a
Planned Parenthood clinic to end their pregnancy.
We need to be asking what farm chemicals are in the drinking
water--which farmers may be responsible for putting in there--that
are ending pregnancies that may be very much desired by women.
Having undergone two miscarriages myself, I would be hard-pressed
to say whether pregnancy loss through miscarriage or pregnancy
loss through abortion is the more painful outcome. But right-to-life
needs to be expanded to take a look at some of our farm policies.
Birth defects caused by ag chemicals
Ok, let’s move on to organogenesis. So here, the human
body is actually taking shape. It’s kind of like Japanese
origami, where you’re taking flat pieces of tissue and
rolling them up and folding them up to form three-dimensional
structures. A human body forms from the head down and from
the center out, so the danger here then, when a toxic chemical
enters our story, is physical malformation, or what we call
a birth defect. We now know the exact timing of every single
structure in the body, so if we see a structure like cleft
palate, or a hole in the heart, [a malformation] that’s
both high up and in the center of the body, the midline, we
know that that happened very early on during the pregnancy.
Malformations like deformed ears, undescended testicles, webbed
or missing fingers and toes, happen very much later and we
know precisely what day in the human pregnancy those events
take place, so we know exactly when something must have gone
We do keep birth defect registries in the United States.
They’re not very good. The Europeans do a much better
job of this, so I spent a lot of time in the chapters of my
book Having Faith looking at European data. What those data
show you is that women who work--and this is data from Finland,
Spain, Italy and Sweden, so I’m going to kind of combine
these, and you can look up the footnotes if you’d like--women
who work in farming or in greenhouses, nurseries or floral
shops who have pesticide exposures during that period of time
called organogenesis, between weeks 5 and 10 of a human pregnancy,
their offspring are at a higher risk for particular kinds
of birth defects. Certain kinds of holes in the heart are
one, undescended testicles (that actually comes later in development
but it's included in there when exposure happens in the second
trimester), certain kinds of what we call limb reduction deficits
and certain kinds of cleft lips and cleft palates.
When I took that pretty good and reliable data and then took
a look at what goes on here in the U.S., I did find some corroborating
evidence. The best work is being done in Minnesota, where
we see a geographic pattern of birth defects in the state,
with the highest rate of birth defects overall occurring among
children of farmers in the western area, while the eastern
area of the state has fewer birth defects. People who live
in rural areas who are not in farming also have children with
higher rates of birth defects than would be expected.
Moreover, there’s a seasonality to the data. There’s
a spike in birth defects for children born in the late winter
who are either kids of farmers or live in rural areas, and
if you do the math to figure out when the period of organogenesis
is, it corresponds to the spring planting months, when pesticide
use is at its highest. When you look at their siblings, who
might have been born at different points in the calendar year,
they still have a higher than expected birth defect rate because
they live in rural areas, but they’re not as high as
the kids whose birthdays fall in a certain point of the calendar
year. We’re starting to see corroborating evidence for
that now coming out of Iowa.
Pesticide contamination of amniotic fluid
and breast milk
Let’s go on with our story, assuming there is no birth
defect. The next thing that happens is all this growth and
development. At this point the fetus is big enough to be moving
around and swallowing and is even practicing breathing, so
even though there’s no air in there it’s breathing
in and out so its diaphragm is getting exercise and becoming
toned, and what’s going in and out of its lungs is of
course amniotic fluid. That amniotic fluid is full of growth
factors whose job it is to jumpstart the immune system. Through
the inhalation of that fluid and through the swallowing of
that fluid in utero, the fetus is exposed to growth hormones
that start its ability to distinguish between harmless cells
|We now know that human amniotic fluid
is contaminated with PCBs from industry as well as with
We now know that human amniotic fluid is contaminated with
PCBs from industry as well as with pesticides. There’s
some good work done in Texas as well as in Los Angeles showing
us that. We don’t yet know what the result of all that
is, but we do know that human amniotic fluid now contains
enough pesticide residues that those same levels, when rats
are exposed to them in laboratories, have the ability to interfere
with hormones and suppress the immune system. The irony here
is the very fluid whose job it is to develop the immune system
is being laced with immune-suppressing chemicals such as DDT
metabolites and things like that. So the testing of amniotic
fluid for pesticides and traces of other agricultural chemicals
is another hot area of research right now that you might be
interested in trying to follow.
I’ll jump over all the dramatic events of labor and
delivery and go right onto breastfeeding for just a minute,
and then I’ll just have time to say a few sentences
about adolescence and old age, so I’ll move through
the rest of human life very quickly and then I’ll close
by reading a couple of paragraphs.
It’s really tough to talk about pesticide contamination
of breast milk from a pro-breastfeeding perspective. I’ve
devoted the last couple years of my life to doing just that.
It was a lot easier when my son Elijah, who’s now three,
was my audiovisual aid because I would actually openly nurse
him at the podium while I talked about it so that people could
see the body of a human mother nursing her child while I was
talking and speaking about the evidence of contamination in
that milk, so that nobody could take my words out of context.
The New York Times seems to get it. There was a piece in
the January 9, 2005 Sunday Magazine section of the New York
Times, written by a woman named Florence Williams, a journalist
in Denver who was inspired by Having Faith and who I worked
with very closely, who wrote I think a very sensitive first-person
story about having her own milk tested for contaminants. There
are pictures of her nursing her child and even though she’s
also talking about the levels of contaminants in her breast
milk, she clearly is pro-breastfeeding.
But it’s a very tricky thing to do, and some of my
worst hate mail actually has come from places like La Leche
League and people whom I consider my allies but who are rightfully
fearful that if we say anything bad about breast milk it will
turn people back to industrialized food like formula, which
I don’t want my research and my writing to do at all.
But it’s tough. I have given lectures to pediatricians
and woken up the next morning, opened the newspaper and there’s
a headline that says something like “Cornell prof says
poisons in mother’s milk,” and being a mother
of young children myself, I know that there are times where
all you have time to do is to look at the headlines, you know,
you don’t read the rest, and so I worry that it puts
people off of breastfeeding.
Everyone who’s pro-breastfeeding
[should] insist that any chemical, especially an agricultural
one, that’s known to be toxic and known to accumulate
in mother’s milk should have no role in our economy.
So let me just say this about it: We have not yet contaminated
breast milk with agricultural chemicals to the point where
it’s a worse food for human infants than infant formula
is. But I don’t think we need to get to that point.
Breastfeeding should be a sacred communion between mother
and child and it should be the right of every child to toxic-free
food. Right now no child in the world has that right because
breast milk is universally contaminated, and the number one
contaminant around the world is still the pesticide DDT, which
was first identified in human milk in 1951.
This is an enormous task, to decontaminate the first food,
amniotic fluid, breast milk, but it’s going to require
not keeping secrets. We have to have a conversation about
this, and it’s going to require nursing mothers and
midwives and obstetricians and everyone who’s pro-breastfeeding
to get on the bandwagon and insist that any chemical, especially
an agricultural one, that’s known to be toxic and known
to accumulate in mother’s milk should have no role in
our economy and we need to make it a national priority to
phase these chemicals out as soon as possible.
Other vulnerable life stages: adolescence
and old age
Adolescence is another time of exquisite vulnerability. The
body is undergoing a remarkable growth spurt, and it’s
under exquisite hormonal control. You might remember the very
dramatic psychological events of adolescence as you experienced
them. Those were caused by changes at the parts-per-trillion
level of certain steroid hormones, and you ended up becoming
a completely messed up person for seven years as a result.
So if you start adding hormone-disrupting chemicals, which
many agricultural chemicals are, to the mix, the worry is
that you’re actually altering the timing of puberty,
the duration of puberty, and the actual events as they unfold.
I’m just starting to look into this--this is probably
the topic of my next book, but I’m at the beginning
of my research--so all I want to do now is dispel one myth:
It’s not true that girls are starting their periods
earlier now than they used to. The average age of first menstruation
is still 12.8 years and it has been that way for 50 years,
so that’s an urban myth of some kind. What does seem
to be happening is that girls are starting pubic hair development
and breast development sooner, so there’s a longer window
of time between the onset of puberty and when menstruation
actually occurs for the first time. So we’re spreading
out the events of puberty and perhaps starting them earlier.
But what’s interesting about that is pubic hair development
isn’t under the control of estrogen at all, it’s
under the control of adrenal hormones. So there’s a
lot of kind of sloppy science out there claiming that hormone-mimicking
chemicals are making kids go into puberty sooner, but it’s
a lot more complicated than that. I don’t know what
the answer is yet. The obesity epidemic is playing a role,
because fat tissue itself makes estrogen, and fat girls enter
puberty sooner on average than lean girls, so we have to tease
all that apart and the science just hasn’t been done
yet. So this is a completely uncharted area but one I probably
will throw my hat into at some point.
|There’s an emerging body of
evidence. . . that suggests a link between pesticide exposure
in early adulthood and Parkinson’s disease among
I’m going to close by mentioning one thing about the
elderly. There’s an emerging body of evidence, which
I think is getting more compelling all the time, that suggests
a link between pesticide exposure in early adulthood and Parkinson’s
disease among the elderly. I’m interested in this because
my dad died of Parkinson’s. Until a week ago, he was
demented, rigid, incontinent, unable to talk, swallow or blink
his eyes. This was his condition at the time of his death.
He was also as an eighteen-year-old combatant in Italy, in
Naples. He was present when DDT was deployed for the very
first time to halt the typhus epidemic among war refugees
in Italy and he was part of that deployment of DDT. Now whether
or not that exposure or his subsequent, pre-Silent Spring
exposures to all the chemicals he used in his gardens and
his orchard had anything to do with his 20-year struggle with
Parkinson’s I’ll never know. But I’m interested
as a biologist, and I'm keeping my eye on that possible connection
to see how it plays out.
Those of you who know me know that I always close by reading
one of the more lyrical passages from one of my books, because
I always need to remind myself, as well as my listeners, that
behind all this data and science lie human lives. There's
a lot of joy and love behind all the data points. So this
is the scene from my first amniocentesis with my daughter
Faith, who by the way is with me here at this conference.
She’s now a six-year-old, and very much a know-it-all,
so I’m sure she’ll give you an earful if you talk
to her about anything.
The scene here is the Beth Israel Hospital in Boston, and
I’ve just had an amniocentesis. This is a process by
which 30 ccs--about a shot glass full--of amniotic fluid is
removed from the belly of a pregnant woman to be checked for
chromosomal abnormalities, the dead skin cells that fetuses
slough off in the amniotic fluid. You get dead skin cells,
culture the DNA, and you check for things like Down's Syndrome.
Since I was almost 40 at the time of pregnancy, it was a recommended
thing. I’m also adopted and didn’t know my genetic
history. I know a lot of people, thoughtful women, forgo this
procedure. It’s pretty invasive, but I decided to undergo
When the fluid was removed, I asked to hold the amniotic
fluid because I really wanted to see it. It’s hot as
blood, you know, and I was holding it in my hands, and it’s
this golden color, it’s a beautiful amber color. So
I said to my obstetrician, “It’s like liquid amber.
It’s the loveliest substance I’ve ever seen.”
And she said, “That’s baby pee. We like it yellow,
that’s a sign of good kidney functioning.” So
that brought me back from this sort of spiritual reverie to
my more biological self. Then I started meditating on baby
pee, and here’s what I came up with:
“And what is it before that?
Before it is baby pee it is drinking water. Before it is
drinking water, amniotic fluid is the creeks and rivers
that fill reservoirs. It is the underground water that fills
wells. Before it is creeks and rivers and groundwater, amniotic
fluid is rain. When I hold in my hands a tube of my own
amniotic fluid, I am holding a tube full of raindrops. Amniotic
fluid is also the juice of oranges I had for breakfast,
the milk I poured over my cereal, the honey that I stirred
into my tea. It is inside the green cells of spinach leaves
and the damp flesh of apples. It is the yolk of an egg.
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. The blood of cows
and chickens is in this tube, the nectar gathered by bees
and hummingbirds is in this tube. Whatever is inside hummingbird
eggs is also inside my womb. Whatever is in the world’s
water is here in my hands.”
So thanks to the organic growers and farmers in the room.
My kids are made of the stuff that you grow. And thanks to
all of you for letting me use this time to eulogize my father
a bit. It’s wonderful to be here.