Pro-choice AND pro-life
Eco-Farm Keynote, Part 2: There's strong evidence, says ecologist and writer Sandra Steingraber, that agricultural chemicals cause miscarriages and deformities, contaminate breast milk, dirupt vulnerable stages of life like adolescence, and are the source of problems in old age--such as Parkinson's disease. Click here for Part I

An address by Sandra Steingraber
Posted October 13, 2005

Editor's Note: This keynote address—originally titled "Organic food as good prenatal care: agricultural threats to pregnancy, breast milk and infant development"--was delivered at the 25th anniversary Eco-Farm conference in Asilomar, California, on January 20, 2005. An edited transcription is reprinted here, in two parts, with the author’s generous permission.

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 awry.

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 and pathogens.

We now know that human amniotic fluid is contaminated with PCBs from industry as well as with pesticides.

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 the elderly.

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 it.

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.