||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
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
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
|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
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
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
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.