A baby nursing at mother’s breast will ingest a better concoction of vitamins, sugars, essential minerals and proteins than Purina Petfood could ever dream of providing for the world’s most pedigreed show dogs. Baby will also benefit from enzymes and antibodies that can ward off ailments ranging from nasty infections to cancer. Mixed in with all the good stuff, baby will also be fed trace amounts of paint thinners, dry-cleaning fluids, wood preservatives, toilet deodorizers, cosmetic additives, gasoline byproducts, rocket fuel, termite poisons and flame-retardants. These were the results when Florence Williams sent off a sample of her breastmilk to a lab in Germany. Then she wrote a book about it.
Children today are born into an invisible toxic soup of byproducts from chemicals that ironically often are supposed to keep us safe, such as pesticide and flame retardant. Every year more than 4 billion tons of toxic chemicals are released into the environment – 72 million pounds of which are known carcinogens. These chemicals travel via air, water and the food chain, and you can’t escape them. You might be a complete eco-loving, treehugging Gaia freak and raise your kid on nothing but organic hempseeds, filtered water and natural oxytocin, but man-maid chemicals want to bestow some love on your child as well. As a matter of fact the highest level of breast milk toxicity is found among the Inuits. I don’t know of too many Inuits who are in the habit of spraying pesticides with PCB on their arctic food sources, so there is obviously more than direct consumption to blame here.
After colonizing your child’s body, many of these “trace elements” will have fun playing around with your child’s endocrine system. Girls today enter puberty a whole year earlier than they used to. But conventional school medicine keeps denying this link for lack of “evidence”, and points to the obesity epidemic as if that were the only cause. As if a mere correlation between obesity and early puberty were enough to determine the cause and even deny the existence of common culprits that could possibly cause both, especially when the correlation only presents in overweight girls and not in overweight boys. Maybe it’s those estrogenic chemicals than lipids after all? Is it so far-fetched to think that increasing rates of precocious puberty, low sperm counts, cancers and obesity are caused by the same endocrine disruptors? And who should have the burden of proving what? And so when we observe that earlier puberty sets in among children with the same BMI as girls in the past and in countries where children on average are leaner we really have reason to doubt that the EPA is up to par or at least very slow in it’s reaction.
And then there’s that whole thing with epigenetics. Epigenetics belong to that fascinating field of research that can silence both sides of the nature-nurture diatribes. It refers to that delicate network that informs genes how they should appear. So while genes in themselves cannot be affected by your environment, the “software” that activate certain genes and not others in your body is. And not only that, the resulting phenotype will also carry over to your children and grandchildren. So how you live today will indeed affect the genetic makeup of your descendents. The chemical BPA (or bisphenol-A) is one of those pesky things that attach to the DNA and pass from grandmother to mother to daughter via the mechanisms of epigenetic transfer. This is significant since we know (don’t we now?) that BPA has estrogen-mimicking qualities. Since you inherit environmentally caused gene expressions from your ancestors you don’t only carry chemical trace elements accumulated over your own lifetime, but theirs as well. That might not be such a big issue today since most of our own grandparents lived in a time with arguably less sophisticated chemical pollutants, but this cumulative buildup of chemicals will be an issue for our grandchildren. So much for “minuscule trace amounts”.
The BPA story, however, is one with a “happy ending”. (BPA is still around, hence the quotation marks.) I first started noticing a movement for BPA-free baby bottles among consumer advocates in California in the mid-2000s, but it took several years before you could find any BPA-free baby products in stores around the country, including baby bottles. I remember getting my own plastic stuff shipped from specialized manufacturers during those years. But today, good luck finding any child related item with BPA in it! That’s successful consumer advocacy at work. It takes a while, but it will eventually change the product range.
Another success story is the elimination of lead from consumer products. Yes, I’m aware of lead containing toys from China, but the very fact that it made a ruckus is a sign of its success. Lead paint was banned in 1978 after it was proven to cause nervous system damage and poisoning in developing children. The link has actually been proven so strong that lead has become one of the favorite explanations for why violent crimes have declined so much the last few decades.
But bad toxins and bad business practices will not curtail unless they are challenged by consumer activists and independent scientists. And the troubling trend these days is the silent war against whistleblowers and other silent wheelings and dealings. Lately a string of new laws and provisions are giving special interest groups, particularly in the food industry, immunities against a checks and balances system that would otherwise pull in their reigns and expose potentially unethical or hazardous practices. One deal that silently went down a few weeks back when all the activists and slactivists were busy changing their social avatars to white on red equal signs in support of marriage equality was the so-called ‘Monsanto Protection Act’. Monsanto is the biggest agricultural biotech company. If GM foods really are better and safer than it’s reputation – an argument I as a futurist am very ready to accept, why the heck do they need a “protection act” to stop potential criticism and bypass existing laws?
Even less known are the Ag gag laws, which criminalize the exposure of horrific animal abuse and potential contamination of meat. Why? Because the states that implemented the Ag gag laws can now prosecute undercover agents who record wrongdoings as terrorists. That’s right – a camera and concern for other species can earn you a criminal record with “terrorist” on it. Personally I think this is going to backfire big time and that people in PETA and other animal rights groups are going to use the terrorist label for all it’s worth. Because whenever that day comes that an activist goes on trial for terrorism after revealing slaughterhouse atrocities, they will get even more publicity and people will see how ridiculous it is to put these people in the same category as Al Qaeda members and Boston marathon bombers.
As a matter of fact what inspired me to write this post was a whistleblower, cancer survivor, mother and scientist who is now serving jail time for demonstrating against a fracking company. Today only a ‘secret public health” report is guaranteeing the safety of the fracking company’s operations, such as storing toxic byproducts close to a lake that provides drinking water to 100 000 nearby residents. Bill Moyer interviewed Sandra Steingraber a few days before her incarceration. It’s almost an hour long, but if you’re interested in the toxicity of childhood I encourage you to watch the whole program as it points to some systematic problems that affect the chemical composition of our children.
This post is not supposed to read like a political rant. Especially not a partisan rant. It’s so easy to throw around stereotypical political labels whenever the bed that is shared by big business and big politicians is discussed. As a matter of fact it was “small government” Nixon who pushed through the lead ban in the ’70s. And it was “change agent” Obama who signed the ‘Monsanto Protection Act’ to the chagrin of liberal and Tea Party activists alike. My beef on this blog is anything and everything that effects the youngest generation, and toxic childhood is indeed one of these issues. What do you think?