Saturday, March 27, 2010

Having Faith An Ecologist’s Journey to Motherhood by Sandra Steingraber

I’ve read a number of books by mothers about having children over the past few years, so I was surprised I had not heard of this book by Sandra Steingraber, especially since it was published in 2001. It was an interview with the author in The Sun in January that first caught my attention. Steingraber has a Ph.D. in biology and is also a cancer survivor. She is passionate about environmental toxins and the problems they cause. I have yet to read her first book entitled Living Downstream: A Scientist’s Personal Investigation of Cancer and the Environment. In the introduction to her interview with The Sun she takes issue with the idea that her cancer stemmed from genetic causes.

“Years later, when cancer research began to focus on genetic causes, she submitted to doctors’ questions about her family history. She would recount her mother’s breast cancer, her uncles’ prostate and colon cancers, and her aunt’s bladder cancer. The doctors would nod knowingly. Then she would reveal that she was adopted.”

So, Having Faith is not your typical memoir about having a first baby. In fact, I would not recommend it to anyone who is currently or soon to be pregnant. It starts off gently. I completely agree with her complaint about gestation and how obstetricians consider you pregnant two weeks before you are pregnant, not because it is accurate, but because it is easier. She also gives some interesting historical perspectives. For example, morning sickness used to be considered a psychological problem.

“In one hospital in the 1930s, pregnant women prone to sickness were confined to bed and forbidden visitors and vomit bowls until they showed improvement. As further incentive for recovery, the nurses who cared for them were instructed to refrain from changing their sheets promptly.”

The book is initially organized with a chapter devoted to each month of her pregnancy. The really scary stuff starts in Chapter 3 where she looks into four different problems from the past and their impact on pregnancies. Her examples of rubella, thalidomide, Minamata (a town in Japan with mercury waste in the water), and diethylstilbestrol are not for the faint hearted. Thalidomide was given in the late 50s to quell morning sickness, however, it results in what is called reduction limb deficit, which is exactly what it sounds like. The day that thalidomide was taken would correspond to different birth defects, for example, a pill taken on days 35-37 of the pregnancy would result in a baby with no ears, and this is mapped out for which limbs would be lost depending on what day the drug was taken.

Her main point is that the fetus is very vulnerable to environmental toxins, but this is rarely discussed with pregnant women, instead the focus is on possible genetic problems.

“The most troubling aspects of prenatal testing still seem to me the single-minded search for rare genetic defects and the concomitant disregard of environmental threats to pregnancy. For expectant mothers over thirty-five, the hunt for chromosomal trisomies has become a routine part of prenatal care. But ask if your amniotic fluid contains pesticides, and if, so, how this contamination may affect the development of your baby, and you are likely to be met with blank stares. Genes and environment are two partners in a dance of creation.”

The second half of the book, immediately prior to and once her daughter Faith is born, is easier reading and tends to sound more like a memoir. She begins to wonder if a birth at a renowned teaching hospital is the best idea, especially one where epidurals and episiotomies are routine. She quarrels with the idea that pregnant women are sick and should be treated as patients.

“As more than one advocate of natural childbirth has pointed out, if labor and delivery were viewed less as medical events and more as Olympic ones, this distinction would be obvious. Who, after all, would rush up to a marathon runner in the final stretch with a needleful of narcotics?”

She does return to environmental toxins and makes the point that man is not at the top of the food chain, but rather a breastfeeding infant resides there. She examines toxins found in breast milk and looks at studies for how these toxins impact children later in life. Should we tell women, not just pregnant ones, but any 10 year old considering ever having a child, to behave in certain ways and avoid certain foods, or should we clean up those foods? It seems clear to me that we would all be much better off with the cleaned up foods.

Her book reminds me of an article in National Geographic where the author was tested for 320 different chemicals. It would be so interesting for each person to know this information for themselves, but obviously not feasible considering the $15K price tag. I think this is a book I’m going to purchase and set on my shelf next to Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring.

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