Publication Date:December 2002
Reviewed Title:Having Faith (2001)
Reviewed Publisher:Cambridge, MA: Perseus Publishing. 341 pp. ISBN: 0-7382-0467-6
"Everything is political."-Ani DeFranco
Perhaps the greatest threats to future generations are the toxic pollutants that proliferate unchecked in our environment and that migrate with ease across the placental barrier. Biologist Sandra Steingraber wrote this book while she was pregnant with her first daughter, Faith. It chronicles the stages of pregnancy she experienced, with attention to the embryological details of development. Deeply personalized renderings of what it is like to carry your first child are relayed alongside the truth about the impact of pernicious pollutants on our children, some as common as car exhaust and cleaning solvents.
Reading this remarkable book, I felt great and multifaceted gratitude to Dr. Steingraber for writing it. She simultaneously answers a broad spectrum of needs, not the least of which is a highly readable accounting of fetal development by an attuned, intelligent mother. She gives us the historical framework on the current situation regarding toxins. She provides evidence that shows how these chemicals can shape neurological development as they enter unseen into the brains and bodies of our babies. She makes a clear case that our children are now, and have long been, debilitated and maimed as a consequence of the rush to corporate wealth, usually with government support.
What is remarkable is, despite the business, political and scientific communities' disregard for fetal life; there have been critical outspoken individuals without whom even more damage would have been done. The names of these heroes and heroines are largely unknown to the general public, but they have saved millions of children from the horrors their unfortunate predecessors could not avoid. These include reduction limb deficit, phocomelia (when babies are born with flippers instead of limbs), cranial deformities, and behavioral dysfunction that appears later (such as mental retardation, autism and hyperactivity). Within this book, Sandra Steingraber creates a living memorial to these courageous individuals that I hope many will visit. They include Frances Kelsey, an FDA physician who spoke out against thalidomide, and W. Eugene Smith, a photographer who so unforgettably portrayed the children deformed by exposure to methylmercury that he stimulated new research and legal action.
Also included is Dr. N. McAlister Gregg, who wrote, in 1941, the first study to document a causal link between birth defects and environmental factors. His prophetic report, written long before initials like DDE, PCB, POL and DES haunted our land, was a harbinger of "toxic influences known to be transmittable transplacentally." Kelsey, Smith and Gregg-their names and their vision give us heart now when we must follow in their footsteps to protect fetuses and babies who cannot verbalize on their own behalf.
We must be aware of the socioeconomic component of prenatal and perinatal health. Dr. Steingraber is unflinching in giving us the facts to sustain this awareness. In the end, it is frequently citizen activism and art, rather than the slow accumulation of scientific knowledge, that creates change. That means you and me-the citizen activists, writers and artists who will speak out now before it is too late. For extra motivation, remember this-the principle of biomagnification intensifies the toxicity of all pollutants, causing them to spread exponentially into the soil from which we harvest our food, the waters in which fish swim, and, most dramatically, into the milk of nursing mothers where the impact of biomagnification is further intensified.
"The information from US birth defect registries turns out to be astonishingly incomplete," writes Steingraber. "Indeed, the data are so deficient to be almost meaningless for some disorders. This is an amazing discovery. Birth defects are the number one killer of infants in the United States." And what is even worse is that "there is no national system to track birth defects and report on trends." Reading this, one stunning question surfaces for me: Do we even care about life at all? If we do, we must act now to protect it, for it is precious.
Sandra Steingraber does what I believe few even try to do. She humanizes science, making it available with purpose to the people. She builds the very bridges that have to be built immediately between environmental activists and nursing mothers, between humanistic physicians and ecologists, between family birthing unit nurses and prenatal psychologists, between and for all the people who have a heartfelt, compassionate commitment to the children of the future.
No one in the field of prenatal and perinatal health or who advocates for children should fail to read this book. It is an eloquent and straightforward investigation into the prenatal neurological, physiological and spiritual consequences of dangerous pollutants. Dr. Steingraber is a poet-scientist-a rare and endangered breed-and a spokeswoman for the health of all children everywhere. Her graceful writing makes it possible to read about the painful realities of how business and government have mutilated the very fabric of life-and continue to do it.
On another note, in reading of Sandra's labor and Faith's birth, I saw how even someone as brilliant and conscious as Sandra Steingraber could, in the potency of labor, sacrifice her own direction in delivery. I felt another wave of gratitude that I had birthed both my children at home, including my last when I was forty-five years old. There, my children were safe from the pitocin IV, and I from the "required" episiotomy, both of which Sandra could not resist though she courageously fought off induction of labor.
Please read this book, digest its message, and act accordingly in this suffering world.