- Those of you who know me know that when I talk on these
topics I usually speak out of two identities: biologist and cancer activist.
My diagnosis with bladder cancer at age 20 makes more urgent my scientific
research. Conversely, my Ph.D. in ecology informs my understanding of how
and why I became a cancer patient in the first place: bladder cancer is
considered a quintessential environmental disease. Links between environment
and public health became the topic of my third book, LIVING DOWNSTREAM,
but since I have been given the task of speaking about the effect of toxic
materials on future generations, I'm going to speak out of another one
of my identities -- that of a mother.
- I'm a very new mother. I gave birth in September 1998
to my daughter and first child. So, I'm going to speak very intimately
and in the present tense. You know it's a very powerful thing for a person
with a cancer history to have a child. It's a very long commitment for
those of us unaccustomed to looking far into the future. My daughter's
name is Faith.
- I'm also learning what all parents must learn, which
is a new kind of love. It's a love that's more than an emotion or a feeling.
It's a deep physical craving like hunger or thirst. It's the realization
that you would lay down your life for this eight-pound person without a
second thought. You would pick up arms for them. You would empty your bank
account. It's love without boundaries and were this kind of love directed
at another adult, it would be considered totally inappropriate. A kind
of fatal attraction. Maybe, when directed at babies, we should call this
- I say this to remind us all what is at stake. If we would
die or kill for our children, wouldn't we do anything within our power
to keep toxics out of their food supply? Especially if we knew, in fact,
there were alternatives to these toxics?
- Of all human food, breast milk is now the most contaminated.
Because it is one rung up on the food chain higher than the foods we adults
eat, the trace amounts of toxic residues carried into mothers' bodies become
even more concentrated in the milk their breasts produce. To be specific,
it's about 10 to 100 times more contaminated with dioxins than the next
highest level of stuff on the human food chain, which are animal-derived
fats in dairy, meat, eggs, and fish. This is why a breast-fed infant receives
its so-called "safe" lifetime limit of dioxin in the first six
months of drinking breast milk. Study after study also shows that the concentration
of carcinogens in human breast milk declines steadily as nursing continues.
Thus the protective effect of breast feeding on the mother appears to be
a direct result of downloading a lifelong burden of carcinogens from her
breasts into the tiny body of her infant.
- When it comes to the production, use, and disposal of
PVC [polyvinyl chloride plastic], the breasts of breast-feeding mothers
are the tailpipe. Representatives from the vinyl industry emphasize how
common a material PVC is, and they are correct. It is found in medical
products, toys, food packaging, and vinyl siding. What they don't say is
that sooner or later all of these products are tossed into the trash, and
here in New England, we tend to shovel our trash into incinerators. Incinerators
are de facto laboratories for dioxin manufacture, and PVC is the main ingredient
in this process. The dioxin created by the burning of PVC drifts from the
stacks of these incinerators, attaches to dust particles in the atmosphere,
and eventually sifts down to Earth as either dry deposition or in rain
drops. This deposition then coats crops and other plants, which are eaten
by cows, chickens, and hogs. Or, alternatively, it's rained into rivers
and lakes and insinuates itself into the flesh of fish. As a breast-feeding
mother, I take these molecules into my body and distill them in my breast
tissue. This is done through a process through which fat globules from
throughout my whole body are mobilized and carried into the breast lobes,
where, under the direction of a pituitary hormone called prolactin, they
are made into human milk. Then, under the direction of another pituitary
hormone called oxytocin, this milk springs from the grape-like lobes and
flows down long tubules into the nipple, which is a kind of sieve, and
into the back of the throat of the breast-feeding infant. My daughter.
- So, this, then, is the connection. This milk, my milk,
contains dioxins from old vinyl siding, discarded window blinds, junked
toys, and used I.V. bags. Plastic parts of buildings that were burned down
accidentally are also housed in my breasts. These are indisputable facts.
They are facts that we scientists are not arguing about. What we do spend
a lot of time debating is what exactly are the health effects on the generation
of children that my daughter belongs to. We don't know with certainty because
these kids have not reached the age at which a lot of diseases possibly
linked to dioxin exposure would manifest themselves. Unlike mice and rats,
we have long generational times. We do know with certainty that childhood
cancers are on the rise, and indeed they are rising faster than adult cancers.
We don't have any official explanation for that yet.
- Let me tell you something else I've learned about breast
feeding. It's an ecstatic experience. The same hormone (oxytocin) that
allows milk to flow from the back of the chest wall into the nipple also
controls female orgasm. This so-called let-down reflex makes the breast
feel very warm and full and fizzy, as if it were a shaken-up Coke bottle.
That's not unpleasant. Moreover, the mouths of infants -- their gums, tongues,
and palates -- are perfectly designed to receive this milk. A newborn's
mouth and a woman's nipple are like partners in a tango. The most expensive
breast pump -- and I have a $500 one -- can only extract about half of
the volume that a newborn baby can because such machines cannot possibly
imitate the intimate and exquisite tonguing, sucking, and gumming motion
that infants use to extract milk from the nipple, which is not unpleasant
- Through this ecstatic dance, the breast-fed infant receives
not just calories, but antibodies. Indeed the immune system is developed
through the process of breast feeding, which is why breast-fed infants
have fewer bouts of infectious diseases than bottle-fed babies. In fact,
the milk produced in the first few days after birth is almost all immunological
in function. This early milk is not white at all but clear and sticky and
is called colostrum. Then, from colostrum you move to what's called transitional
milk, which is very fatty and looks like liquid butter. Presumably then,
transitional milk is even more contaminated than mature milk, which comes
in at about two weeks post-partum. Interestingly, breast milk is so completely
digested that the feces of breast-fed babies doesn't even smell bad. It
has the odor of warm yogurt and the color of French mustard. By contrast,
the excretions of babies fed on formula are notoriously unpleasant.
- What is the price for the many benefits of breast milk?
We don't yet know. However, one recent Dutch study found that schoolchildren
who were breast fed as babies had three times the level of PCBs in their
blood as compared to children who had been exclusively formula fed. PCBs
are probably carcinogens. Why should there be any price for breast feeding?
It should be a zero-risk activity.
- If there was ever a need to invoke the Precautionary
Principle -- the idea that we must protect human life from possible toxic
danger well in advance of scientific proof about that danger -- it is here,
deep inside the chest walls of nursing mothers where capillaries carry
fat globules into the milk-producing lobes of the mammary gland. Not only
do we know little about the long-term health effects of dioxin and PCB
exposure in newborns, we haven't even identified all the thousands of constituent
elements in breast milk that these contaminants might act on. For example,
in 1997 researchers described 130 different sugars unique to human milk.
Called oligosaccharides, these sugars are not digested but function instead
to protect the infant from infection by binding tightly to intestinal pathogens.
Additionally, they appear to serve as a source of sialic acid, which is
essential to brain development.
- Most recently, Swedish researchers discovered powerful
anti-cancer proteins in breast milk. Activated by stomach acids, they appear
to enhance cell suicide in defective cells, which is one way our own bodies
protect us from developing cancer.
- So, this is my conclusion. Breast feeding is a sacred
act. It is a holy thing. To talk about breast feeding versus bottle feeding,
to weigh the known risks of infectious diseases against the possible risks
of childhood or adult cancers is an obscene argument. Those of us who are
advocates for women and children and those of us who are parents of any
kind need to become advocates for uncontaminated breast milk. A woman's
body is the first environment. If there are toxic materials from PVC in
the breasts of women, then it becomes our moral imperative to solve the
problem. If alternatives to PVC exist, then it becomes morally imperative
that we embrace the alternatives and make them a reality.
- ===============  Carolyn Raffensperger and Joel Tickner,
editors, PROTECTING PUBLIC HEALTH & THE ENVIRONMENT: IMPLEMENTING THE
PRECAUTIONARY PRINCIPLE (Washington, D.C.: Island Press, 1999). $30.00.
ISBN 1-55963-688-2. Telephone 1-800-828-1302.
-  Sandra Steingraber, poet, writer, biologist, and
cancer survivor, lives in Ithaca, N.Y.
-  C. Kohler and others, "Protease activation in
apoptosis induced by MAL," EXPERIMENTAL CELL RESEARCH Vol. 249, No.
2 (June 15, 1999), pgs. 260-268.
- Descriptor terms: breast milk; food safety; dioxin; pvc;
chlorine; plastics; precautionary principle; science and environmental
health network; sehn; book reviews;