Book Review: Having Faith: An Ecologist's Journey To Motherhood by Sandra Steingraber

 Having Faith: An Ecologist's Journey To Motherhood

by Sandra Steingraber
$26.00, 342 pages
Perseus Publishing, 2001

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“What are babies made with?” my friend's five-year-old asked me as I held his newborn brother. I mused how to answer: a sperm and egg, blood and water, hormones that send millions of messages telling cells how to shape new life, all too many toxic chemicals. ... How should I respond?

Having just read Sandra Steingraber's new book, I realized that the answer has only become more complex. In Having Faith, Steingraber takes Rachel Carson's Silent Spring a step further by turning her scientific gaze inward at the budding new life in her own womb. As her personal and scientific inquiry unfolds, it becomes piercingly clear that the tens of thousands of synthetic chemicals now existing in our environment can disrupt normal growth at every stage of development. In fact, her findings strongly suggest that having a healthy child today is even more of a miracle and is increasingly threatened.

Steingraber divides the first part of the book into nine chapters, corresponding to her nine months of pregnancy. She names each part a new moon to reflect the ever-changing first environment that a child has: the mother's body. Though she begins with her discovery of being pregnant, she quickly swims upstream to explore earlier life experiences of growing up in rural Illinois where pesticides and fertilizers were heavily used and as a cancer survivor in her 20s. In this way, she makes the case that her lifetime body burden of environmental toxins—long before conception—may not only have affected her own health, but could also affect the development of the fetus now growing in her belly.

As each month passes, her capacity to combine her personal experience with a keen scientific mind and sense of humor is engaging and even at moments breath-taking. She cites studies, historical references, literature, and anecdotes from her life to capture the exquisite evolution of the human embryo. She marvels at the formation of each new organ, of limbs, bones and skin, and, with the expressiveness of a poet, describes the intricacy of molecular biology as well as the impact toxic chemicals may have on each stage of fetal development. Throughout her pregnancy and childbirth, she highlights the tough choices women of child-bearing age today must make, from what they eat to what kind of medical interventions to allow.

In the second (and last) part of the book, Steingraber, now a breastfeeding mom to her daughter Faith, gives us an even broader framework in which to understand the nature of environmental toxins not only within our own bodies and communities, but throughout our nation and world. Noting significant increases recently in childhood asthma, certain childhood cancers, learning disabilities, and hypospadius, she passionately deplores the chemical experiment we are now performing world wide on our most vulnerable population—children.

In a striking passage, she relates passing around some of her own breast milk to delegates at a UN meeting in Geneva—this is clearly not a gimmick, but a sincere plea to awaken those with political clout to the stunning realization that breast milk is now the most toxic human food available. Though Steingraber emphasizes breast feeding is still the best thing a new mother can offer her newborn for many reasons, she argues that the fact that breast milk has become so contaminated is nothing short of a global human rights issue.

In this light, she calls upon all of us to act with precaution and prevent harm to children by producing and using the least toxic alternatives available whenever possible.

In short, Steingraber's powerful and careful analysis of the current questions and serious issues is an essential text not only for environmental health scientists, advocates, and future parents, but for all who care about the health of future generations.

I realized that as someone who is considering the prospects of motherhood myself, perhaps Steingraber has named the best response I could offer my five-year-old friend in the context of so many possible toxic threats—babies are indeed made with a large dose of faith.

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