Having faith

I read an article in the Toronto Star a while ago: "Mercury in fish brings warning". The article advises pregnant and nursing mothers against eating fish high in mercury, and it sparked something in me which I have been thinking about ever since I read Having Faith, by Sandra Steingraber, an ecologist who became pregnant with her first child at age 38. Over the course of her pregnancy, she undertook an exhaustive study of embryonic and fetal development, and the dangers posed to this development by environmental pollutants. After her baby, Faith, was born she spoke powerfully at the UN about the dangers of breast milk contamination. From this combination of personal experience and extensive research has sprung her book, Having Faith.

Sandra is a poetic writer, and her passages describing the biology of pregnancy can be achingly beautiful. The structure of the placenta growing into the walls of the uterus is compared to that of a maple grove: "by the third month of pregnancy, the treetops of an entire forest press up against the deepest layers of the womb ... it's canopy of placental branches ... pump[ing] much of what it needs out of the percolating raindrops of maternal blood." (31) Organogenesis, the differentiation of cells into body parts "sometimes ... seems like a magic show. At other times it's like origami, the formation of elegant structures from the folding of flat sheets. It also involves cellular wanderings worthy of Odysseus." (14) That this fantastical and delicate growth process - the formation of organs, fingers, toes, eyes, the growth of the brain -- is described in such elegant language, serves to make the main thrust of the book all the more potent. Sandra makes the cogent argument, backed up by a history of regulatory neglect (which has been countered by inspirational courageous action), that we are not doing enough to protect ourselves and our young ones from the potential ravages of environmental toxins. Toxins that have only passing, transient effects on fully grown adults can interfere with critical processes in fetal development by interrupting a delicate origami fold, or by tripping up an Odyssean nerve cell migrating through the young brain. Timing can be more critical than dose.

One issue her book addresses in detail is the danger posed to fetal brain development by exposure to methylmercury. Most mercury is released into the environment by the burning of coal in coal-fired power plants. From there, it makes it way into waterways, where tiny bacteria attach a carbon atom to mercury to make methylmercury. This methylmercury, released back into the water, attaches itself to tiny algae and plankton, which are then strained from the water by filter-feeders, in turn gobbled up by fish, and so on, up the food chain, in the usual process of biomagnification, to us.

Sadly, the passage of methylmercury is not blocked by the placental barrier. Sandra notes that "in the case of methylmercury the placenta functions more like a magnifying glass than a barrier." (34) It is for this reason that many public health organisations advise against the consumption of certain kinds of fish during pregnancy, especially the larger carnivores like shark, swordfish, and tuna. The good news is that avoiding fish can lower mercury levels in the body, as mercury only persists in human tissues for a few months. On the other hand, as Sandra points out,

an approach to fetal health that relies on nutritional sacrifices by the mother is still unsound. Cutting back on fish is not like cutting back on cigarettes and beer. Fish is good food ... the same succulent filet that carries fatty acids essential for brain growth also carry an injurious brain poison. (129)

Mercury concentrations in the atmosphere continue to rise, year over year, as new coal-powered generating plants are brought on line. Some would argue that taking action against climate change would harm the economies of the world by requiring the implementation of expensive measures to reduce emissions. It is becoming ever more clear that climate change is but one sign of many urging us to change our ways. This isn't economics, we're talking survival. We need to find ways to produce energy that do not pollute our environment and endanger the lives of our children. This world is all we have, and we are wholly dependent on its ecological health in ways so profound that they are almost beyond comprehension.

Fortunately, there are encouraging signs of change. Some jurisdictions are starting to take action against mercury contamination and against persistent organic pollutants. California has recently announced a commitment to a 25% reduction in greenhouse gases. The "Precautionary Principle" is starting to take hold in some parts of the world. We need to continue to support such efforts and encourage our politicians to focus their efforts on cleaning up the planet. In closing, I would like to quote Sandra, who at the end of her book writes

May the world's feast be made safe for women and children.
May mother's milk run clean again.
May denial give way to courageous action.
May I always have faith. (283)