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Breast Milk and Toxin-Free Living
Alex Steffen, 12 Jan 05

I've been trying to decide what I think about this article on toxic breast milk since I read it this weekend:

"If human breast milk came stamped with an ingredients label, it might read something like this: 4 percent fat, vitamins A, C, E and K, lactose, essential minerals, growth hormones, proteins, enzymes and antibodies. In a healthy woman, it contains 100 percent of virtually everything a baby needs to survive, plus a solid hedge of extras to help ward off a lifetime of diseases like diabetes and cancer. Breast milk helps disarm salmonella and E. coli. Its unique recipe of fatty acids boosts brain growth and results in babies with higher I.Q.'s than their formula-slurping counterparts. Nursing babies suffer from fewer infections, hospitalizations and cases of sudden infant death syndrome. For the mother, too, breast-feeding and its delicate plumbing of hormones afford protection against breast and ovarian cancers and stress. Despite exhaustion, the in-laws and dirty laundry, every time we nurse our babies, the love hormone oxytocin courses out of our pituitaries like a warm bath. Human milk is like ice cream, Valium and Ecstasy all wrapped up in two pretty packages.

"But read down the label, and the fine print, at least for some women, sounds considerably less appetizing: DDT (the banned but stubbornly persistent pesticide famous for nearly wiping out the bald eagle), PCB's, dioxin, trichloroethylene, perchlorate, mercury, lead, benzene, arsenic. When we nurse our babies, we feed them not only the fats, sugars and proteins that fire their immune systems, metabolisms and cerebral synapses. We also feed them, albeit in minuscule amounts, paint thinners, dry-cleaning fluids, wood preservatives, toilet deodorizers, cosmetic additives, gasoline byproducts, rocket fuel, termite poisons, fungicides and flame retardants."

On the one hand, it is an excellent essay, an exploration of how the one of the most intimate, even holy, human actions -- a woman feeding her baby -- has become tainted with worry because of the sea of chemicals in which we swim.


There's no doubt that when it comes to toxic chemicals -- chemicals that cause cancer, lead to birth defects, slow child development -- we're soaking in 'em (as is the rest of nature).

But as I said when discussing the Chemical Home website, I'm not sure how much freaking people out really helps change their behavior. I think we may have reached the toxics equivilant of compassion fatigue: we all know our bodies are laced with nasty crap found nowhere in nature, but it seems like a fact of modern life which is inescapable.

Of course, it isn't. We have, already, beds and shoes and tomatoes and carpets and electronics that won't douse your cells in carcinogens. Indeed, I'd bet that you could put together an entire demonstration house of nothing but safe, non-toxic products. Making your own home safe and non-toxic is a little harder and often much more expensive, but it can be done.

The problem here is more than an engineering problem, since Braungart, McDonough, et al have shown time and again that re-engineering production to remove many of these insanely toxic chemicals is actually not that difficult -- indeed, they've got a plan for building a non-toxic industrial base.

McDonough and Braungart see the creation of such industry occurring in five stages. First, we would get rid of "known culprits." That means simply finding better alternatives for substances and processes which are known to be dangerous or toxic, and beginning to design industrial processes to eliminate the tens of thousands of chemicals of whose safety we're unsure. Second, we would begin regularly researching and choosing the best available options whenever faced with a choice of technologies. This would allow us to move many of the best off-the-shelf technologies into wide use, quickly, while often saving industries money. Third, we would identify a "positive" chemistry set and toolbox. Instead of just avoiding chemicals and industrial processes which are dangerous or destructive, we'd work to establish a growing list of substances and methods whose safety and sustainability was well-established. Fourth, we would actively employ those more sustainable alternatives, and make sustainability a purchasing criteria for all industrial inputs, a process which would itself help contribute to the design of more safe alternatives by providing a commercial incentive to suppliers to identify how their own products might be made sustainable. Finally, we'd reinvent the products themselves, aiming to not just change what goes into them, but how they operate throughout their lifecycles as products -- in their words we'd go beyond just reinventing the recipe, and rethink the whole menu.

Nothing in that plan is beyond our capabilities. So while we need a bunch of good engineers to solve it, I don't think it's an engineering problem. Nor is it really a political problem, it seems to me: better laws, increased monitoring, stronger public health advocates and sharper legal penalties for those who do wrong would all help tilt the playing field back in the right direction, but political solutions -- while again needed -- won't, I think, solve the problem.

Because, ultimately, I suspect that this is a problem of moral self-conception. That is, it is a problem tied up in our understandings of ourselves, of our dreams, and of our responsibilities. If it were purely, or even primarily, a rational problem, we'd have solved it by now. But it's not. This is a problem rooted in our desire to have shining countertops, flawless lawns, microwaveable food, cheap toys for our kids, 50 pairs of shoes, that "new car smell." We live adrift in a profound lie -- that the material civilization we've created is good for us or even that it will last our time -- and have swaddled ourselves in layers of (I think) willful self-deception about the consequences of that lie, because it's so much easier to embrace it than imagine the alternative (however better the alternative might prove to be). We're bewitched.

And, as an old-timer once said to me, the only way to break a spell is with a stronger spell. I don't think that, at this point, any more information on toxic loads is really going to make us change the nature of our material civilization. The only thing that can do that is the vision of a much better lifestyle, a bright green lifestyle, healthier and sexier and even more prosperous, a lifestyle of comfort and moral clarity and mothers who nurse happily, and unafraid.

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"the only way to break a spell is with a stronger spell."

That's actually not true. The other and better way to break a spell (if I may be permitted to continue the metaphor) is by addressing its "mana", i.e. its source of energy. Specifically:

The only thing that can do that is the vision of a much better lifestyle, a bright green lifestyle, healthier and sexier

To break the "spell", one must deny the basic frame of consumerism. The "mana" for the "spell" of consumerism is a desire to be "sexier". As if there is something wrong with us already, before we seek out various products, all of which require the production of poisons.

You don't solve noise pollution by turning up your own radio. If soy milk and planting mangroves have to compete within the techno-geek japanese cartoon jerkoff pervert tournament of fetishes, they are not going to succeed. Nor can they be made to succeed.

Anti-smoking campaigns are the model. Beaten down okies taking a puff. The Marlboro man wasting away with cancer. This is reality. Show reality, communicate reality. Counter the illusion with reality.

Posted by: anon on 12 Jan 05

but this part of the original post was right on:

I don't think that, at this point, any more information on toxic loads is really going to make us change the nature of our material civilization. The only thing that can do that is the vision

Visions of reality rather than arguments about reality. Yes! Just not "a stronger spell".

Posted by: anon on 12 Jan 05

i'm sure we'll have to get used to a toxic world. but let us find solutions before desparation. people only get involved in a cause when they can see a light in the end of the tunnel


p.s. i am adoring this amazing website. thank you

Posted by: amanda on 12 Jan 05

I didn't know how to feel when I 1st read this either. But given that a mother's love & concern for her child is a major influence across societies, perhaps information like this can lead more people toward a cleaner future? (eg baby clothes & toys were early, rapid growth markets for organic & non-toxic materials).... *OR*, more likely, will just lead to someone introducing another widget: 'simply place widget on breast and nano-filtered, non-toxic breast milk comes out the natural latex nipple when baby sucks...'

Posted by: Jel on 13 Jan 05

Here's someone already doing some of this (``Indeed, I'd bet that you could put together an entire demonstration house of nothing but safe, non-toxic products.''):

Posted by: John S. Quarterman on 13 Jan 05

Another resource for chemical-free home building is Natural Home Magazine ( adobe houses, packed earthen floors, timber frames, straw-bale houses. I've only seen a couple of issues, but it certainly seemed interesting.

Posted by: Matthew on 13 Jan 05



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