Whole

12/14/2012

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My body is crowded, one tiny head pushing beneath my right rib, another little body curled in a ball above my left hip.   What started out as a charming bump now stretches from pelvis to breast, more square than round, unyielding and stone hard.  For nearly two months in the hospital, time upright has been limited to showers and meals.  “Lay on your right side.  Better circulation for the babies,” the nurses tell me.  Now, my right hip is aching and my back is stiff.  I contemplate turning over, a daunting chore.     

The t.v. mounted to the wall throbs with the March madness of college basketball.  Doug is lounging in the recliner beside my bed.  One long leg hangs over the footrest while the other bent leg steadies him on the chair’s slippery leather surface.  White athletic socks poke out from his nylon running pants.  His nose peeks out from the hood of a sweatshirt now pulled over his head to keep him warm. 

On the other channels, commentators speculate about “weapons of mass destruction.”  Our country teeters on the brink of war, but my interest is as dim and remote as the images played and replayed on every news channel, night vision video of low rooftops awaiting assault in the Iraqi desert.  As I enter the 34th week of pregnancy, my doctor assures me it is safe to become a mother.   

I reach to the other side of my bed, grab the metal railing and begin the upper body workout necessary to heft my belly from one side to the other.  Pulling on the railing, I feel my shoulders ache and my face flushes.  My legs don’t help.  In the last few weeks, a sharp pain has threatened to unzip my pelvis.  At mid turn, I feel the suffocating weight as it crushes against my lungs.  At last, the mass shifts to the other side, and I curl my legs beneath my tight belly, straighten my back, elongate my ribcage and fill my lungs before sinking into my pillow. Doug is now staring at me, smiling from beneath his hood.  

“How you doing, Hon?”  I laugh and lock eyes with him.  He reaches out and squeezes my hand. 

“I’m all right, Dougie.  What’s up?  How’s the game?”

“All right.”  

Doug arrived late last night, the red windsor knot of his tie peaking over his brown winter parka, cuffs of an oxford shirt and bony wrists poking out from his sleeves, a duffel bag sagging from his shoulder, thick gloves in his hands, a red nose and sparkling green eyes beneath a black stocking cap.  He had driven over two hours to the hospital, after coaching the high school basketball team in our small northern Michigan town.  My heart raced as, smelling of wet mittens and home, he entered my room.   

Now as he returns his gaze to the basketball game, I settle into a drowsy peace and reach for a ream of sea green yarn, sliding the metal crochet hook from the tangle, rubbing my thumb over the tiny circle and counting the stitches that will form the crown of a baby’s hat.  For a moment, I imagine the soldiers waiting in the dusty heat, eyes scanning the desert, the grit of sand on their faces and in their mouths, sweat trickling beneath helmets, bodies tense beneath the weight of combat vests.   

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Years later, the news teeming with stories of injured soldiers returning from war, I pull from a box two tiny sea green hats, tightly woven, scratchy skull caps, never worn, too small for even the smallest heads.   I tell the boys about how their dad laughed as the stitches of the hats became tighter and tighter and I pushed the needle against the hard surface of the bedside table to force it through the weave.  They grin as I scrounge for details to round out their fading memories of Dad, doing my best to fill the void.  

“What else, Mom.  Tell us more.”   

I imagine a soldier, balancing on a fabricated limb of metal, leaning against a railing to take his first teetering steps.  I feel with him the phantom aches of missing flesh and bones, and remember what it felt like to be whole.


 
 
 
 
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I did not see the worms when I pulled the rattan chair, weathered pale, cracked and dry, across the mowed grass that stretched smooth to the river’s edge and curved like a fitted sheet over the green banks.  They say that in the quiet you can hear the munching of the tent worms, their millions of tiny jaws, cutting summer short, but I did not hear them.  Instead a lawnmower upstream hummed, the river bubbled over pebbles and fragments of conversation drifted across the yard with the scent of grilled meat.  

As I passed the concrete rip-rap holding back the lawn and crossed the wooden bridge to the small island, avoiding the puddles where the river bubbled up between tree roots, I thought only of peace and solitude.  Easing into my chair and thumbing through the pages of my book I thought nothing of the worms 

                                                                 until I felt a flutter in my hair.    
  
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Dinner sizzles on the stove, the oven vent hums as I strain to hear Garrison Keillor above the din.  Standing at the sink, I watch a light saber duel ensue in the living room. Plastic crashes against plastic. Knickknacks rattle. A third warrior runs the full length of the house, whizzing from the bathroom past the kitchen, dodging the light saber duel, to land both knees on the couch with a whoop. A pot boils over while the Jedis shout at one another. The steady flow of water runs from the faucet in the empty bathroom.  My nerves sway naked and overheated.

Dinner is served. “Wash your hands. Get your brother. Sit down. Here you go. Eat over your plate. Pull up your sleeves. Watch your glass. Use a napkin. Just a minute I’ll get it. Sit down. Turn around. You don’t have to like it. Say, ‘No, thank 
you.’ Sit down. Use a fork. Cut that. Sit down. Put your plate near the bowl. Don’t drip across the table. Eat over your plate. Turn around and sit down.”

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On the island, now sitting at attention on the edge of my seat, I run one hand over the top of my head and sigh in relief.  Nothing.  Closing my book, I work my eyes up the length of the nearest trunk.  Like one of those pictures friends post on-line, “If you can see five wolves in the woods in five seconds, share this,” suddenly the tent worms rise up from each crevice squirming, brown and tan stripes fringed in whiskers.  I shudder.

From bottom to top, I run my eyes up the long trunks of striated bark to the branches, stripped clean, naked and raw.  I imagine the tents of dirty webbing pitched in the crooks of tree branches.  The cocoons are gone now, but I remember from my childhood the feel of a stick pushing against the taut walls of dirty silk, the satisfaction of plunging a twig through the side of the massive cocoon, my fascinated disgust as I stirred the wriggling gray mass and watched the worms spill to the ground.  

Moving my chair a safe distance between the trees, I reopen the pages of my book, willing my muscles to relax.

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After dinner, we ride our bikes to the playground. The boys scatter about the wooden towers and bridges, flying down poles and slides in pursuit of each other.  A father pushes his toddler son on a kiddy swing while mom takes pictures. A plump woman in short shorts smokes a cigarette with a friend and hollers at her kids. I find a 
bench at the back behind the swings.  My skin feels tight, stretched thin, transparent, loneliness exposed.  I’m embarrassed.  I want to hide.

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At first the crow’s scolding is nothing but background noise. I ignore it too, but the crow persists.

“What?”

The crow flies away into the brush across the river, just a few feet from the ground.

“What is your problem?”

Then, I see.

Over logs and in and out of the undergrowth sneaks the long sleek figure of a river otter. The only other otter I’ve seen swam behind glass at the zoo. I sit up straight. The otter’s front and back legs seem impossibly distant from each other, her smooth long belly moving from side to side as she leans into her walk, whiskers and brown nose pointed to the ground in fixed determination. She ignores the crow, weaving in and out of the tall grasses and tangles of brush until she disappears into the scrub bordering a neighbor’s manicured lawn.

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“Mom!”

I pad down the darkened hall, entering the bedroom to squint at the small lump in 
the top bunk, his narrow face poking out from the covers.  His twin brother snores in the bunk beneath him while little brother sleeps in the bedroom down the hall.

“What, buddy?”

“It’s too quiet.”

“I know.”

I climb the ladder to lay my head on his pillow to curve my body around his warm frame to press my cheek to his blond curls.

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I wait for the otter’s return. My eyes strain for her sleek form amidst the jumble of tree trunks and brush. Did I imagine her?  The river talks but not to me. It pays no attention to the otter but gurgles toward the next bend, churns around the rocks where crayfish hide, pushes past turtles sunning on tree trunks, slides under low-hanging branches where water snakes sleep. The big lake waits, the crash of unsalted waves, the silencing of ambition, the cold stillness of the deep.

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The young warrior sleeps. I climb down from the top bunk, shuffle to the living room and sit at the end of the couch. The recliner is empty. The t.v. silent. The newspaper unread. Words, awakened slither and burrow in my chest, trapped.

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I hear them first, a noisy chatter like a box of chicks.  Wide-eyed, I gape at the three miniature otters following mother: small brown noses, long whiskers, short ears.  Mother slinks but her children shout, “Here we come!” The leader pulls himself over a log by his hind legs, kicking at the air, reaching for a foothold. Another heads in the opposite direction, crashing through the undergrowth while the third one brings up the rear poking his nose in the water, his tiny feet sinking in mud. Mother stops in the deep shade of a tree.  She waits with her long body facing forward and her sleek head turned back, small eyes fixed on her brood.  Her children’s cheeps fill the air.  Finally the young otters stumble in mother’s direction and slip through a tunnel hidden in the mud and roots.  For a good while, I remain at the edge of my seat, eyes and ears squinting, but once again I am alone.

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“Oh, Mom, I want to see them!” The boys are fascinated by my story. “Can we see them?”

“Maybe.”

I smile and think of my three sons with me on the island.  In my imagination, they lie flat on their bellies, cheering as boats made of twigs drift beneath the wooden bridge.  The boys run about banging tree trunks with branches taken from the firewood pile and heaving buried bricks and debris out of the river’s mud and into the current.  Their noise and action would fill the island, I know.  Their shimmying along the tree trunk, their hanging over the water, their leaning out over the current, as they shout in bewilderment, “Mom, where are the otters!”


 
 
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In August 2006, I returned from a trip to the grocery store to find my husband, Doug, sitting on the couch, staring at the carpeting.  

“I don’t feel good,” he managed.

Doug was a college athlete and a runner, not one to whimper over discomfort. Alarmed, I abandoned the grocery bags at the door, and neared the couch.  As Doug lifted his face, I felt the flesh melt from my body.  His skin was the color of cement.  

After a long night in the E.R. followed by surgery to repair a mysterious hole in his stomach, we learned the bitter truth.  Doug had cancer, to be specific, Ewing’s sarcoma, a rare disease with no known genetic link. The next two and a half years were a period of extreme suffering and upheaval for my husband and our young family.  In the end, Doug died at the age of 35.

Extreme.

Last week, Cal Dooley, president of the chemical industry’s trade association, criticized the Safe Chemicals Act, a bill that would increase the safety of chemicals in our consumer products, homes and environment as, “extreme”.  

Extreme? I call it common sense.

The Safe Chemicals Act would increase chemical safety and protect the American public from routine exposure to toxic chemicals. This act is long overdue. Since the passage of the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) in 1976, some 80,000 chemicals have been manufactured and produced in the U.S., the EPA has required testing on 200 for their effects on human health, and only a mere five have been restricted.    

The President’s Cancer Panel, a leading panel of cancer researchers appointed by George W. Bush, criticized our current law, concluding that “the chemical industry operates virtually unfettered by regulation or accountability for harm caused by its products.”  In the same report, the panel concluded that environmental cancers had been grossly underestimated.

In 2004, I took my son Drew to a urologist to discuss surgery for a birth defect.  After explaining the procedure, the surgeon said, “You know, I hate to tell mothers this, but something you were exposed to during your pregnancy caused this.”  Drew is an identical twin, but his brother, being slightly heavier, received a smaller dose of the unknown toxin and remained unscathed.

Later I would learn that more than 200 chemicals circulate through human blood at any given time including before birth.  These same chemicals are passed to children through their mother’s breast milk.  Among these are environmental estrogens, a group of chemicals that interfere with the body’s hormonal system causing infertility, cancer, the early onset of puberty, and urological birth defects like Drew’s.  
 
Extreme?

Memorial Day 2009, six months after Doug’s death, my sister’s 33 year old husband became dizzy and confused while crossing the street.  A colleague insisted he go to the hospital.  There, he was diagnosed with stage 3 brain cancer.  

As I watched my sister, pregnant with her second child, struggle through the challenges of motherhood and a major medical crisis, I learned how woefully unprepared we are to protect our families from known and suspected carcinogens.  

Due to proprietary laws, chemical companies are not required to disclose the untested ingredients in their products.  No reliable safety information exists for consumers.

Extreme?

Last month, a group of citizens from more than 30 states gathered in Washington D.C. for a National Stroller Brigade to deliver more than 130,000 petition signatures in support of the Safe Chemicals Act.  I was there with Doug’s mother and my three sons. The group consisted of nurses, pediatricians, teachers, steel workers and parents with young children - all united in the common cause of protecting the health of Americans.

Are moms, nurses, teachers and pediatricians extreme?

Later, Dooley complained that the act we supported would be expensive and difficult to implement for the chemical industry.  He predicted the bill would “stifle chemical innovation”, yet legislation similar to the Safe Chemicals Act has been in place in Europe since 2007.  In fact, many American companies make two versions of their products, the traditional version for the U.S. and a safer version for Europe.  

Moreover, while lobbyists for the chemical industry spend millions to block regulation, the Safe Chemicals Act enjoys positive public opinion among voters on both sides of the aisle.

Americans should not have to wait for the protections enjoyed by the citizens of other countries.  We must demand that the products that permeate our communities, our homes and inevitably our bodies are safe.  In light of our health and the wellness of our loved ones, the stakes are high.  

In fact, they are extreme.   

 
 
Before my husband Doug, the father of our three sons, a high school guidance counselor and a college athlete was diagnosed at the age of 33 with Ewing’s sarcoma, I did not know that toxins with the potential to cause cancer and other illnesses are so prevalent in our lives that we are exposed to them daily without our knowledge or permission.

Before my son Drew was born with a urological birth defect that his surgeon said was caused by prenatal exposure to environmental estrogens, I did not know that hundreds of synthetic chemicals course through our bodies and through the blood mothers share with their unborn children.

Before my sister’s 33 year-old husband was diagnosed with stage 3 brain cancer, six months after the death of my husband, I did not know that, according to the President’s Cancer Panel, the chemical industry operates virtually unfettered by regulation or accountability for harm caused by its products.

Now I know.

I know that urological birth defects are on the rise in all species, including humans and especially boys.  I’ve learned that chemicals that interfere with the body’s hormone messaging system can change the course of human development and cause a host of other health conditions ranging from the early onset of puberty to infertility to cancer.

Furthermore, I understand that while Ewing’s sarcoma is a rare disease with no known genetic link, and while no hereditary flaw predisposes my sons to their father’s cancer, I cannot protect them from the known and suspected carcinogens that are ubiquitous in American homes and communities.

I have learned that factors like lifestyle and genetics cannot account for all cancers, and that lifestyle factors cannot explain the steady increase in childhood cancers, a trend that continues despite the fact that, as author Sandra Steingraber notes, “young children do not smoke, drink alcohol or hold stressful jobs”.  I have learned that genetics and lifestyle cannot fully explain why American daughters and sons assume a far greater risk than their parents do for developing cancer in their lifetimes, just as these factors cannot account for the rapid increase in cancers, like non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, that are associated with prolonged exposures to synthetic chemicals.

I know that the chemicals in our environment enter our bodies and that levels of chemicals like BPA, a suspected carcinogen and environmental estrogen, increase and decrease according to our exposures.  I also know that chemicals like DDT persist in the blood of Americans, even those born years after their ban.   Furthermore, I’m aware that while American industry promotes the safety of their products and demands irrefutable proof of any health risks associated with them, other countries are taking action.  While our legislators weigh the cost benefit of reducing dangerous chemicals in our bodies, Europe has already set in place a system for protecting its citizens from chemicals of highest concern.  In fact, the chemical industry is already producing two sets of products, the traditional versions for us and safer alternatives for Europe.  

Now I know, and so I try to do better.

I scrutinize what my family eats.  I research safe beauty products and cleaning supplies.  I refuse to treat my lawn with pesticides.  I buy low VOC paint, yet in the end, I am woefully unequipped to protect my family.  

Due to proprietary laws, I do not have reliable safety information on the products that line store shelves nor can I know which chemicals are in any given product.   Worse yet because of the utter failure of the Toxic Substances Control Act, I must rely on the chemical industry to protect my family from the hidden dangers in the more than 80,000 chemicals it manufactures and produces.  

Without a federal mandate requiring chemical companies to submit information on the health risks of their products, without the help of the EPA in prioritizing chemicals based on risk and reducing those of highest concern, in the absence of effective federal laws, I cannot protect my family.

Now I know better but I cannot do better.  Not on my own.  Not without the help of my leaders in Washington.  Not without the protection of laws like the Safe Chemicals Act.

Many of us are here today because we cannot unlearn what we have learned.  We wish that we could forget about frightening illnesses and diagnoses.  We wish that we could reverse devastating loss.  We wish that we could unlearn life’s most painful lessons, but we cannot unhappen what has happened to us, and we no longer have the pleasure or freedom of not-knowing.  The dangers posed by a chemical industry unfettered by regulation or accountability are real.  Our children, our families, our loved ones, our bodies bear the marks.

So I ask our senators.  How long must we wait for the protections enjoyed by other citizens throughout the world?  How long must we subject our children to this grotesque national experiment while we weigh the cost benefit of reducing the chemicals in their bodies?  Will you wait for our story to become your story before you take action?  We are calling on you to protect our families.  To protect your families.  Now, you know better, and you must do better.  Pass the Safe Chemicals Act.




   
 
 
The sun warmed the small porch of our rental home, the day my husband, Doug, became a cancer patient.   Seated in a flimsy plastic chair, long thin legs stretched out before him, he grasped the armrests steadying the fresh incision that ran from sternum to pelvis.  Our twin preschool sons crowded his lap while their brother bounced nearby on pudgy toddler legs.  I leaned against the porch railing, my mouth quivering with a smile while I watched my mother-in-law remove the clippers from their case.  Silently, I pleaded with Doug for a smirk, but his full lips were neutral and his green eyes disinterested as with a flip of the switch, the electric razor began to buzz.  “Oh boy, here we go! Who’s next?” I called to our sons.  They giggled and thumped their bare feet on the porch floor, pumping arms and legs up and down, as the razor cut long pink paths through blonde hair that would never grow back.  At age 35, Doug died of Ewing’s sarcoma.

Ewing’s is a rare disease with no known genetic link, a fact both reassuring and troubling to a single mother bent on protecting her children from illness.  No genetic flaw predisposes my sons to Ewing’s sarcoma, yet every day they, along with millions of other American children, are exposed to known and suspected carcinogens.  Toxic chemicals are ubiquitous in our homes, schools and communities, and numerous studies confirm the presence of hundreds of synthetic chemicals in our bodies.  Chemicals in the umbilical cord blood that flows freely between mother and child insure that every baby is born pre-polluted, and when a mother chooses to breastfeed she passes to her child (along with many healthful benefits) a toxic heritage (Jenkins 44-45). 

Today, November 17th, the Safe Chemicals Act will come before the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee in a private hearing, and our leaders in Washington will decide whether the health of our families deserves their attention.  Historically efforts to reduce cancer have paid little attention to environmental contaminants, choosing instead to focus on lifestyle and genetics.   Yet these factors alone cannot account for all cancers.  They cannot explain the steady increase in childhood cancers, a trend that continues despite the fact that, as author Sandra Steingraber notes, “young children do not smoke, drink alcohol or hold stressful jobs” (Steingraber 45).   Neither can genetics and lifestyle fully explain why American daughters and sons assume a far greater risk than their parents do for developing cancer in their lifetimes, nor account for the rapid rates of increase in cancers closely associated with prolonged exposures to synthetic chemicals, such as non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma (Steingraber 53).

Perhaps the reason cancer prevention campaigns focus so little on reducing our exposure to toxic chemicals is because we are woefully unequipped to do so.  Reliable safety information on the products that line store shelves is virtually non-existent as are labels indicating which chemicals are used in any given product.  Proprietary laws do not require companies to disclose this information, and to make matters worse safeguards simply do not exist. 

In 1976, Congress established the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), an act that has failed miserably in achieving its goal of protecting Americans from harmful chemicals.  Under this ineffective legislation, U.S. companies have produced over 80,000 chemicals; the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has tested 200, and regulated a mere five.   Today, nearly all synthetic chemicals - even known and suspected carcinogens - are manufactured and marketed in the U.S. with no regulation (President’s Cancer Panel 20-22) 

In the absence of regulation should we trust chemical companies with public health or simply leave the job of protecting families from toxic chemicals to tired moms and dads? The Safe Chemicals Act, introduced this April, provides a better alternative.  This proposed act would require chemical companies to submit information on the health risks of their products, information that could then be used by the EPA to prioritize chemicals based on risk and to reduce those of highest concern while requiring further testing for those of uncertain risk.   Europe has passed similar legislation.  In fact, many companies are already producing two versions of their products, the traditional one for the U.S. and a safer alternative for Europe (Jenkins 219).  

In the past, companies have argued that regulation would result in closed plants and lost jobs, and well-paid lobbyists representing the chemical industry have persuaded legislators of the same; however, a number of companies have proven that social responsibility and good business can co-exist.   By producing safer products they have reduced their risk of liability and the costs associated with the storage and disposal of hazardous materials, finding that attention to customer safety improves consumer confidence and increases their competitiveness in the global economy (Safer States).

Having paid the financial, emotional, physical and social costs of cancer, as lab rats in a grotesque national experiment, it is time for Americans to demand that the experiment be run in reverse, that toxic chemicals be removed from our environment and that success be measured by the health of our loved ones.  Instead of waiting for mounting evidence on the damaging effects of synthetic chemicals on American families, let’s urge our legislators to support the Safe Chemicals Act and reduce the toxic chemicals in our homes and our bodies.

How to Get Involved

Learn More about the Safe Chemicals Act

http://www.saferchemicals.org/

https://www.facebook.com/saferchemicals

Sign a Petition

http://www.ewg.org/kid-safe-chemicals-act-blog/sign-petition-b/

E-Mail Your Senator

http://action.ewg.org/t/1875/campaign.jsp?campaign_KEY=26526

Send a Picture
http://salsa.democracyinaction.org/o/1421/p/salsa/web/common/public/index.sjs



Works Cited

Jenkins, McKay. What’s Gotten Into Us: Staying Healthy in a Toxic World. (2011).

Random House: New York, 2011. Print.

President’s Cancer Panel. Reducing Environmental Cancer Risk: What We Can Do Now.  National Cancer Institute, 2010. Print. 

Steingraber, Sandra. Living Downstream. (1997). Da Capo Press: Cambridge MA. Print.

Safer Chemicals, Healthier Families.  “The Business Case for Comprehensive TSCA  Reform.” Safer Chemicals, Healthier Families. Web. 13 Oct. 2011.
<http://www.saferchemicals.org/resources/business.html>.

Safer States. “Industry Opposition to Toxics: How the chemical industry undermines state efforts.” Safer States. Web. 24 Oct. 2011.
<http://www.saferstates.com/2011/02/industry-opposition-to-toxics-how-the-chemical-industry-undermines-state-efforts.html>

 
 
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“You’re the first to complain, or I should say, “be concerned” about this,” says the director of public works his mouth set in seriousness, his full face framed in sandy brown hair and a beard.  

We are speaking across the surface of his metal desk barren except for a computer monitor and keyboard, a can of pens and pencils, and a newspaper folded in two.  A photo on the wall behind him shows a massive truck, it’s large metal blade and the entire cab coated in a thick frosting of ice.  Through an interior window separating the fluorescent lighting of the office from the dimness of the city garage, I can just make out the hulking forms of snowplows sitting idle in the summer heat.  On the wall behind my chair a window looks to the parking lot where the director’s pick-up truck, its engine still warm, sits, awaiting the end of our meeting. 

This is the first time we have met, but we’ve exchanged several e-mails.  He knows my story, knows about my alarm at the spraying of the city soccer fields with herbicides, knows about the health risks associated with the use of lawn chemicals, knows about my son’s birth defect and my husband’s cancer.

“So, tell me.  What exactly are you concerned about?”

I begin slowly, but soon my words are off at a gallop and my thoughts race to keep pace.  Finishing, I quickly return the conversation to him.  “Those chemicals are harmful, and it just doesn’t seem necessary to use them on a children’s play field, but I want to know what you think?” 

“Well we just want the parks to look nice. You know I use that stuff on my lawn.” 

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The desire for a plush green lawn is deeply ingrained in our society.  When American GIs returned from WWII many wartime chemicals were repurposed for civilian use.  Herbicides developed to defoliate enemy territory were now used to fight a new enemy, weeds.  As suburbia boomed and tract housing provided each homeowner with a postage stamp size yard, Americans dreamed of golf-course-quality carpets of green.

Then in 1968 Richard Duke made realizing this dream easier when he began his lawn company ChemLawn, hiring lawn “specialists” to drive around neighborhoods in clearly marked ChemLawn vans, fighting weeds and pests while residents were at work or school.  By 1985 his company was making $300 million a year and by 1999 more than two-thirds of American homes were being treated with chemical fertilizers or pesticides (Jenkins, 175).

The desire for a weed-free lawn, however, has become more than just a luxury.  It has become a moral obligation, a responsibility of good neighbors and upstanding community members.  A 2003 study by Ohio State researchers illustrated the importance that Americans place on their lawns as researchers found that property values were “clearly associated with high-input green lawn maintenance and chemical use.”  In the same study researchers found that “lawn chemical users typically associated moral character and social reliability with the condition of the lawn” and most disturbingly wealthy homeowners continued to use lawn chemicals even when they were conscious of their harmful effects (Jenkins 175).  Their findings make it no mystery as to why Americans have so much anxiety about their lawns. Manicured lawns increase the value of a home, and homeowners are willing to go to great lengths to secure that coveted weed-free yard.   

The American obsession with lawns is no accident.  Chemical companies have worked hard to raise our anxiety and to downplay the risks involved in using their products.  In 2003, TruGreen ChemLawn mailed flyers to parents offering financial support for children’s soccer programs in exchange for parents’ agreements to use their lawn service (Jenkins, 184-185).  This new tactic of associating chemical lawn care with healthy children's activities was a more subtle approach than the company's earlier attempts at marketing their products as healthy and natural.  In the early 1980s ChemLawn company was sued for claiming that a child “would have to swallow the amount of pesticide found in almost 10 cups of treated lawn clippings to equal the toxicity of one baby aspirin.”  A few years later, the makers of Ortho paid a $50,000 fine for a television ad showing children playing on treated lawns while a voice said, “Sure, I care about this yard, but I care about my family using it, too” (Jenkins, 184-185).  Commenting on this type of false advertising, a spokesman for the EPA said that any lawn company making such safety claims was “perpetrating a hoax” and that pesticides were toxic “by their very nature” (Jenkins 282). 

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Sitting across from the director of public works, I’m struck again by a thought that has been rattling around in my brain for some time, “No one intends to endanger children by treating a lawn with chemicals.”

Feeling sorry for accusing this hardworking man of putting my son at risk, I choose my words carefully as I respond.   “I used to use those chemicals on my lawn too, but given my life history, I just can’t do that anymore.”  His eyes soften, and I ask, “What do I need to do next about this?  Ultimately, who makes the decision about treating the city’s lawn?”

“I do.  I tell you what.  Let me look into this and talk to my staff at our meeting next Tuesday, and I’ll let you know.”

Satisfied, for now, with his response, I say goodbye and head into the July humidity. 


Works Cited

Jenkins, McKay.  (2011). What’s Gotten Into Us? Staying Healthy in a Toxic World.   New York: Random House.


 
 
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“Let’s be quiet like Indians,” Ben squeals, turning to flash me a gapped-tooth grin from the front seat of our two-man kayak and spinning back around to concentrate on skimming the surface of the water with his double-bladed oars.  I gaze at the back of his colorful hat and the fringe of his smooth corn silk hair beneath the hat’s wide brim. His head is still as he concentrates on paddling.  My heart squeezes.  Time alone with my youngest son is rare and precious. 

Leaving small, silent whirlpools, I carefully slice and pull at the gentle river.  Water drips from my paddle cooling my bare legs, stretched in the boat’s open bow on one of the first truly warm summer days of a cool and wet June.  My skin absorbs the sun like a solar panel, attempting to store its rays for the long season of snow and ice, never too distant in Michigan.

The subtle smell of dry cedar wafts across the river mixing with the mustiness of mud, and hanging in the humid air.  From the shadows of the forest, green spills down the riverbanks.  Ferns, moss and grass crawl atop fallen logs that jut into the sparkling waters. The reflections of puffy white clouds in a blue sky float across the river.

“Look, Mom, a dragonfly! Oh, Mama, a fish!”

“Cool, Ben!”

Like the soaking up of the sun’s rays, I try to absorb the wonder and excitement that is Ben at six years old, knowing how quickly life can change from one season to the next.   

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Ben was 1 ½ the humid August day in 2006 when I returned from the grocery store to find his father, my husband, Doug, sitting motionless at the edge of the couch, his long forearms on his knees in tense concentration as he stared at the carpeting. 

“I don’t feel good.”

“What’s wrong?”

I set the grocery bags at the top of the short flight of stairs that led into our split level home and walked past the three squealing boys dashing about the living room.  As I neared the couch, Doug raised his face to me and I felt the flesh melt from my body and pool at my feet, my nerves tingling to attention.

Doug’s skin was the color of cement, a shade that brought to mind words like “ashen” and “pallor”, words that I had read but never seen, a sickly gray that demanded action. 

Nothing had prepared me for this sudden change in Doug’s appearance.  Less than two hours before, I had left for a leisurely trip to the grocery store without my usual posse of two preschoolers and a toddler while Doug took the boys to the hardware store to buy a few things for our on-going home renovations and to indulge our sons in their newest obsession: tools. 

Doug’s patience was a perfect match for the plodding and distracted pace of three young boys, and I could imagine him that morning following the boys from aisle to aisle as they ogled and handled each hammer, screwdriver and wrench, chatting with them about the uses for each tool and sending them into fits of wiggles and squeals at the sight of a chainsaw or power drill until, without warning, a wave of nausea washed over him and a persistent pain settled into his left shoulder. 

Months later, Doug would show me the receipt from that day at the hardware store.

“Why do you keep that?”

“I don’t know.”

Then, careful not to tear or wrinkle the thin slip of paper, he would return it to his battered wallet like a precious souvenir.

**********

Having forgotten about the “quiet-like-Indians game,” Ben now drags his hand through the shallow water, searching the river bottom for a treasure.  I think about Doug’s wallet, the date and time fading like a memory, and I realize that I cannot store this moment with Ben any more than I can archive the sun.  “Just enjoy it,” I think to myself as our kayak follows the predictable curves of the river past cattails and dragonflies.  


 
 
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Just inches from the tires of my minivan, a tiny white flag sprouts from the grass between the parking lot and the fence.  I nearly miss it as I throw the vehicle into park and open the door simultaneously, hustling my three sons from the van and collecting chairs, coats, blankets, umbrellas and all the other necessary paraphernalia for enduring an hour-long kindergarten soccer match in the cold Michigan rain.  The boys rush ahead of me.  “Make sure you have jackets and water bottles!” I shout to deaf ears and then pause at my trunk, arms full, to watch them trot to the field, three blonde heads bobbing above the hoods of parked cars.  Looking over the field, I can see Lake Michigan at a distance, stretching to the sky with no clear line of horizon to divide its cold waters from the cold mist that now blows in on the throngs of parents and pint-sized soccer players milling about the wide expanse of grass, maintained by our city and divided into four small playing fields.

Taking a few steps toward the field with my head down, suddenly there it is.  The little white flag printed with the stick figures of an adult and child holding hands with a small stick-figure dog at their heels.  A circle with a slash through it obliterates their happy trio and the warning “CAUTION. PESTICIDE APPLICATION.  STAY OFF UNTIL DRY,” clearly states the flag’s purpose.  This tiny emblem that dots my neighborhood and town is an ordinary site; yet my reaction on this day is not ordinary.   My face flushes, and I clench my teeth.  With a sudden surge of furious energy, I feel like the Hulk, capable of tearing the fence from the ground and zinging cars into a pile with a satisfying crunch, my green muscles threatening to break free of my jeans and sweater. 

“Why in the heck do we need to treat a children’s play field with synthetic chemicals?  What for heaven’s sake is wrong with weeds on a soccer field?”

Seething and loaded like a pack mule, I walk to the field, shoes wet from the rain, the hood of my jacket swishing against my ears.  Unwittingly, a fellow soccer mom joins me in my gimpy stride, and bravely listens as I unleash my Hulk rage.  “Did you know they spray this field with chemicals?  I just saw a white flag.  What the heck!  Can’t our kids enjoy an otherwise healthy activity without being exposed to carcinogens!”  My friend accompanies me in stunned silence as I unload my anger and begin to feel my heartbeat slow to the pace of my gait.  “Does she share my indignation?” I wonder.

Most Americans think nothing of spraying their lawns with herbicides and pesticides.   According to McKay Jenkins in “What’s Gotten Into Us: Staying Healthy in a Toxic World,” Americans spend $40 billion a year in lawn care, and estimates of the number of American households using pesticides run as high as 82% (171).   I remember as a new homeowner running my little green hopper of weed-and-feed across my tiny plot of grass, ridding my lawn of weeds.  I felt better knowing my lawn would appear “tidy” and not sully the neighbors’ yards with loose dandelion seeds. 

I had never heard of 2 4-D, developed during World War II to destroy enemy’s crops.  A constituent of the notorious Agent Orange, 2 4-D is the most extensively used herbicide in the history of the world.  It does not require a license to use, and therefore, is present in many “weed and feed” products and has been presented by the lawn care industry as perfectly harmless and safe for civilian use (Jenkins 168-169). 

As I flung weed-and-feed throughout my children’s outdoor play area, I did not know that a growing body of research had linked it to a variety of cancers, that a study in Kansas found that farmers exposed to 2 4-D for twenty or more days a year were six times more likely to develop non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, that another study by the National Cancer Institute found that dogs were twice as likely to develop lymphoma if their owners used 2, 4-D on their lawns, that in Los Angeles, pediatric cancers were linked to parental exposure to pesticides during pregnancy, and that in Denver, children whose yards were treated with pesticides were four times more likely to have soft-tissue cancers than kids whose yards were not (Jenkins 182).

It wasn’t until 2004 when my son, Drew’s, pediatric urologist claimed that Drew’s birth defect was caused by some unknown environmental exposure during my pregnancy that I began to consider the impact of toxins on my family.  Then, in 2006 when my husband was diagnosed at 33 with an environmental cancer with no known genetic link, I ceased the annual weed-and-feed treatment of my yard.

Now, unfolding my canvas chair in the squishy grass oozing with mud, I watch as my youngest son, Ben throws himself about the field with joyful abandon.  Ben loves to run; he loves to kick, but more than anything Ben loves to throw himself in the grass.  After a hard kick or a fast break, he rolls about on the ground.  From the sidelines, I wonder what other ingredients are added to the soup of grass and mud that smear Ben’s clothes and skin.  Children are particularly vulnerable to environmental toxins because of their small size, their inability to fully detoxify and excrete chemicals from their bodies, the porous nature of their blood-brain barrier and their underdeveloped mechanisms for repairing damage due to toxic exposures (President’s 5).  Scrambling up from the grass, Ben flashes me a wide grin, top tooth missing.  “Did you see me?” his face says.  His golden hair is wet with sweat and rain, mud streaks his full cheeks.  I sigh, knowing I can’t let this issue slide. 


Works Cited

Jenkins, McKay.  (2011). What’s Gotten Into Us? Staying Healthy in a Toxic World.   New York: Random House.

President's Cancer Panel 2008-2009 Annual Report: Reducing Environmental Cancer Risk: What We Can Do Now.   National Cancer Institute.
https://cissecure.nci.nih.gov/ncipubs/detail.aspx?prodid=P227


 
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    Polly Schlaff

    I am the single mother of three young boys and a widow.  In December of 2008, I lost my 35-year-old husband, Doug, to cancer.  Before Doug's diagnosis, I assumed that safeguards were in place to protect my family from known toxins. 

    Following Doug's death, I learned that more than 80,000 chemicals are produced and marketed in the U.S. with virtually no regulation, exposing American families daily without their permission or knowledge  to numerous toxins that have the ability to devastate their health and their futures. 

    This blog is in an attempt to compile and communicate what I have learned and to share Doug's story and the story of our family.

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