Island News & Views
Go to Site Index See "Island News & Views" main page
Expired · 2nd August 2011
Ray Grigg
When Elijah was four years old, he wanted to dress as a polar bear for Halloween trick-or-treating so his mother, Sandra, sewed him a costume from an old white bed sheet. As she was making his costume, it occurred to her that global warming may mean the costume may outlast the polar bears. So she began to wonder how a loving and caring parent is supposed to explain the extinction of a species to a child. If parents are the heroes of children, why didn't they do something to prevent it?

The continued existence of polar bears was not the only species that worried her. She knew that within Elijah's lifetime, scientists are expecting one in four mammals to go extinct – for marine mammals the prognosis is one in three. And this doesn't count species of fish, insects and plants. If iconic species such as tigers, whales, tuna, sharks, sea turtles and butterflies should disappear off the face of the Earth, what will this mean to children? How much will it shrink their experience, stunt their imagination and darken their expectation? If the world that adults bequeath to children is depleted and impoverished, will it diminish their respect for humanity and warp their values when they become adults?

These are just the first of the issues that prompted Sandra Steingraber to write Raising Elijah: Protecting Our Children in an Age of Environmental Crisis. As a conscientious and protective mother living in the 21st century, these are the concerns flooding over her. If sex and the mystery of procreation are difficult to explain to a child, how does a parent explain climate change, species extinction, ocean acidification and global pollution, all of which are stories of de-generation and de-construction, of de-creation rather than re-generation? How does a mother dispel the anxiety that the life she is offering to her child may be less secure and promising than the life she was offered? How does she reconcile this prospect with the obligation of parents to protect their children from harm and to open their future to opportunity?

Raising Elijah is powerful because it asks the important questions that a responsible parent should ask. It steps outside the realm of thoughtless consumerism into the world of protective nurturing, giving focus and clarity to those hidden doubts lurking below surface worries. She cites disturbing US health trends for children ‹ trends in Canada will be similar ‹ that are the likely result of their exposure to toxic chemicals prevalent in air pollution, pesticides, heavy metals and miscellaneous plastics.
• 1 in 8 is born prematurely, the leading cause of death in the first months of life and the leading cause of disability.
• 1 in 11 has asthma, the most common chronic childhood disease and a leading cause of school absenteeism. Asthma's incidence has doubled since 1980.
• 1 in 10 has a learning disability.
• Nearly 1 in 10 has attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder.
• 1 in 110 has autism or is on the autism spectrum. Causes are unknown, but exposure to chemical agents in early pregnancy is one of several suspected contributors.
• 1 in 10 girls begin breast development before the age of eight. On average, breast development now begins nearly two years earlier (age 9) than it did in the early 1960s (age 11). Early puberty is a known risk factor for adult breast cancer. One of the suspected causes is estrogen mimicking chemicals found in plastics.

Once considered unusual, these "new morbidities of childhood" now appear almost normal or inevitable, writes Steingraber. The authors of a US pediatric health investigation, whose work was recently published in Environmental Health Perspectives, came to a more damning conclusion: "In the absence of toxicity testing," they concluded, "we are inadvertently employing pregnant women and children as uninformed subjects to warn us of new environmental toxicants. Paradoxically, because industry is not obligated to supply the data on developmental neurotoxicity, the costs of human disease, research, and prevention are socialized whereas the profits are privatized."

For a mother who is passionately protective of the health and wellbeing of her child, Steingraber finds herself trying to raise Elijah in a toxic environment of unavoidable risk. So she must take protective measures that seem strange in a culture that purports to be civilized. How much mercury-tainted tuna can she safely feed to Elijah? Because she knows that children are smaller than adults, their metabolic rates are higher and they are in a vulnerable growing phase, can she trust the safety of approved exposure standards? Is exposure to any toxin safe for a child? What industries are nearby that might render the air unfit to breath or the water hazardous to drink? What kind of toxins are being emitted from the rug on which her child is playing? Will their dog track in herbicides from the neighbourhood lawns? Can she be sure no residue pesticides taint their fruits and vegetables? Are genetically modified foods safe? The ethical and regulatory lapses in our modern industrial state have forced her into a defensive position laden with fear.

"The great moral issue of our own day," she contends, is "the environmental crisis’ an unfolding calamity whose main victims are our own children and grandchildren." She suggests that it can be viewed as a tree with two main branches. "One branch represents what is happening to our planet through the atmospheric accumulation of heat-trapping gases. The second branch represents what is happening to us through the accumulation of inherently toxic chemical pollutants in our bodies. Follow the first branch and you find droughts, floods, acidifying oceans, dissolving coral reefs and faltering plankton stocks. Follow the second branch and you find pesticides in children's urine, lungs stunted by air pollutants, abbreviated pregnancies, altered hormone levels and lower scores on cognitive tests."

To a thinking and protective mother, the original Tree of Life is undergoing a disturbing transformation.