(Photo: © Mopic - Fotolia.com)
“I call heaven and earth to witness against you today
that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so
that you and your descendants may live …” Deuteronomy 30:19
Why might some
environmentalists and pundits get so fired up over climate change and species
loss but not environmental toxins, which pose more immediate threats to human
life? Perhaps it’s because the subject leads to uncomfortable conversations
about agriculture, jobs, and everyday conveniences. Or because toxins are
especially harmful to the unborn, a class of people that many have already
approved for harming. In any event, the growing presence of toxins around
usand what they do once in our bloodstreamare topics that Catholics should
engage, if for no other reason than the opportunities they offer to confront
the culture of death.
A dance disrupted
The hours and days
after conception are busy ones. Biological processes swiftly bring order to
simple cellular structures that in turn make more complex ones. Within 10 days,
a series of specialized cells relocate within a human’s developing body,
aligning themselves to form a nascent spinal cord. This cellular array then
moves, divides, multiplies, connects with other cells, and forms structures
that fold into specialized areas that become a person’s brain and spinal
column. As all this is happening, other cells are creating other organs that
also place themselves precisely where they ought to be.
“A dance of
exquisite choreography”this is how Dr. Philip Landrigan, a prominent New York
pediatrician and epidemiologist, refers to this cellular growth.
But of late there
is a problem. Our modern world has introduced chemicals into our air, water,
soil, and food that can trip up the exacting cellular precision needed for
humans to develop as we are meant.
that until the 1960s it was widely believed that a mother’s placenta was a
barrier to toxins, and so the embryonic environment was thought to be safe.
That assumption changed with thalidomide, an antidepressant used in Europe and
Asia in the 1950s and 60s to help with morning sickness. The chemical tripped the cellular ballet
taking place within the wombs of thousands of
mothers. Their sons and daughters developed with hideous defectsa lack of
arms, or deformed eyes, ears, hearts, and urinary tracts, as well as blindness,
deafness, and increased risk of autism. Many children died from these
Not long after,
scientists traced an outbreak of vaginal cancer in pubescent women to the
synthetic estrogen Diethylstilbestrol, or DES. From the 1940s to the early
1970s, doctors in the United States had prescribed this drug to some five
million pregnant women. The medication was meant to prevent miscarriages but
was later found to result in undetected defects to the child’s forming
reproductive system. When the affected young girls reached puberty, the
prenatal damage led to higher rates of cancer and
problems with fertility and pregnancy.
Since the late
1950s the American Academy of Pediatrics has been researching the damage that environmental toxins
can do to the unborn. The original research was focused on the effects of
atomic radiation. But as other phenomena occurredlike the thalidomide birth
defects and the DES findingsthe field of environmental impacts on the unborn
and young increasingly showed how advancements in chemistry can come at a
price. From certain types of plastics, agricultural products, fire retardants,
and simple items like nail polish remover, many of the products that we
manufacture and use to maintain a desired lifestyle contain toxic substances
that are killing us.
even minute quantities of toxic chemicals during sensitive periods of very
rapid development can lead to permanent and irreversible injury to the brain, reproductive
organs, the immune system, and other organ systems,” warns Dr. Landrigan.
“These windows of vulnerability have no counterpart in adult life.”
A family harmed, a mother’s response
In the summer of
2005, death and illness drifted over the property line of Kristen Hayes’ new
home in Jersey Shore, Pennsylvania. The first sign of problems was the
unexpected death of the family golden retriever, Tanner. Shortly after, Hayes’
three children developed a variety of health problems. Hayes later discovered
that her family had been exposed to the organophosphate pesticide Dimethoate
4EC when Amish farmers had leased neighboring land and sprayed the pesticide
near her home.
Hayes began to
study if such substances could have been the cause of her family’s suffering.
It didn’t take long to discover that they could.
She learned, for
instance, of the US Central
Intelligence Agency’s warning that “[o]rganophosphate pesticides…are in the same chemical class as
nerve agents. Although these pesticides are much less toxic, their effects and
medical treatments are the same as for military-grade nerve agents.”
A recent study of children in New York City has drawn increased attention
to another organophosphate, Chlorpyrifos. The study examined the damage caused by the
pesticide to both young girls and boys who
had been exposed to the chemical while in their mother’s womb. In part, the
research revealed that affected children grew up with decreased working memory,
with males experiencing this to a greater degree.
While Chlorpyrifos is not allowed
for use at homes it is sprayed on fruit crops, golf courses, and in areas in
need of mosquito control. Public health officials and advocates for farm
workers are denouncing the use of this pesticide and ones like it. And they
seek more research to better understand what our chemicals are doing to human
studied one at a time; risk of exposure [is] calculated for a single, unique,
chemical molecule,” Hayes told Catholic World Report. “But the real
world is more complicated. Our born and unborn children are being exposed to a
myriad of chemicals via multiple routes of exposure and we are just beginning
to see what the cumulative impacts have on their health. … The toxic
exposures in the womb are linked to various birth defects, cancers, and other
health issues. This is a life issue.”
Catholic. She has a special devotion to St. John Paul II, who responded to the
growing environmental concerns of the 1970s by baptizing them with Catholic
orthodoxy. It is her faith in Christ and his Church, Hayes says, that
strengthens and sustains her effort as a children’s environmental
health advocate. Or, in her words, as a “pro-whole-life advocate.”
2011 Hayes wrote and distributed "A
Catholic Call to Action: Protecting our most vulnerable population, our born
and unborn children” and in 2012 she co-founded (with other Catholics and with
sympathetic Evangelicals) the grassroots group Protecting the Sanctity of All
Life Movement, or PSALM. Shortly after its formation, the group issued a Joint Declaration on Life (which resides at the moment only on my blog).
traditional pro-life and environmental movements may not always appear on the
same side,” said Hayes. “But many of us see the similarities. So I decided
to focus on those similarities and build bridges between the two movements.
… Our childrenborn and unbornare counting on us to protect them.”
A pro-life point of contact
In 2011 the
bishops of the United States made an important observation about prenatal
exposures to chemicals and the moral necessity to protect the unborn. They made
the argument in a letter to the US EPA supporting national standards to reduce toxic air pollution
from power plants. The bishops said that their position was “guided by Catholic
teaching, which calls us to care for God’s creation and protect the common good
and the life and dignity of human persons, especially the poor and vulnerable,
from conception until natural death.” The bishops went on to say that
inside and outside the womb, are uniquely vulnerable to environmental hazards
and exposure to toxic pollutants in the environment. Their bodies, behaviors
and size leave them more exposed than adults to such health hazards.
Furthermore, since children are exposed to environmental hazards at an early
age, they have more extended time to develop slowly-progressing environmentally
Turkson of Ghana has made similar statements, as have other cardinals and
bishops. And Pope Francis frequently uses the term “culture of waste” to
connect life issues like abortion with modern environmental issues. He has of
late been increasingly vocal about ecological injury, referring to it as the
sin of our age. He has suggested that damaging the environment and the
resulting impacts to human life can be seen as a form of suicide.
focus on human dignity tells us something about the Holy Father’s planned
encyclical on ecology, which is expected to be released in late 2014 or early
in 2015. But for the present Catholics can find ecology throughout the formal
documents of Saint John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI. Some of the most
relevant pontifical language related to the environment and human life comes
from Benedict XVI’s third letter to the Church, in which he continued his
predecessor’s concept of “human ecology,” a term that connects the laws of
nature to natural law.
If there is a lack of respect for the right to life and to a
natural death, if human conception, gestation, and birth are made artificial,
if human embryos are sacrificed to research, the conscience of society ends up
losing the concept of human ecology and, along with it, that of environmental
ecology. ... The book of nature is one and indivisible: it takes in not only
the environment but also life, sexuality, marriage, the family, social
relations: in a word, integral human development. Our duties towards the
environment are linked to our duties towards the human person, considered in
himself and in relation to others. It would be wrong to uphold one set of
duties while trampling on the other. Herein lies a grave contradiction in our
mentality and practice today: one which demeans the person, disrupts the
environment and damages society. (Caritas
in Veritate, 51.)
words may either comfort us or challenge us, depending on how we see the world
or if we compartmentalize issues that are by their nature related.
all, no person or culture can maintain a sufficient degree of moral or
spiritual health by seeking to protect the unborn from the unintentional harms
from gin, cigarettes, pesticides, and fire retardants but not from the
intentional harm wrought by an abortionist’s tools.
any culture that seeks to protect the unborn from deliberate death should
accept the responsibility to protect innocent human life from all other harmseven
the unintended kind, and even if this leads us to difficult conversations about
our lifestyles, which Benedict XVI suggests elsewhere.
by remaining mindful of these links, pro-life advocates find a great benefit in
working alongside many in the environmental movement who seek to defend the
rights of animals and wetlands but not of unborn children. By working with
them, we can more effectively offer them the Gospel of Life. We can teach, as
if in parables, how toxin-induced disruptions of gestation’s dance is a shared
concern, and that this concern is rooted in a glorious, undeniable truth: human
life begins at conception, as do our responsibilities to protect it.
learn more about environmental toxins, visit the EPA web resource on Substances and Toxics Science