Toxins and Human Life

A culture seeking to protect the unborn from deliberate death should also accept the responsibility to protect innocent human life from all other harms.

“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 us—and what they do once in our bloodstream—are 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.

Landrigan notes 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 defects—a 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 deformities.

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 occurred—like the thalidomide birth defects and the DES findings—the 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.

“Exposures to 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 bodies.

“Chemicals are 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.”

Hayes is 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.”

In 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).

“The 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 children—born and unborn—are 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

[c]hildren, 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 triggered illnesses.

Cardinal Peter 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.

Certainly, this 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.)

These 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.

After 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.

Likewise, any culture that seeks to protect the unborn from deliberate death should accept the responsibility to protect innocent human life from all other harms—even the unintended kind, and even if this leads us to difficult conversations about our lifestyles, which Benedict XVI suggests elsewhere.

Moreover, 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.

To learn more about environmental toxins, visit the EPA web resource on Substances and Toxics Science.

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About William L. Patenaude 36 Articles
William L. Patenaude MA, KHS has a master's degree in theology, is a mechanical engineer, and has recently retired from a 34-year career at the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management. He has been writing and speaking on the Catholic perspective of ecology since 2004. His debut novel A Printer’s Choice (2018), has been described as "a smart, suspenseful Catholic sci-fi novel, with a richly imagined fictional world."