Internalizing ecological fear: toxins and early female puberty

Elizabeth Weil has an interesting essay in the The New York Times about girls entering puberty at a more early age.  Many suspect (and I agree) that the primary causes of this change are toxic chemicals in the things we eat, play with and live around.  Weil points out that this change leads caring parents to want to slow puberty and try to prevent the effect.

Over the past year, I talked to mothers who tried to forestall their daughters’ puberty in many different ways. Some trained with them for 5K runs (exercise is one of the few interventions known to help prevent early puberty); others trimmed milk and meat containing hormones from their daughters’ diets; some purged from their homes plastics, pesticides and soy. Yet sooner rather than later, most threw up their hands. “I’m empathetic with parents in despair and wanting a sense of agency,” says Sandra Steingraber, an ecologist and the author of “Raising Elijah: Protecting Our Children in an Age of Environmental Crisis.” “But this idea that we, as parents, should be scrutinizing labels and vetting birthday party goody bags — the idea that all of us in our homes should be acting as our own Environmental Protection Agencies and Departments of Interior — is just nuts. Even if we could read every label and scrutinize every product, our kids are in schools and running in and out of other people’s homes where there are brominated flame retardants on the furniture and pesticides used in the backyard.”

via Puberty Before Age 10 – A New ‘Normal’? – NYTimes.com.

From my standpoint, U.S. citizens are usually positioned as responsible for their own environments. This is a particular political articulation which inverts the responsibility for illness associated with household toxins.  This both excuses the actual makers of those products for their genuine harmfulness and creates the next to impossible job of cleaning up living spaces.

This induces a kind of ecological fear — to be scared of the place you live or work is terrible and to be saddled with the responsibility for having caused your own illness because you ate something sold at your local grocery store.  I imagine that for those sick with a illness, you have little ability to contest the illness, so the desire to clean up the house might take over — because it is one of the few tangible strategies for which you can see results.  As Weil and Steingraber point out in the quote, it is next-to impossible to actually protect yourself from toxins in the modern world — purity is an impossible state.

So is the solution nihilistic abandon?  A woeful sadness that we are doomed?  Naw.  That doesn’t seem all that productive.  What people need is useful, clear information about living a healthy life that isn’t pure.   Consider the suggestions of the Critical Arts Ensemble in their book The Molecular Invasion.

The classic example of the hiding strategy is clear when we think of all the Americans shopping at major grocery chains who are nearly oblivious to the fact that nearly 100% of the packaged foods that they are purchasing is genetically modified. This is the extent to which industry has managed to keep the intensity of the GM transition under wraps. In the end, capital has no desire for public education on such matters (perhaps some indoctrination would be useful). All it seeks is for the public to feel a sense of security that will neutralize any doubts along with fear. Consciousness raising, on the other hand, removes fear through the realization of individual agency and collective power—the ability of people to understand and thereby
affect situations allows individual participation in shaping the policies, laws, products, etc., concerning the biotechnological. In the pedagogical process, only the fear dissipates, the doubt remains.

– Critical Arts Ensemble, The Molecular Invasion

We can’t extricate the task of sharing information about GMOs or toxins from the responsibility of reducing the fear.  We need to get better understanding of risk, learning information about what chemicals actually do and sharing strong ways to communicate that with each other.  The ability to make choices and empower people with information is the only way out.

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