Weekend Review: Having Faith by Sandra Steingraber

Having Faith: An Ecologist's Journey to MotherhoodAs an ecologist, Sandra Steingraber is used to exploring how independent elements interact within larger systems. In Having Faith: An Ecologist's Journey to Motherhood (2001), she turns that eye inward, in order to examine the womb as the first ecosystem that we all encounter. She deftly interweaves the poetry of her personal experiences of pregnancy and birth with an objective presentation and analysis of anatomy, science, and the relationship between environmental toxins and fetal toxicity. The book is structured to follow her pregnancy, with a chapter for each month and additional chapters to talk about the birth and her challenges with breastfeeding. In each she talks about what she is personally going through (physically, emotionally, and environmentally) and then uses those experiences as points of entry to talk about a range of environmental threats to babies in utero. From thalidomide, to minamata, to BPA, and the ridiculously high number of environmental toxins commonly found in cord blood samples (280 is the average, if you're counting), she presents these threats not to scare new mothers, but to paint an accurate picture of just how much we've ignored the very real threats that our industrialized way of life pose to our children. She points out that with the heavy reliance on prenatal tests such as amniocentesis, our culture places a huge weight on genetics as the primary indicator of whether or not our children will be born healthy, while ignoring all of the environmental factors. There are no tests that are generally performed to see how many environmental toxins a woman has been/is exposed to, even though we know that they can cause incredible damage.

She borrows a quote from Voltaire to describe a way to go forward: "In ignorance, abstain." To a certain degree, we already expect this of mothers. For example, there are no studies that can accurately set a threshold for caffeine or alcohol consumption before adverse effects are seen. And so, the prevailing wisdom has been to advise women to avoid both completely. But why does this mindset only apply to individual behavior? There is actually more evidence about the damage that environmental toxins (mostly from agriculture and industry) do to developing fetuses. There is no "safe threshold" for babies for lead or mercury, for example. Any amount is toxic and can have disastrous effects on a developing fetus. And yet we allow both to be spewed into our air and water and thereby taken into all of our bodies. Why is it that everyone wants to tell women what they should do to not harm their babies, but no one will tell industry to stop doing things that harm entire future generations?

She concludes that "prenatal care means taking care of water, fish, and glaciers" as well as our own bodies, for how can we expect those bodies to provide safe, clean first homes for our children when they exist in a larger ecosystem that is contaminated? This requires not only individual action (choosing to eat organic, for example), but also political action. It behooves all of us to demand nontoxic alternatives to current industry chemicals. This may seem like a daunting task, but we do have evidence that it really does work. Breast milk monitoring programs show that when persistent organic pollutants are banned, their levels begin to fall in breast milk. We can keep these toxins out of our and our babies' bodies, but we must have the political will to do so.

Writing in 2001, she saw the most urgent need as being nontoxic alternatives to chemicals such as PBDE flame retardants, whose levels are still on the rise in breast milk and are found in everything from your computer to your couch to your baby's pajamas. Sadly, this is still the case. One way we can do this, is by demanding that the United States join the Stockholm Convention, an agreement by countries around the world to ban certain toxic chemicals. To look at the map of those countries who have already signed it is heartening to see the 168 who have agreed to participate. The United States, Russia, and Saudi Arabia are pretty much the only countries who are not on board. Even China has signed on. It seems very telling that China, with their history of contaminants in everything from charm bracelets for children to dog food, are willing to make a commitment to reduce toxic emissions, but the United States isn't. 


  1. Great review- I think that sometimes mothers lose sight of the bigger picture when it comes to what is best for your baby during pregnancy.
    As enlightened individuals I believe it is our responsibility to understand the potential harmful toxins that surround us- By understand I mean how to avoid them.
    I have seen mothers who don't wash their baby gap clothes before putting them on a new born which horrifies me more than seeing an expectant mother have a small glass of wine with dinner.
    Regarding the Stockholm Convention, that just makes me angry- A country like the US should be a leader to developing countries- but instead they show the blatant greed which rules this government.
    Thank you for sharing this post and your thoughts- I love your Saturday morning reviews and look forward to them.

  2. Another one for me to put on to-read list! Thanks for the great review!

  3. Wow, I hadn't heard of this yet. Definitely an addition to my reading list.

  4. This is being added to my reading list, too. Thanks for the review.