Elizabeth Sawin

Lightening The Body Burden

Scientists call the accumulation of chemical contaminants (such as PCBs, mercury, and pesticides) within a person's body the "body burden." Body burden is just a number, a concentration in parts per billion or micrograms per liter. But the term calls forth an image too, of a body bent over and struggling beneath a heavy load. When scientists start taking about body burden, I think about real bodies -- my own and my children's.

Thanks to a new report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, we have a better sense than ever before of the body burden of the typical U.S. citizen. In the Second National Report on Human Exposure to Environmental Chemicals, CDC scientists measured the levels of 116 chemicals in the blood and urine of 2,500 volunteers. The study found detectable levels of 89 chemicals, including pesticides, phthalates, herbicides, pest repellents, and disinfectants.

Chemical by chemical, the report documents the average concentration of contaminants in the bodies of the people studied. But what does all this data mean? At what concentration do these chemicals become dangerous?

For all but a handful of chemicals, nobody knows the answer to this question. The report acknowledges as much, in one understated sentence: "Research studies, separate from the Report, are required to determine which blood or urine levels are safe and which cause disease."

This is not easy research. The questions involved are complex. What do you measure to determine safety? How relevant are animal studies to questions about human health? Do safe levels differ for children, who eat and respire more per pound of body weight than adults?

These have always been the questions of toxicology, but new questions are emerging, too. The website associated with the book "Our Stolen Future", which introduced the idea of endocrine disruptors to the general public in 1996, collects scientific papers and news stories that track discoveries about the health effects of chemical exposures. The papers collected there make it clear that we need to add three new questions to the way we think about safe levels of chemicals.

1. Could a given chemical have health effects a long time after exposure? For chemicals that interfere with cell-signaling systems, such as hormone systems, subtle impacts during early development can cause trouble after a long latency. Traditional tests for the safety of chemicals look for immediate effects, not those that emerge years after exposure.

2. Has a given chemical been tested for low-dose effects? Traditionally, chemicals are tested for safety at lower and lower doses, until a concentration is discovered that has no ill effects. All doses below that threshold are usually assumed to be harmless. But for some chemicals, the dose-response relationship is not that simple. Unexpected effects can appear at lower concentrations than the "safe dose" as a biologically active chemical "hijacks" cellular processes. Because it focuses on testing for outright damage by toxic chemicals, traditional toxicology may miss this low-dose effect.

3. Is a given chemical safe when mixed with other chemicals? Most studies of chemical safety examine the effects of one chemical at a time, but in real life, people are exposed to complex mixtures of contaminants. New studies, such as one on the impact of a commercially available weed-killer mixture on pregnant mice, suggest that mixtures of chemicals can have effects that none of the chemicals have on their own.

No wonder the CDC report can't say much about the safe levels of the chemicals it measured. Looking for effects from very low doses over very long time periods is difficult enough. Try to do that for all possible real-world combinations of chemical exposure and the task grows exponentially.

Maybe some day our science will reach a level of sophistication that can give us solid assurances about chemical safety. But that's a distant goal, not a current reality. Until then, we are all walking, breathing experiments in toxicology. Until then, we are all living with risk.

However, there was one definitive and telling finding in the CDC report: The body burdens of lead, DDT, PCBs, and hexachlorobenzene have all decreased since the last CDC study. Guess what? These are all chemicals that have been banned or strictly regulated in the U.S. That's great news. It means that the pollution of our bodies, like the pollution of our rivers or our air, is reversible.

But a river doesn't come back to life until the pollution is cut off at the source, and the same will be true for our bodies. So the CDC finding gives us a clear mandate of where to go from here: If a lower body burden seems like a sensible, desirable thing, then we need to limit the chemicals to which we are exposed. That's no small task. The number of artificial chemicals in our environment is astounding. The CDC tested for the presence of 116, but the U.S. EPA estimates that at least 80,000 chemicals -- 690 times the number tested by the CDC -- are produced and used today.

If we keep assuming that all chemicals are harmless until we uncover the exact doses, combinations, and lag-times that will make us sick, our bodies are going to remain polluted for a long, long time. Wouldn't it make more sense to put the burden of proof of safety on the chemical manufacturers, rather than the burden of the chemicals on our bodies?

Elizabeth Sawin is a mother, biologist, and systems analyst. A member of Cobb Hill Cohousing, she lives on an organic farm in Hartland, Vt. She works at the Sustainability Institute, a think-do tank founded by Donella Meadows. This article originally appeared in Grist Magazine.

A Four-Year-Old Economist

My four-year-old daughter spent the afternoon at a local science museum the other day, exploring an exhibit on biodiversity. She returned home full of determination, found pencil and paper, and composed a letter. Now she distributes copies to friends and strangers alike. The letter begins:

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The Enron Cycle and My Kids

Every day I try to protect my children from problems I didn't create and cannot solve alone. I spread creams on their skin to shield them from the UV radiation that sneaks in through our thinned ozone layer. I try to feed them food free of pesticides and hormones, but I know their bodies are exposed to a cocktail of manmade chemicals every day, despite my efforts. I give money and time to environmental initiatives and help care for a few hundred acres of land.

I do what I can, but really keeping them safe is going to require action at the level of whole watersheds, whole oceans, and the whole atmosphere. It's going to take bike paths, funding for sustainable agriculture projects, incentives for renewable energy, and limits on greenhouse emissions. And I can't imagine much progress on any of those fronts without a democracy committed to the common good and the long-term future.

That's why the Enron story leaves me feeling so outraged. My children's future depends on our democracy running along at its full power, but the Enron story reveals just how hobbled it currently is.

Our current system allows a destructive cycle. Wealth gathers power to itself, and uses the power to gather more wealth. The voices of power and wealth grow stronger, while ordinary voices grow weaker. And, in general, the powerful voices do not speak for the long term or the common good. They can't. The jobs of the CEOs, lobbyists, and consultants who are making all those campaign contributions depend upon maximizing shareholder value, quarter by quarter, month by month. In their professional personas the people involved cannot make the long-term their first priority. Because of this fact, restoring our democracy must become as much a part of the environmental agenda as restoring wetlands or forests.

We could start by thinking about erosion. That's the way Paul Krafel frames it in his book, Seeing Nature.

Like the accumulation of wealth and power, erosion is a cycle with momentum. A trickle of water carves a tiny channel in a grassless slope. The channel -- now a low spot -- attracts more water and becomes a deeper grove. Once erosion begins, water that could run uniformly across an entire hillside instead becomes channeled in one narrow, destructive gully. In the same way, in the political system we now have, money and power that could be spread across society become channeled in fewer and fewer hands.

The beauty of Krafel's metaphor is that we know exactly what to do about erosion -- focus upstream where the gullies begin, and divert the flow of water so that gullies cannot form.

To fight erosion you plant grass. The grass takes root and holds the soil in place as each blade absorbs and diverts the flow of water in the gully. When you cast your vote in the next election, think of yourself as one of millions of blades of grass. You can send a little bit of the power out of the gully and into a slower tributary by voting for someone who accepts no large campaign contributions. When you spend or invest your money, do what you can to make sure it ends up in a rivulet that flows gently across the hillside. Buy from a local farmer, invest in a local business and you will be turning water out of the gullies and sprinkling it on the hillside.

Your one vote and your meager shopping list may seem to be tiny weapons against the kind of power revealed in the Enron stories. A single blade of grass looks fragile against the torrent of a rainstorm, too, but a whole patch of grass can absorb the force of a powerful storm.

To fight erosion you also build dams. You climb to the top of the hill, to the beginning of the gully, and you mold the soil into dams, breaking up the rush of water into smaller flows. You must build a dam that is strong enough to hold against the power of the water. In the fashion of dams, we need to discover how to come together as a solid unit standing close enough to each other to divert the erosive power right at its source. We might start by adding our strength to the dams already forming wherever anyone takes a stand for serious, stringent campaign finance reform.

Practically every Enron news article I've read has fueled in me a sense of outrage. But the particulars of Enron and Congress and the President are only a distraction. As long as it rains, water will flow down the hill. It can flow gently through the grass, nourishing everything, or it can race down whatever channel started first and grew the fastest. The outcome for the hillside is shaped not by the water, but by the grass and the mud dams.

So, let us not waste time cursing the rain. Let's find our grass seed and our hoes. Let's use the outrage to speed our work.

Elizabeth Sawin writes a regular column on global systems for the Sustainability Institute of Hartland, Vermont.

Stealing the Sun

The energy of the sun, captured by plants and passed on to animals, makes everything possible -- dolphins arcing out of the ocean, geese moving across the sky, and also people, stirring their morning oatmeal, falling in love, or painting a barn.

In this truth lies beautiful poetry -- the realization that in our children's laughter we can hear sunlight laugh with joy. There are days when that simple thought can make the whole world feel like a cathedral to me.

In this truth also lies an unbendable rule -- there is only so much energy to work with on the Earth, and all the interconnected, complicated, essential parts of the living system cannot survive without a share of it. A healthy culture would hold this realization at its core.

A culture like that would be stunned to learn what is now true -- humans co-opt 32 percent of the total solar energy captured by land plants. That's according to a study in the December 21 issue of Science magazine. Ecologists know this because they can measure the plant biomass created each year, something called the Net Primary Production or the NPP. They can estimate how much of it is diverted away from the rest of life by human activities.

We use some of the NPP directly. We eat it, we wear it, we build our homes from it. But this accounts for only a small fraction of our total share. We also influence the productivity of land. Land covered with roads or cities can't contribute to the NPP. Plantation forests and monoculture crops are much less efficient at funneling solar energy into the biosphere than the forests and prairies they replace.

There is plenty of uncertainty in all of this. The human share of the NPP could be as low as 10 percent or as high as 55 percent. No one knows how small a share the rest of nature can get by on. Are we taking so much of the Earth's productivity that we risk damaging something we depend upon for survival? We cannot know that answer. No animal species in the history of life has taken such a large share of the photosynthetic pie, so there is no history to help judge how far we are from crisis.

The most sophisticated global ecologist cannot tell you how dangerous our appropriation of so much of the NPP is, but you don't have to be able to write a treatise on satellite imaging or statistical analysis to understand the prudence of sharing whatever we can with the life-forms who keep the world in working order.

Only a species with incredible creativity and drive could have claimed so much of life's energy stream for its own. The challenge now is to redirect our talents to the work of learning to live on a smaller fraction of the Earth's productivity. Here and there, people are experimenting with this, starting with the conviction that humans can mimic and join into the natural processes that have been developed over billions of years of evolution. People like Wes Jackson and his colleagues at the Land Institute are learning how to act as partners with a prairie ecosystem to grow grain and also build the soil. Others like John Todd assemble "Living Machines," mini-ecosystems that purify water and recycle nutrients.

Their prototypes are fascinating and will fill you with hope. But what they offer most of all is a question. What might happen if the best minds of a generation adopted this approach and began searching for ways to form partnerships with nature? What might we discover if even a fraction of the time and energy invested in developing technology for extracting from nature were invested in understanding how to work in concert with natural systems?  

On the hill above my house a tree sapling grows on practically bare rock. It came to grow there, I think, because for years moss and lichens grew in that spot, meeting their own needs while creating out of rock, rain, and sunlight enough soil for a tree to sprout. There is some more poetry for you -- a life lived in a way that makes soil from rock. This is a kind of magic we can not accomplish on our own. But by learning from and partnering with natural systems we could begin to share in that magic; we could learn how to meet our needs without degrading the natural riches all around us.

We are used to the idea that livers and gallbladders and alfalfa and oaks function in ways that contribute to larger living systems. But most of us who have grown up in industrial cultures don't consider it our purpose to serve the life of the planet in some similar way. It is hard to find parts of the biosphere made richer by human activities.

Jackson's prairie agriculture and Todd's living machines prove that we could, at the very least, do less harm. Their work hints that we might even find a role in restoring land and water and building up natural capital.

The report on the NPP makes clear the need for this new approach, but in the end I think it will the poetry of it that brings us around.

Elizabeth Sawin writes a regular column on global systems for the Sustainability Institute of Hartland, Vermont.

Homeplanet Security

"Sobs racked the body of a middle-aged man as he cradled the head of his baby, its dust-covered body dressed only in a blue diaper, lying beside the bodies of three other children, their colorful clothes layered with debris from their shattered homes." 

I held this sentence, from a Reuters report on the civilian casualties in Afghanistan, in my head all day long. By the time my girls were in bed I was storming around the house, slamming cupboard doors, and sending the day's accumulation of Legos and crayons clattering into bins.

I've had more than enough of the bombs, the burning airplanes, and the deadly bacteria. I'm fed up with the men, in uniforms, in robes, or in business suits, who are re-enacting thousand-year-old reflexes with modern weaponry. I'm tired of them pounding, cutting, burning, and breaking as though anything sacred, from holy Mecca to cherished babies, could be saved by the destruction of somebody else's treasures and loved ones.

I'm sick of the simplistic thinking, which says "we will kill our enemies and then be safe." The killing and dying didn't make the world any safer for that baby in the blue diaper, and I cannot see how it will make it any safer for my diapered baby either. 

Of course, beneath most anger lies fear, and I have been searching for mine. My fear is that our poor world just won't be able to take this. By world I don't mean the Earth and all its life. Blue-green algae, microscopic fungi, and hot-springs bacteria will barely notice the types of calamities that could shake the human species right off the planet. The Earth I am worried about is the one we are accustomed to, the Earth that provides grain, fruit, pure water, and endurable weather. The Earth that has coral reefs, rain forests, and alpine meadows.

That Earth was already under assault before September 11th. With many of the world's nations involved in an escalating confrontation that might last for years, where will we find the attention and resources to begin to restore our wetlands, our soil, and our atmosphere? Already, across this country, budgets are being reconfigured with more money for "security" and less for organic farming, land preservation, and alternative energy.

This sends me from fear back again to anger. Where does security come from anyway? There are no more islands of safety. You can't get much farther from the industrial world than the Arctic Circle, but we have known for years that the breast milk of women there contains PCBs. We understand that greenhouse emissions from American cars warm up the whole globe, not just America. And now we know that airplanes, and even the mail, can be used as weapons by the desperately angry. Thinking that our country can provide itself with "homeland security" is like thinking that you can keep your left leg fed while the rest of your body starves.

I don't think of myself as a fighter, but I can be fierce in protecting the people I care about, especially my kids. The fierce part of me is not very nimble or very articulate. It focuses on hot stoves and sharp objects. It doesn't know how to respond to acid rain, or deforestation, or global war. It's a mother bear that lives in the basement of my soul, and when I let it upstairs for some air we usually have a period of door-slamming and muttering without much constructive action.

Lately though, I think the mother bear has been listening to the part of my mind that tries to comprehend the whole world. If no place is safe until all places are safe, then we need a worldwide blossoming of conservation projects, women's health initiatives, schools, nutrition projects, and peace brigades. The mother bear has no words for any of this, but I can feel a shift as she catches her first scent of a place to act.

The sophisticated thinking side of me is sidetracked so easily. Can we change the world? Is there enough time? These are meaningless distractions to the mama bear. What mother ever stopped to ask, "can I get to the scissors in time"? Even when it seems hopeless, even when the blades are millimeters away from skin, you don't ask questions -- you just run, you just leap at the danger.

There are people who will beat at flames or claw at rocks with their bare hands to save one child. We tend to call these people heroes, but that capacity is in all of us. There are also people who insist that no child is safe until all children are safe. We tend to call such people dreamers, or saints, but, of course, we all also have the capacity see their point for ourselves.

I don't think heroes are enough today, and neither are dreamers. What we need are whole people who have let the mother bear out of the basement and made sure her full power is guided by the knowledge that, like it or not, we are all in this together. What we need are people who will claw at rocks with their bare hands to save all the children.

Elizabeth Sawin writes a regular column on global systems for the Sustainability Institute of Hartland, Vermont.

Living for Afghan Kids and My Own

Here in America it is daytime.

Here my baby mashes banana in her hair and talks about the moon. Moonnna. Mooonnnnaah.

Here my daughter, just home from preschool, holding a purple painting of a tree, pirouettes around the living room in a sunbeam.

Here my husband serves lunch -- warm potatoes with butter, parsley and basil. And the clear sky is blue, the maples are fire red.

On the other side of the earth (remember that single watery jewel against the backdrop of blackness?) it is night, and people are dropping bombs in the name of safety and freedom. In my name, and in yours.

I have been thinking about the mothers in Kabul (or Kandar or Jalalabad) whose babies were born on the same day in July as mine. Are they wiping tears in the dark and patting small, warm backs? Are they humming quietly to distract from the shaking of the ground?

I have been imagining the fathers, who must be trying to fit suitcases, and water jugs, and blankets into cars, or wheelbarrows, or onto the backs of donkeys.

And, I have been thinking about all the four-year-old girls with long, wavy, sleep-tangled hair, like my daughter's, who are awake in the night. I can almost see their eyes -- too wide and not blinking.

I do not believe that the bombs (five-hundred pound gravity bombs, computer guided bombs, tomahawk missiles, and cruise missiles) can avoid hitting all of them -- all the mothers, all the fathers, all the babies, and all the long-haired girls. I believe that some of them will lose their homes, some will be injured, and some will be killed. Still feeling stunned by the erasing of six thousand American lives on September 11th, it feels so wrong to me that more innocent lives will be added to the count.

But, beyond sensing the injustice, how can I respond?

This is the question that leaves me feeling trapped. What choices do I have? Stop paying taxes -- risk losing my house? Ignore my commitments at work, forget that I am the parent aid at the nursery school next week, leave behind my nursing baby and march to Washington? I don't know if it is cowardice or pragmatism, or some combination of the two, but these options seem about as feasible at this stage of my life as flying to Afghanistan and pulling people to safety with my bare hands.

Of course I could write letters to newspapers, call my senators, or join a local rally. These things are important -- crucial even -- but it feels as though there is more.

After weeks of feeling helpless, it has been a relief to realize that, while I can't stop the bombing or end the conditions that create terrorism, there are some things entirely within my control -- especially my own beliefs, and the degree to which I live by them. Saddened, grieving, feeling guilty and enraged, I can still respond by trying to live my own life in a way that is more true to my deepest beliefs.

I believe that the world could be beautiful even though parts of it are now horrible. More than before I am going to try to give life to that beautiful world. I am going to try to envision it, and write about it, and participate in it. Maybe this means planting an apple tree with my daughters, maybe it means collecting supplies for Afghan refugees, and maybe it means speaking with pride about the ideals of pluralism and democracy, and insisting that our nation support these ideals abroad as much as we do at home.

I believe that people are good, although we don't always live in social and economic worlds that make it easy for us to act out of that goodness. More than before, I am going to try to expect goodness in myself and in others. I'm going ask myself why does that senator (or neighbor, or acquaintance) feel that war is the only option? And I'm going to support the work of people, from Quakers to civil rights veterans, who know from experience that there is always an alternative to violence.

I know what is important to me, and I believe that something very similar is important to almost everyone, everywhere. Hard to put into words, it has everything to do with messy babies, dancing four-year-olds, and new potatoes, lovingly served. More than before, I plan to find ways to cultivate what is really important to me -- raising my children, tending my marriage, growing my own food, building my local community.

I know from experience that whenever I invest in these things I also shed some of my dependence on our consumption-based economic system. Focusing on the things that matter most to me will also reduce my contribution to the apparatus of growth, consumption, and exploitation that creates "haves" and "have-nots", oppressors and oppressed, and, eventually, terrorism and war.

Although it feels bitter to admit it, I know that nothing on this list of mine will save lives in Afghanistan. But if I can change just one life -- my own -- into a form more consistent with the world in which I want to live, then some small thing of beauty will have come of the loss and waste. And if hundreds of us, or thousands, shift our lives to reflect more of our vision for the world then we will together create hope and possibility out of grief and despair.