In this issue of the MOMSpot, we check in with Penelope Jagessar Chaffer, Director/Producer/Writer of the documentary film, Toxic Baby, which chronicles her quest to understand the effects of toxic chemical exposures on our bodies, and our children’s health. Born in London and raised in Trinidad, Penelope, a mother of two, learned at an early age the importance of being connected to our natural world. It’s that connection that has inspired her filmmaking, her activism, and her parenting.
Q. Tell us a bit about yourself. Where did you grow up? What kind of kid were you? Favorite hobbies, etc.?
A. I was born in London to Trinidadian parents, then moved back to Trinidad when I was 3. When I was 3, we moved back to Trinidad to stay with my grandparents in the capital city of Port of Spain. My grandmother kept chickens, which were always running about in the yard. Whenever she wanted to cook chicken, my granny would pick one of the chickens, wring its neck and chop its head off! So, I grew up with a keen sense of where our food came from. My grandfather also grew cacao, coffee, and most of our fruits and vegetables. I spent a lot of time helping him on the land. I remember bringing cocoa pods to school and the other kids were amazed that the pods (which are white when picked) are where chocolate comes from.
At age six, I decided that I wanted to be doctor. I was given a children’s book on the human body it was then that I first fell in love with science. I studied only sciences for my entire school career. My parents find it amusing that I am now a filmmaker as I wasn’t into any artistic activities like photography, painting, sculpture or anything like that.
Q. What three words best describe you?
A. Hmmm – good question!!! That’s tough to narrow it down to three. I would say passionate, creative, and loving.
Q. How has becoming a parent changed the way you live your everyday life?
A. Being a parent changed my entire life completely for the better. I experience gratitude on a daily basis in a way I never did before. It’s also made me very organized, focused and responsible!
Q. What do you see is the greatest environmental health threat facing families today?
A. Exposure to chemicals that have the ability to disrupt our hormonal processes and that are found in our everyday environment is by far the greatest environmental health threat facing us today. We have developed a takeaway, throwaway lifestyle without realizing the costs that come with it.
Q. Your film, Toxic Baby follows you through your pregnancy and tackles the science behind environmental exposures. What first inspired you to make the film?
A. When my son was a newborn, we took him to his first-ever party. A mother at the party, a breast cancer survivor, told me that she had found out that parabens–which can mimic estrogen– had been found in human breast cancer tumors. I was so shocked! I couldn’t believe that I didn’t know about this. Actually, I am ashamed to say I wasn’t sure whether to believe her. A large part of being a filmmaker is being able to research a topic, so I started doing some research and I found out that not only are parabens one of the most widely used preservatives in baby care products (and the number one preservative in cosmetics) but are just the tip of the iceberg. I really I wasn’t prepared for the sheer scale of this issue or the avalanche of scientific data backing it up. Environmental chemical exposure touches pretty much every aspect of our life.
Q. In Toxic Baby you touch on the issue of toxins in breastmilk. As a breastfeeding mother yourself, what would you say to other moms who may wonder whether they should breastfeed, in light of such revelations?
A. I was only breastfed until I was six weeks old. Our family doctor told my mother that her breastmilk was making me sick, so he gave her bills to dry up her milk and started me on a diet of cows milk formula. As a child I was sickly: severely asthmatic, with a constant runny nose, regular bouts of bronchial pneumonia. I will never know for sure how much of this was as a result of not being breastfed, but numerous studies have shown breast fed babies to be healthier which was why I was so determined to breastfeed. I was stunned to learn that my breast milk was likely polluted. Ultimately, though, I truly believe that breast milk and the act of breastfeeding is one of the most important thing you can do for your child and I love the bond that breastfeeding creates. It’s not about not breastfeeding—it’s about making our milk safe.
Q. If there was one “take away” message you wanted viewers to get from watching your film, what would it be?
A. The issue of chemical toxicity is the greatest threat to our children’s health and there is much we can and need to be doing to protect them.
Q. What are some of the actions you take in your own life to reduce exposure to toxic chemicals?
A. I cook 95-100% of my family’s meals from scratch as food represents the greatest area for reducing our toxicity. It took a little bit of time, but I have a great routine and selection of recipes that are nutritious, delicious and light on the wallet! I’ve also embraced my inner Laura Ingalls and started making things by hand. I’m calling it “Little Pad in the Hood”! I’ve found great resources for fabric and organic cotton online so that I can make a lot of my children’s clothing by hand, without the added flame retardants sometimes found on manufactured clothing. I take it one step at a time and just keep adding little projects to my repertoire.
What keeps me sane is the knowledge that I am trying my best to bring my children up in the most non-toxic way I know how. It’s not a competition and it’s about making our lives better not more stressful so I do as much as I can. I also stay abreast of developments in the science and am on the emailing list of all the great non-profits that do such good work in this area that keep me informed. I love Healthy Child, Healthy World, MOMS, CEHJ, Breast Cancer Action Fund, NRDC to name a few. I am a proud member of the Safer Chemicals coalition so I spend some of every day thinking about how I can pass some of the information that I have learned along to other moms and parents and inspire them to join the cause.
Q. What concerns you most about the environment in the area where you live?
A. I live one block away from one of the busiest roads in New York City, the Brooklyn Queens Expressway and three blocks away for the Brooklyn Hospital which, like every hospital, incinerates their waste, which is a great source of dioxins. I try to keep our windows closed during rush hour and air out our apartment later in the evening. I’m saving up for a really good air filter for our home .Next to the hospital is one of the loveliest parks in the city, so our kids are always out there. I know that air currents will disperse the dioxins far and wide, but I feel better limiting our exposure to them as much as possible. Red meat and dairy is the number one source of dioxins so I limit the amount we eat. Dioxins are THE most toxic chemicals in our environment, affecting almost every organ system in the body. I do try to keep a limit to the amount of meat and dairy that we eat because they are the source of several other very hazardous chemicals like PCBs. To reduce our exposure to pesticides, I always buy organic meat and dairy, even if the cost means it’s the only things that we buy organic.
Q. What role do you think individuals can play in reducing toxins in the environment?
A. This is something I talk about in the film. As consumers we have so much power to influence the market, so as purchasers we need to use our money power wisely. If we don’t buy the toxic products, the manufacturers are forced to make alternatives that we will buy. The other even more important role we need to play is that of advocate. We need to be the voice for our children and for all the vulnerable children out there whose parents cannot advocate for them. There is huge legislation sitting in the senate right now, so we need to be calling up our elected representatives and telling them that we want safer chemicals. Get on Facebook and write on your elected representatives’ wall and get all your friends to do it.
Q. Why is this legislation important for America?
A. America is the only major trading country that is not tackling this issue on a federal level. Europe introduced the REACH legislation, whilst just a start, is forcing manufacturers who trade in the EU, to reformulate products. What that means is that American companies are taking out some of the hazardous properties in products destined for Europe, but unbelievably still make the original, more toxic versions for the US markets. Our children deserved the same precautionary attitude as the Europeans.
Q. Opponents of chemical regulation argue that it would be too costly at a time of economic instability. How would you respond?
A. There is a lot of money to be made for companies who develop green chemistry, technologies and practices and for companies that apply those principles to the products they make. Many companies that operate on the greener spectrum are smaller family or community run operations, based here in the United States. Supporting local companies and not companies that outsource to manufacturers in China, would be a major boost for our homegrown economy. I resist the notion that this switch to a greener marketplace should come at the expense of jobs. If some of these huge corporations plowed some of their considerable profits into reformulating their products, then there would be no need to lose jobs–they still need the workforce to make all these new products.