Penelope Jagessar Chaffer

By Alanna Brown, LuxEco Editorial Assistant, with all external excerpts quoted from Politics Daily

…Dozens of studies — many funded by the federal government — have shown that chemicals that are ubiquitous in the environment and in consumer goods can cause cancer, wreak havoc on hormones, damage the developing brain, depress the immune system and alter gene expression-among other problems.

“Isn’t it wonderful that none of us need wait a moment before starting to change the world,” Penelope Jagessar Chaffer quoted from the Diary of Anne Frank after Nancy Chuda (Healthy Child Healthy World and LuxEco Living co-founder) presented her with the HCHW Moms-on-a-Mission Honor for Inspiration Wednesday night. Penelope is an award-winning documentary filmmaker and the first black female director to receive a BAFTA award nomination. Above all, however, she is a mother, proven by her dedication to complete her most recent documentary, Toxic Baby, despite the adversity that arose in the process. In accord with Anne Frank’s legacy, she waited not a moment before embarking on her five-year journey to make this film and thus start to change the world, one mother at a time.

Last fall, a group of congressional Democrats vowed to overhaul the 34-year-old Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) to make it easier for EPA to take dangerous chemicals off the market…But one year, six congressional hearings and 10 “stakeholder sessions” later, the bills are dead, a testament to the combined clout of $674 billion chemical industry.

I met Penelope twice in person and once over the telephone during her two-day stay in Los Angeles, where she attended the Healthy Child Gala. (By the way, she was received with a standing ovation as she made her way to the podium that night.) In a time when our environment is virulent with toxic chemicals, she is absolutely contagious with a sense of positive urgency and a spirit of constructively flying fists. Listening to her talk, watching her glow as she imparts her wealth of knowledge about “Internal Environmentalism” (a term coined by the film), you can’t help but feel change in the air. And change is what we need. With our government collapsing under the fiscal contribution of conveniently generous chemical industry lobbyists; with chemical law reform bills frozen in our legislators’ hesitant hands; with the EPA failing to set high enough chemical safety standards; it will be the mothers, the people, who bring change.

Federal records show that in 2009 the chemical industry spent more than $100 million lobbying Congress and the federal agencies.

Toxic Baby chronicles doctors, researchers, and scientists, from the Netherlands, to London, to both U.S. coasts, discussing the science that links environmental toxicity to the skyrocketing rates of childhood disease. Certain non-genetic cancers, developmental disorders such as autism, and respiratory illnesses like asthma, to name just a few, have been on an indefinite and terrifying rise for more than two decades. Penelope is one mother and filmmaker vying to raise awareness about this epidemic so it can be brought to an end. “If only 5 mothers are prepared to hear this than that’s good by me,” she told me over the phone, “because that’s five less whose families will have this unnecessary exposure.”

Earlier this year, the President’s Cancer Panel reported, “The true burden of environmentally induced cancers has been grossly underestimated.”

Her journey began at a birthday party nearly five years ago, where Penelope observed one woman, a fellow mother, going from parent to parent with what appeared to be an intense conversation topic. Eventually, the woman came to Penelope. “She came up to me and told me she’d had breast cancer,” Penelope explained. “It was the first thing she said. And then she said, ‘My mom and my mother-in-law both passed away from cancer…and that’s my daughter over there.’ I immediately got where she was coming from, which was, ‘I’ve had it, my mom’s had it, my husband’s mom has had it, and now I have a daughter.’ And she looked terrified.”

How those chemicals get into your house — and your bloodstream — is no surprise: Loopholes in the federal law that regulates toxic chemicals have allowed manufacturers to sell them without first proving they are safe.

But Penelope wasn’t quite sure why the woman was sharing this, until she imparted the crux of her message: that parabens, the most common preservative used in baby-care products and many other personal care products, mimick estrogen once inside the body. And parabens have been found in breast cancer tumors. Penelope was initially stricken with disbelief. She said, “I thought, what’s very odd is I work in the media and I’m very media literate…and when you have a baby you read everything…I read everything, I had like 500 pounds of books and I had no idea what she was talking about.” As a filmmaker, she was used to talking to people for research purposes, so she went to the University of Reading of the UK to interview a researcher there. Not only did she find that what the woman had told her was true, she also learned from a university doctor that 95% of breast cancer is environmental in origin, but scientists don’t know exactly which environmental toxins are the cause.

The industry’s clout is more than financial, however. It’s a rare congressional district that doesn’t have a chemical company, processing plant or major purveyor of consumer goods — a point made more than once during the negotiations, and which helped keep some Democrats from signing onto the bill.

She said that at that moment of revelation, it was like the room began to spin around her. “It was a horrific picture and I just thought, mothers need to know about this.” She learned that children were being exposed, were growing up and displaying these markers of disease, but that there was hope; scientists were now able to trace the origin back to the time in the uterus and the early childhood years. After having just been nominated for a BAFTA in 2006, she immediately began setting up meetings for Toxic Baby. It was a time when this news didn’t exist in the mainstream media, thus she assumed everyone would want to be informed about it. But people had adverse responses. Many skeptics thought she had some radical environmental agenda, she bumped up against several others who were only interested in watching mainstream society, and production executives looked at her like she was crazy. Even after she showed them the proof, the scientific research, they would reply, “No one’s going to want to watch a film like this.”

In April, [Sen. Frank] Lautenberg introduced the Kid Safe Chemical Act, and in July, [Reps. Bobby] Rush and [Henry] Waxman followed with the Toxic Chemicals Safety Act of 2010. The heart of both bills was a shift in accountability to make chemical companies responsible for proving their products safe before putting them on the market.

She kept hoping someone would believe in the film and would help her carry it forward, but no one did. “Those resources didn’t turn up,” she said, “so that led me down a path that I hadn’t necessarily envisioned, but I was like—not to be disrespectful and excuse my language—I was like, well F you then. I’m not going to stop.” With that resolve, she had to rely on her own resources and her only advocate, her husband, who she was able to convince to sell their house in order to fund production. I congratulated her on the triumph of having seen this film through to fruition and asked her how it feels to already be reaching an audience prior to its official release. Despite the fact that she never came across anyone who was supportive of the film in its development, she replied, “I feel rewarded in the sense that I always thought, in my heart of hearts, this film would have resonance with other people out there because I could see it in my own life.” Then she laughed humbly and surreally. “This morning my husband was like ‘You’re in the Times of India!’”

One of the biggest boosts for the chemical industry came from Charles Auer, who retired in January 2009 as head of EPA’s toxics office…Asked if he believed there are hazardous chemicals in commerce right now, Auer told the workshop, “My guess is it’s not a high proportion, but the fact of the matter is, you don’t have the data and understanding to answer those questions,” he said, meaning no one — not scientists, the public or EPA — knows.

She also finds the experience humbling in light of how rampant environment-related disease is, pointing out that we are all victims. We all either know someone who’s had cancer, or we know a child who has asthma, or we know someone who suffers from heart disease. It’s no longer our grandparents’ friends getting cancer and suffering with these illnesses. It’s a commonplace topic of concern among people in their 20’s, 30’s and 40’s. Fortunately though, she’s noticing, “People are ready to insist they not be treated like guinea pigs, or like imbeciles, and follow blindly what manufacturers tell us. …As a result of the dedication of others such as Nancy and Jim [Chuda] who founded Healthy Child years ago, we have now come to a point where real change is going to happen and it feels awe-inspiring.”

[EPA] also failed over two decades to recognize that exposure to low levels of lead and mercury were diminishing the brainpower of generations of American children.

Her highest hope for this film is that it will bring awareness, which will bring empowerment and change. “And I’m talking about global chemical regulation,” she added, “global policy, the international community coming together to bring legislation that will protect all children.” It is an issue on a global scale because, for example, though we’ve banned BPA in baby bottle plastics in the United States, manufacturers are simply shipping these bottles to be sold in the UK. And environmental toxins don’t acknowledge national borders. Once they’re out there, they’re everywhere.

The bleak record [of federal chemical reform] prompted states to fill in the gap. Over the past few years, more than 20 states have moved to restrict BPA (bisphenol A, chiefly used in plastic products) or fire retardants. In California last month, the state put the final touches on its Green Chemistry Initiative, a mini-toxic substances control act designed to restrict toxic chemicals while encouraging a move to greener alternatives.

She also has a list of more acute goals, the first of which is that every hospital in the world offering pre- and post-natal care and treating newborn babies not use traditional plastic medical devices. Hospitals are also a consumer-driven industry, and as such, they are vulnerable to our demands. Penelope astutely advised, “If you’re thinking about having a child in hospital you can ask them, ‘What devices are you using? Because I’m not going to use your hospital if you’re going to use devices that will inject pthalates into my premature child.’” Also, educators and administrators in schools need to take action, as children spend more time in school than they do almost anywhere else. Everything from what’s for lunch in the cafeteria to what the floors and windows are being washed with must be examined. If children are being served artificially flavored and colored foods, and then asphyxiated by Ajax and Windex in the classrooms, “You could have Einstein teaching them,” she said, “and the children still aren’t going to be able to learn. There’s so much awareness about the education system, but if your children are home sick because of the asthma that’s made worse by the bleach they’re using in school, the best teaching system in the world isn’t going to make a bland bit of difference.”

[A fumigant called MIDAS] was approved by EPA during the Bush administration despite the protests of many independent scientists, who sent a petition citing significant health concerns. …This summer, California Democratic Sen. Diane Feinstein contacted EPA, citing concerns about fetal death, thyroid cancer and neurotoxicity and asking them to revisit the issue. Feinstein said she has not heard back yet.

A first-time viewer of Toxic Baby, or anyone new to this issue, may feel overwhelmed. But there are simple, small things you can do every day to make a difference in your own life and in the lives of children. “The number one thing is diet,” Penelope told me, “because we can control what our children eat.” Shopping organic is a great option, especially for fruits, meat, and dairy products. Most fruits are covered in pesticides, from apples to blueberries, to strawberries, so whichever fruits your child favors, purchase organic. Meat and dairy products also contain more toxins and should be purchased organic. Additionally, trimming the fat off of meat and making sure not to overcook it will lower its toxicity. After diet come personal care products. As most chemicals in skin care will pass through the skin, you need to ask yourself if your child really needs conditioner and shampoo and bath bubbles and perfumes, etc. Only use paraben-free, fragrance-free products that are easy on children’s skin. The third simple change you can make is to not use conventional fragrance or cleaning products in the home. Children may not be drinking it, but they are inhaling it. “The number one toxicity protector we have is our nose,” Penelope said. “If it smells very strong, if it smells very chemical, then it is.” Burn incense instead of using fragrance sprays and use vacuums with a HEPA filter for an incredible, chemical-free cleaning agent. “More than 50% of a child’s exposure to toxins will come from the indoor environment,” Penelope informed me, “and many toxins, especially flame-retardant chemicals, are found in dust.”

In meetings this fall, the chemical industry and its allies have made it clear they will continue to challenge the reform effort.

With these simple changes, what Anne Frank said is alive and real and true, and not only in Penelope, but in all of us. None of us need wait a moment.

Watch the Toxic Baby trailer and join Healthy Child Healthy World’s campaign to support children’s health in the face of dangerous environmental toxic chemicals with A Wake Up Story:


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