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In this episode, I’m speaking with Andrea Lily Ford, Ph.D. Originally from California in the U.S., Andrea is now based in Scotland. She is an anthropologist and specializes in culture and medicine and works at the Centre for Biomedicine, Self and Society at the University of Edinburgh Medical School.
As a researcher, Andrea builds on her experience as a practicing birth doula to examine the impact of chemicals on the endocrine system. She also specializes in how chemicals affect childbearing women, foetuses, and infants.
In our conversation, Andrea explores how:
"Purity is not the Point: Chemical Toxicity, Childbearing, and Consumer Politics as Care." 2020 paper by Andrea Lily Ford.
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Aaron Goodman 00:05
Welcome to the Chemical Sensitivity Podcast. It's a podcast that amplifies the voices of people with Multiple Chemical sensitivity or MCS, also known as Environmental Illness, Chemical Intolerance and Toxicant-induced Loss of Tolerance or TILT. The podcast also highlights emerging research about the illness.
In this episode, I'm speaking with Andrea Lily Ford, PhD. Originally from California in the US, Andrea is now based in Scotland. She's an anthropologist and specialises in culture and medicine and works at the Centre for Biomedicine, Self and Society at the University of Edinburgh Medical School. As a researcher, Andrea builds on her experience as a practicing birth doula to examine the impacts of chemicals on the endocrine system. She also specialises in how chemicals affect childbearing women, foetuses, and infants.
In our conversation, Andrea explores how the placenta does not protect the foetus from chemicals, how many women spend time and energy trying to determine which products to buy to keep their unborn children and infants safe. However, reducing the number of chemicals is everyone's responsibility how breastfeeding can pass chemicals from mothers to infants. But in spite of this, it's still widely recommended because of its benefits.
I hope you enjoy the conversation and find it helpful. We release new episodes twice a month, subscribe for free wherever you get your podcasts. Leave a review on Apple podcasts. It's a great way to help others learn about the podcast. Find us online. Just search for the Chemical Sensitivity Podcast or PodcastingMCS. Comment on anything you hear on the podcast. You can support our work to help us continue creating greater awareness about MCS. Please find a link in the episode descriptions at chemicalsensitivitypodcast.org Thank you very much. We really appreciate it. And thanks so much for listening.
Aaron Goodman 02:30
Professor Ford, thank you so much for joining me on the podcast really appreciate you taking time.
Andrea Lily Ford 02:32
Pleasure to be here and thanks for inviting me.
Aaron Goodman 02:34
Most welcome. Would you like to just let listeners know a little bit about you?
Andrea Lily Ford 02:39
Sure. I'm an anthropologist. I study culture and medicine and how the two intersect. I'm from California originally and now I live in Scotland and work at the University of Edinburgh. My research has focused on different kinds of health issues related to women predominantly so surrounding childbearing. Also menstruation periods, a condition called endometriosis, which is a chronic pain condition, and then also how the environment as well as gender shape health.
Aaron Goodman 03:10
Today, we're going to focus in on a really fascinating research paper that you wrote, It was published in 2020. And that title is "Purity is not the Point: Chemical Toxicity, Childbearing and Consumer Politics as Care.” So I'll invite you to dive into it. But I wanted to just start our conversation by asking you, you know, reading about your work, I learned that you started your work as a doula. Would you talk a little bit about that? And is that what led you to develop an interest in women who are pregnant and their encounters with chemicals and the impacts on foetuses and children?
Andrea Lily Ford 03:49
So being a doula has been wonderful and really interesting, I'm still practicing as a doula. And it's been cool to find some of the differences in Scotland versus the US. My interest in becoming a doula came from my academic interest. And they kind of mutually fed each other a little bit back and forth. So I was really interested in the philosophy of the body, what does it mean or feel like to exist, and being pregnant is an interesting time during existence. It's an interesting state to be in. And I thought, to do anthropology research, usually do field work, which means spending a lot of time with people who are who you're interested in.
And I wanted to kind of give back to the people I was spending time with. And I thought being a doula, which is a support person who helps people through childbirth, I'm not in medical ways, but with the information, emotional support, physical support about training as a doula would be a nice way to give back to these people and be useful in childbirth spaces instead of just like a researcher. And then once I was trained to do that, I started really loving it and this sort of attuned way it requires you to be and I attunement is something I've thought about a lot it means paying careful attention to the situation, which isn't something there's always made a lot of time for in medical spaces.
Aaron Goodman 05:07
And is it through that attunement, that you became aware of the prevalence of everyday chemicals that women in pregnancy and childbirth were encountering?
Andrea Lily Ford 05:21
It was really interesting. In doing a lot of interviews with people being a doula, I spent about three years immersed in what I call childbearing culture. So spaces, classes, practitioners, parents, people who are really interested in how babies were born and wanted to actively kind of shape how babies are being born. And I found toxicity and anxiety about toxicity to sort of always be present, but only around the edges. So you would hear a lot of talk about it, or people would mention chemicals as something they were now newly aware of and first that struck me as strange. But I came to understand a lot about the ways that childbirth, as well as I mean, reproduction, generally not the moment of birth, but bringing another body into being is really tied up with chemicals or chemicals are particularly important. During a lot of that period, the fact that chemicals were always on the edge and not in the centre was itself interesting to me. And that's largely what this paper is about. Because they're really hard to control. If you're worried about chemicals, it's not like you can just decide that you're going to have a pure environment, because we exist in a larger environment that we don't have control over. And so this was quite stressful to a lot of parents I was speaking with, you know, how do you make the right choices have an active relationship towards protecting your child, but also recognise the limits of that, and in a lot of ways, how we're all in it together. And we have to act together to change the chemical situation, if we want to change it at all.
Aaron Goodman 06:56
And I really would like to ask you and the choices that women can take and the limitations of those, but I wanted to first ask you, you know, without naming specific products, perhaps what are some of the major chemicals, or the generic in a general way the kinds of exposures that women in pregnancy or giving birth encounter?
Andrea Lily Ford 07:20
There are so many, so, where to start? I think so consumer products and largely plastics have gotten a lot of spotlight around this. So component chemicals called PCBs, polychlorinated biphenyls, BPA is a type of plastic that has negative effects. A lot of agricultural pesticides, which end up in the municipal water supplies in a lot of the United States and North America can have negative effects. There's also pharmaceuticals. So drugs that people take even quite intentionally, those will interfere or interact with foetal development, they can be passed to children in breast milk, there's a blurry line between unintentional exposures, you know, no one usually gets a plastic baby bottle thinking they want PCBs, you know, that's an unintentional exposure. But people did, for example, take a drug that was recommended to a generation of women called thalidomide, which is supposed to relieve morning sickness ended up causing pretty severe birth defects for a lot of those women. And so that was a chemical inter action that was intentional, but you can't always predict the consequences, because these things may have one state of use, or may have one effect that has been studied and lots of other effects haven't been studied or that show up differently for different people.
It's quite a complicated situation. When you think about chemicals and reproduction. There's issues with sperm and egg development, which can start with the chemicals you're exposed to as a child before puberty, and how long you develop during puberty, exposure to certain chemicals, when you're in the womb can affect how you develop into puberty and are able to reproduce. Another well known kind of notorious drug scandal was around DES, which similarly was recommended to pregnant women. But the effects only showed up two generations later. So those women's daughters had a lot of trouble reproducing. So you have what's called latency. That means when something shows up later, and you even if you've studied the effects, you might not have been able to study the effects that show up 50 years down the line.
Aaron Goodman 09:31
What's really fascinating is you write about this false notion that the foetus is protected in the womb. And you're right that methyl mercury and pesticides become even more concentrated in the umbilical cord blood than in the mother's blood. And then you add that there was this myth that was shattered in the 1960s tith the advent of the thalidomide scandal, which you noted previously, in which mothers were taking a drug for morning sickness and then gave birth to children with severe deformities. And it was that moment that it became clear that chemicals do have a serious impact on children in the womb. Is that, is that right?
Andrea Lily Ford 10:15
Yeah, exactly. It's one of those interesting things. It wasn't so much that before the 1960s, people thought the womb was a safe bubble explicitly, but once they realised it wasn't everyone sort of realised that they had been assuming that, you know, sometimes something is just assumed, even though no one would necessarily state it. And when you realise that that's not the case, it becomes a thing in retrospect. So that's kind of what happened in the 60s, the placenta is of fascinating, Oregon, which we could talk more later about, if you'd like. It does protect against or prevent, protect is maybe the wrong word, but it's a barrier for microbes.
So the womb is sterile, but it does, it often actively pumps certain chemicals across the placental barrier, where the placental remembering interface and a lot of the chemicals we have in our current environment were synthesised or invented after World War Two, when there was this huge boom in chemical manufacture, plastics manufacturing, kind of some people call it a post petroleum economy, because they have lots of petroleum products that scientists and engineers are trying to figure out what to do with. And they invented all these things which are, evolutionarily speaking, totally new. And the placenta does not distinguish between chemicals that are harmful, and chemicals that are helpful.
Aaron Goodman 11:34
We write also about the increasing the difficult choices that women were pregnant face. And I think you talked earlier about women wanting to do as much as they can, as awareness grows to make sure their infants in the womb are protected. And then what's really interesting, you write about the the case, or the example of eating tuna fish, where there was a well known scholar who cautioned pregnant women about eating tuna because of high levels of mercury. And then you also write that while pregnant women still need to eat after all. And you know, I think you raised the question is any fish safe? The question I'd like to pose is how do women navigate these challenges of being in the world, which I think we can agree is increasingly toxic, and trying to keep themselves and their children in the womb safe and after birth to so how do women navigate these challenges?
Andrea Lily Ford 12:31
That is, that's kind of the million dollar question. And I think the answer is that it really depends on what resources you have at your disposal as a childbearing woman or person. Another scholar Nora MacKendrick writes about what's called precautionary consumption. So that means where you try to buy products, and make consumer choices that protect your space, even if you're not even necessarily sure there's a problem, even if no one yourself or your children aren't ill, you just want to be as safe as possible, better safe than sorry.
So since there's been emerging research about how toxic chemicals can be damaging kind of an poorly understood effects, disorders, like multiple chemical sensitivity, getting somewhat more acknowledged. So there's concern and if people have the means, which means both money, but also time, because it's an awful lot of work to educate yourself, figure out how to read labels, you know, go to different shops that carry different kinds of products, as I'm sure you and your listeners will know, trying to consume in a way that keeps your environment relatively free from chemicals, is a hard job. And that often in terms of precautionary consumption falls to mothers who do most of this sort of household purchasing. So there's a gendered kind of division of labour in most cases to it, if you don't have the resources for doing a lot of that, or even if you have some, but not as much as you would like, there's often this sense of feeling guilty or frustrated, once you reach that end that limit.
So a lot of what I discussed in the paper is consumer politics can be good because it can help people feel a little bit powerful, a little bit in control in the face of he's really overwhelming and kind of anxiety producing problems. But likewise, it can also feel really frustrating and disheartening, when you're not able to control your environment as of course, no one fully is. And there's this idea that we are responsible individually. And I think that's a big problem.
So you have to really balance how can you as an individual, feel a sense of agency, not get overwhelmed or discouraged, but also recognise that it is out of your control and not blame yourself too much for not being able to fix all of these problems or protect your child against all of the possible dangers that are flagged to you. So the so what other options are there? It's kind of the question if you're not going to do precautionary consumption activism for of activism, so lobbying for different regulations, bans on certain kinds of chemicals, just more studies, because a lot of chemicals, in fact, the vast majority of approved chemicals in the US have not been studied for their health and safety. So just advocating for more research. Yeah, I guess activism takes different forms, again, depending on your resources of time and money.
Aaron Goodman 15:23
Really fascinating and also disturbing. And so you write an a and I just heard you say that consumer choice is places a burden on women who are already navigating so many challenges around being pregnant and delivering children. And not everyone can afford to shop regularly at Whole Foods, if that's the answer, right. And you know that racialized communities, women who are incarcerated experiencing addiction, homelessness, as well as people who live near agricultural areas, oil refineries, who are involved in or work in manufacturing, or mining, and in places with less geopolitical power, lack regulation, and less ability to resist corporate exploitation. So it really places an undue burden on women and a lot of women and people were pouring in, probably just can't, don't have the means to make those consumer choices.
Andrea Lily Ford 16:21
A lot of the time, what you've just said, reminds me of something that I don't mention in the paper, but that I've become increasingly aware of since I wrote it, which is this idea of it's called epistemic injustice. That's kind of a mouthful, but it means an unfair use of knowledge in which kinds of knowledge get treated as legitimate. So for example, farm workers who are exposed to pesticides and pesticide use, know that they're having negative effects from that, it's very clear to them that they in their children's bodies are different after being exposed to pesticide use. And when they say that the kind of science or industry around it says no, this has been proven, safe for use, under certain conditions, right in the lab setting. And part of it is the conditions in which science happens or not the conditions in which people live. And there's a mismatch. And so the kinds of experiential knowledge, the kinds of knowledge that comes from how people exist in the world and know their own bodies, is often devalued in the face of more formal scientific knowledge. That's a big problem. And that's, that's definitely also the case with MCs, and other kind of diseases that are not recognised by the medical establishment very well.
Aaron Goodman 17:30
You previously talked a little bit about, you know, when pregnant people can make informed choices and do as much as they can. And at the end of the day, do you think it's important to acknowledge that we can never protect our children completely from toxins?
Andrea Lily Ford 17:47
I do. I do think that's important to acknowledge. It's difficult, because people from vastly different situations, most if not all, people have have a strong desire to protect their children, and not being able to do that feels like on some level and tolerable. But that's the impetus for change. And again, part of what I say in the paper is that that point, or that moment, or that situation where you feel extra strongly, because you it's your child and not yourself that this is a bad situation can actually be something powerful that potentially could be harnessed and used to push forward for better regulations, safer communities, safer products, because sometimes that excess of feeling and that frustration when you have to acknowledge that you can't protect your children, if he could channel that frustration and turn it into something productive. There's a lot of power there.
Aaron Goodman 18:40
I wanted to ask two specific questions. The first is about breastfeeding when it comes to passing toxins chemicals from the mother to the child, is there any concern around that?
Andrea Lily Ford 18:54
That's a great topic, it is still recommended. It's kind of gone back and forth over the past century. Certainly the past 20 years or so it's been authoritative medical recommendation to breastfeed, breast milk is very high in fat, and fat. A lot of toxic molecules are fat soluble. So when you store them in your body after you've been exposed to food, air water, they're stored in your fat cells. So when women are lactating, their fat stores are depleted to make the breast milk to feed the baby. So it actually happens that the toxins that they've ingested throughout their whole life, and that have been stored in their fat cells are put into the breast milk. There's actually the idea that your first child serves as a kind of detox and as you if you have more than one child and you breastfeed all of them, you kind of successively process a lot of the toxins you've been exposed to throughout your life, which is a little bit disturbing.
So breast milk is amazing. And there's lots of benefits to breastfeeding. It's also become a little bit. There's a lot of judgement increasingly as it's become the recommendation There's a lot of judgement on women who don't or can't breastfeed. So that's something that I want to acknowledge. Um, but just the question of whether it's healthy or not because of the toxins in it is such a good question. I mean, I think that really comes down to this. There's no escaping your environment, you can't have the good without the bad, you. We are all we are all in this sort of compromised position personally. And as a doula, I think the benefits outweigh that the question of whether formula is entirely non-toxic or not, is also an open question. And know that there will be differences in different brands and such, that paper starts with an anecdote about a midwifery meeting, where the midwives are listening to a environmental biologist, talk about toxicity, and then have this whole discussion afterwards about how that's going to impact what they tell their clients, and breastfeeding comes up. And it's like, there must be a way to support breastfeeding recognise that it's toxic, but say people should do it anyway. And there's just not a simple answer. It's a really good example of how in a damaged world, or an imperfect world acts of care are compromised. And there's a kind of sadness to that. But again, the complicated feelings, I think, are what we need to acknowledge, to get us collectively into a better place.
Aaron Goodman 21:15
You also talked earlier, and I believe in your paper, you read about endocrine disrupting chemicals, would you be willing to share a brief explanation of what are endocrine disrupting chemicals? And what is the connection to pregnancy? And birthing, please?
Andrea Lily Ford. 21:31
Sure, absolutely. So there are chemicals that disrupt your hormones or interact with your hormones. So the endocrine system is the hormone system. Hormones are chemicals produced by your body, they control all sorts of functions, metabolism, reproduction, growth, digestion, they're rather poorly understood. I mean, science and scientists and medical researchers do understand a lot, but it particularly how hormones interact with each other. They're complex, I guess, basically. So a hormone is a molecule and it has a receptor in the body in some place. And certain chemicals either block the receptors, so that the hormones produced by the body can't have their function, or they mimic mimic the hormones so they take part in the bodily processes without fulfilling the same function. In either case, the chemicals produced outside the body interrupt how hormones work inside the body. It's interesting, again, because things like birth control pills, which lots of people take are endocrine disruptors, that's exactly what they do. They're synthetic hormones, and they mimic what happens in your body and block it in different ways, depending on which kind of hormonal contraception you're using. So lots of medication is intentionally disrupting hormones, but lots of chemicals from usually environmental sources are also doing that in ways that we don't really understand. See, a lot of scientists research how that shows up in things like frogs, because in water, aquatic systems and water, and the food chains, there are many more food chains, links in the food chain. And so we'll leave it I'll leave it at that I'm going to get into biomagnification. That's a bit off topic. Yeah. endocrine disruption is chemicals messing with your hormones.
Aaron Goodman 23:21
When it comes to pregnancy. What are some major connections?
Andrea Lily Ford 23:26
It kind of depends how far back you go. Really, like I mentioned, for example, the quality of your sperm is affected by what your mom was doing while you were just dating, or what she was exposed to while you're just dating, potentially even things that your her parents were doing, right? So there's inherited effects that can alter that can alter how hormones unfold. And that will affect your kind of ability and readiness to conceive. fertility issues are concerned with hormone disruption, sperm quality, things like that. As I mentioned before, some of the menstrual disorders around like PCOS and endometriosis potentially have an endocrine disruption component. It's not it like most things connected to chemical toxicity and environmental chemicals. It's really hard to study because it's really hard to isolate variable. So is endometriosis caused by endocrine disrupting hormones in the environment. No one can really study that because you can't take people out of their environment and have you know, a control group of people who haven't haven't been exposed to their environment.
So there's good reason to think that they have an effect but it's really hard to determine that without a doubt. embryogenesis is when the foetus is being formed in the womb. So it starts out as you know, a single cell basically, and elaborates into a baby and during that process there There are specific kind of critical periods or moments when things are really unfolding and can be easily thrown off course. So there's kind of points where the foetus is more vulnerable or extra vulnerable. And Mercury is something that affects embryogenesis. So if you're exposed to mercury at a certain point in the foetal development, it can really change how it happens. So that's the point of concern when you are breastfeeding. Thinking about breastfeeding makes me think about the microbiome, which is another tangent, but kind of something, we could talk more about lots of ways your environment affects the reproductive process.
Aaron Goodman 25:42
Thank you so much for everything you've shared. It's really enlightening. really disturbing. But I think ultimately, very helpful. Would you like to add anything else? Before we wrap up our chat?
Andrea Lily Ford 25:54
I think the importance of not putting the blame on yourself is something I would like to conclude with, especially for women or mothers. But for everyone who's struggling with, how do we come to? How do we make sense of and feel like we have an tolerable relationship with our environment? There's so much pressure to think of it in terms of your individual choices and actions, and how do I protect myself? How do I protect those I love, you can't. And that's really hard. But giving yourself a break and not blaming yourself for that I think is important. Talking about it. And I think something that came out of my research, again, what I mentioned at the very beginning was that these sorts of concerns around toxicity, were always at the edges. People didn't want to talk about it too much. Because I think it was because it always felt a little bit hopeless, like a little bit out of your control. And it wasn't a very pleasant thing to talk about. But I think talking about it, even if you don't have the answers, also brings it into our collective consciousness is something that we should be concerned with and change not as individuals but as a society. So that's something that individuals can do, but that doesn't focus the blame on your individual choices and abilities.
Aaron Goodman 27:12
And do you recommend people who are pregnant, talk with their partners with their doctors and other people who have concerns? What's an what would you suggest?
Andrea Lily Ford 27:22
I definitely think expressing concerns widely and with everyone who could potentially support you, and
help you through that process is a good idea. I would hesitate to even though there's reasons for thinking about being pregnant and having an infant specifically, like I mentioned, it's really not just these time periods, you know, when you're breastfeeding, that's everything that your mother was exposed to in her childhood that were in her fat cells that were fed to you and you were breastfed, that you'll be passing on. It's that and that can feel hopeless.
And this is the delicate sort of a double bind, that can feel hopeless. But it can also be a way of saying it's not only pregnant people who should be concerned. And it's not only, even though I want to protect my baby, that's not the point. The title of the paper is purity is not the point, there's really no way to do that. Because it's outside of your control in these ways that are just totally inevitable. You can't wrangle what your grandmother ate at this moment. So yes, talking you're in the process of pregnancy and raising an infant talking to everyone who can support you about concerns. But what can be done differently is important. Get all the support, you can share that anxiety and ask for help. But also don't blame yourself too much. And think of this as a collective problem that we can work on together. Hopefully.
Aaron Goodman 28:54
Well, Dr. Ford, thank you and for sharing everything you shared. I really appreciate it.
Andrea Lily Ford 28:58
Thank you very much. That was a great conversation.
Aaron Goodman 29:02
That brings us to the end of this episode of the Chemical Sensitivity Podcast. Thank you very much to Andrea Lily Ford, PhD for speaking with me on the podcast. The podcast is produced by me Aaron Goodman and Kiana Holland. We release new episodes twice a month. Subscribe for free wherever you get your podcasts. Leave a review on Apple podcasts. It's a great way to help others find the podcast follow us on social media. Just search for the Chemical Sensitivity Podcast or PodcastingMCS. Leave your comments about anything you hear on the podcast. If there's someone you'd like to hear interviewed on the podcast or a topic you'd like us to explore, just let me know. Email me at info@ chemicalsensitivitypodcast.org. You can support our work to help us continue creating greater awareness about me MCS. Please find a link in the episode descriptions on chemicalsensitivitypodcast.org. Thank you very much. We really appreciate it and thanks so much for listening.