Friday, January 9, 2004

Review: Having Faith

Having Faith is an exploration of the journey of pregnancy and early motherhood. The author is an ecologist, well steeped in environmental toxins and the various cross effects between biological life and humanities effects on the world. As a budding mother she realized her body had become an inner ecological system with a population of one, her baby, and set out to understand the babies environment from an ecologists point of view. The book is a very intimate, scientific, educational and fascinating exploration of both the personal experience of the authors pregnancy, and the scientific research she found available to explain what's happening at each stage of pregnancy.

I purchased this book as a christmas present. A lady friend of mine has her ticking biological clock, is looking for the father of her child(ren), and I am the current possible candidate (to which post I am proud to be considered). As the book is written by a scientist telling her personal journey through pregnancy, and my friend is also a scientist, I thought it would make for good reading. And then it occurred to me to read this book myself, as the journey is a joint one. It takes two to tango, after all.

Let me say up front, this is a very impressive book. It is a joy to read, with vibrancy and clarity shining through the words of her writing. It is a very personal story, and I feel priveledged to take a peep into her life. The story is giving me a greater appreciation of the awesomness of parenting, and the magical mystery that is our bodies.

The book is a month by month journey through the authors pregnancy. On the one hand she gives a very intimate and personal recounting of her life in pregnancy and early childhood. This starts with the nervous 5 minute wait the at-home pregnancy test requires, to the personal quest for to satisfy food cravings, to the moment of revealing her pregnancy to the world, to the choice of giving natural childbirth (or not), the act of performing natural childbirth (with the obstetrical staff standing to the side like a greek chorus), the tense choice during the throes childbirth to undergo episiotomy and the later regrets, and finally the early months of mothering.

In parallel to her personal journey, she discusses the biological processes that happen and a detailed review of the scientific on various issues that arise during each period of pregnancy. While the review of scientific research is very detailed, it's not at all the dry boring stuff you'd expect of a scientist writing about science. Instead, the writing is alive, vibrant, and described in every day terms while not shrinking the slightest from the accurate scientific terminology when it best applies.

Some of the scientific issues covered are:

Pregnancy tests detect, in the urine, presence of the hormone human chorionic gonadotropin (HCG).

Obstetricians and embryologists track the dates during pregnancy differently, with about 2 weeks difference. Embryologists start with the moment of fertilization, while obstetricians begin with the woman's previous menstrual period. Apparently it's difficult to pin down the time of fertilization, but if the woman is being responsible she will be tracking her periods and know when the last one happened.

Organogenesis, the formation of body parts. The embryo is still very small ("the length of a paper clip"), but all the organs are identifiable by this stage. This stage occurs within the first 3 months of pregnancy.

Morning sickness, that it is common and happens all around the world. The earliest description is written on papyrus and goes back 4000 years to ancient egypt. Nausea is a sign of a healthy pregnancy, as these women "have fewer miscarraiges, stillbirths, premature deliveries, and their babies are at lower risk for heart defects".

The functions of the placenta in interfacing between the babies blood stream, and the mother. The exchange of various hormones that prepare the mothers body for certain steps (such as lactation later). The placenta's purpose is to shield the baby from environmental toxins or poisins.

  • Lowered oxygen supplies in the mothers blood system (such as caused by smoking, or second hand smoking) can drastically affect the babies blood and body development.
  • Many chemicals can make it through the placental barrier unharmed. e.g. Rubella (German measles), thalidomide (a drug remarketed for use in pregnancy, and later to have massively bad side effects in causing birth defects), Minimata (a seaside town in Japan, where local industry had dumped mercury in the ocean which came back to them in the fish as methylmercury and caused lots of birth defects), diethylstilbestrol (DES, originally thought to prevent miscarraige, but found to increase miscarraige and cancers).
  • Persistent Organic Pollutants (poisins) are chemical compounds having organic nature (made from carbon chains) that don't readily break down. In fact many are known to take decades to break down, and as they evaporate and enter the atmosphere, spreading around the planet, they tend to collect in the arctic regions because the cold temperatures prevent their re-evaporation. Hence, the arctic regions of the planet are bearing the brunt, yet these chemicals are created in the warmer climes. What are they? The most popular are: DDT, PCB's (Polychlorinated biphenyls), dioxin, aldrin, dieldrin, endrin, chlordane, heptachlor, mirex, toxaphene, hexachlorobenzene, furans.

Amniocentesis is a procedure often done for older mothers, as the risks it detects rise in older mothers. It involves drawing a sample of amniotic fluid (the fluid within which the baby floats in the womb) and runs some tests that primarily look for genetic defects. She points out that this procedure would be a great avenue for measuring environmental toxins entering the baby's bloodstream, but this is not done. It is especially heartbreaking given the wealth of evidence she outlines of environmental toxicity causing birth defects, that this simple addition is not made to amniocentesis.

Bio-magnification is a process where higher levels of the food chain receive magnified dosages of any environmental toxin in their environment. The process starts with the toxin entering the environment, and ending up in bodies of water (rivers, streams, lakes, oceans, etc). The toxin is eaten by the animals and plants in that water. Since the toxin isn't of use to the creature, it tends to collect in the creatures tissues and it is the damage caused by that toxin being collected in the tissue which causes the disease. As creature eats creature, the toxin is carried along as part of the body being eaten. In each new creature the toxin again doesn't get consumed by the body of the animals, isn't released into the environment from the animals body, and again collects in the animals tissue. Hence, each new animal in the food chain receives a higher dosage (percentage wise) than the one it ate, and the toxin levels magnify at each step.

The state of knowledge about birth defects is very poor. There is no comprehensive national registry of birth defects, though a few states have their own registries. With what is reported it is known 2-3% of births have defects, and 21 babies die every day from birth defects.