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The Conversation Continues: Penelope Jagessar Chaffer

Back in December 2010, Penelope Jagessar Chaffer riveted the TEDWomen audience,

speaking to the hazards of environmental toxins in our daily lives. A filmmaker, Penelope is the director and producer of the film Toxic Baby, and in making the film, she reached out to scientist Tyrone Hayes to better understand the herbicide atrazine. Taking the stage together, Penelope and Tyrone shared how high levels of exposure to chemicals not only puts our own health at risk, but for pregnant women, actually poses a danger to their unborn children.  We were eager to check in with Penelope, to find out what she’s been up to in the past years, and also get her thoughts on the advances we are/are not making as a society in acknowledging and addressing the potential dangers of these chemicals:

When you spoke in December 2010, you were 9.75 months pregnant, risking train travel to come to D.C. and share your knowledge and insight with all of us.  Can you give us an update?  Was there birth aboard a New York-bound train?!

TEDWomen was an astonishing, life changing experience, not least because I was so hugely pregnant.  It felt quite surreal and there was so many magical moments.  One of my favorites was when Secretary of State Clinton, came on to speak, right after we spoke.

Watch Hillary Clinton at TEDWomen.

No one knew she was coming so at one point I thought I was just hallucinating! I thought “Wow, I am so pregnant at TED that I am now hallucinating Hilary Clinton!”  And considering that I was the most pregnant looking pregnant lady in the history of pregnant ladies, well it all had a tinge of real comic delight. I remember literally trying to hide my enormousness underneath a huge sheepskin coat so the conductor wouldn’t see me. People on the train just couldn’t stop staring-I just looked like a giant yeti creature trying to hide on an Amtrak train!

I made it back to NYC and then we had the huge blizzard of 2010 that shut the city down.  I was due to have a home birth and at one point it felt as though we would have to deliver the baby ourselves.  However my daughter is nothing if not a trooper, and she patiently waited until my midwife Cara could come from the city, in the same way she patiently waited for me to finish my excursion to TEDWomen.  I had a beautiful, empowering birth at home, full of love and light.  Birth is one of most incredible things a woman can do and my first one was quite an ordeal so to have such a magical birth was wonderful.  I am convinced that one of the reasons it was so great, was because I was surrounded by all of this amazing, unstoppable female energy at the conference, that I still feel to this day.  I was deeply honored to be a part of it all and I do wonder what my daughter will do with her life, considering that she heard the voices of these amazing women, articulating their amazing thoughts, while she was still in the womb.

On your fantastic website — Toxic Baby — you share that “there are many ways that we, as parents and caregivers, can prevent unnecessary exposure.”  There are so many chemicals and pollutants out there, the prospect of first finding out what to avoid, and then how to avoid it, can seem overwhelming.  Not to be too simplistic about it, but where do we begin?

It is overwhelming. You shouldn’t feel as though you need a degree in chemistry to be a great parent. However, at this time the onus is on us to police our children’s and our own toxicity and it’s surprising doable in many instances. We can’t always do everything, but we can all do something.  I always start with looking at diet, because much of our toxicity lies in what we eat.  Really try to move away from processed foods that require an army of chemical additives to stay preserved, colored and not tasting of cardboard. Ditch the canned goods-tin cans are lined with BPA to prevent the food reacting to the metal and BPA is estrogenic so you really want to avoid that kind of exposure.  Embrace your inner Mario Batali! A simple meal based on fresh vegetables/meat and grains is easy to prepare and when you get your kids to join in the preparation, you are also teaching them great life skills and fostering great family time together.  If you are a meat eater, trimming the visible fat can drastically reduce your exposure to dioxins and PCBs, the most toxic chemicals in circulation.  If you are a vegetarian, know that dairy can contain these chemicals too so low fat options are much better for you.  When using a microwave, never heat or prepare food in plastic containers (and that includes popcorn!) Try to eat organically as much as you can.

Also pick one area of your life that is important to you. For some people it might be cleaning so switch to less toxic cleaning products. Other people need a home that smells nice so dump the room freshener with their synthetic smells and get some great soy based, essential oil infused candles.  If you are a skincare junkie look at your skincare. Honestly, I could go on and on and on. Making a conscious decision to move away from using products with synthetic chemicals will make a huge difference in your toxicity. One of the things that was a great surprise is how easy it becomes a part of your life, once you get your head around it.  It’s a bit like learning to ride a bike.

You’re a mother — and one who is exceedingly informed on the chemicals all around us. Is going to the supermarket to shop for your kids a stressful experience?  When you go to buy food, food storage containers, diapers, what’s on your mind? What are you looking to find/avoid?

I’m the least stressed shopper I know and I think it’s because I know what I want and I have a very focused idea on what I need.  I’m a ninja shopper! It is a rare instance for me to buy processed food and other items with long lists of ingredients. I won’t eat anything that has a label that looks like it belongs in a chemistry text book!  And even if it’s an organic, completely natural skin care product, I don’t see the need for eight different essential oils. Less is more. The less stuff we ingest, the less work our bodies have, dealing with it. I try to avoid the plague of plastic. So it’s about simplifying and knowing what I need. I am naturally someone who likes to shop, so I’ve become very disciplined in keeping to what I truly need.

When I am buying, I try to exercise my power as an informed consumer. We are the single most important link in the chain of consumerism and we play a huge role in changing the market and influencing manufacturers to make less toxic products. I always try to support smaller entrepreneurs who are trying to make a difference. Companies that are themselves trying to reduce toxicity (using water based dyes in packaging for example.)

I always try to find the positive in every situation and this whole issue of chemical toxicity has really allowed me to simplify our family’s life, which I am very grateful for. I also consume less stuff. Whilst the actual product itself might not be toxic, disposing of the packaging might be. (Incinerating plastic is one way of releasing significant amounts of toxic chemicals into the air.  Dumping the packaging into landfills will eventual release those chemicals into the ground, and could end up in water and other ecosystems.) So it’s taught me not to be a mindless consumer, constantly churning through stuff.  Also in 2012, it’s so much easier to find healthier, non toxic options, whether it’s in your local store or online, so I actually think this is a great time to be exploring a less toxic life.  Rather than focusing on how overwhelming it is (and it is!) I try to make it all a meditation on gratitude. That I know about this and can actually do something.

During your TEDWomen talk, you shared the stage with scientist Tyrone Hayes. Dr. Hayes told how in 2003 the European Union banned Atrazine — as of 2010, the number one contaminant of ground, drinking and rain water. That same year, the Environmental Protection Agency in the United States re-registered the compound.  Then, in 2010 the European Union passed a ban on Bisphenol A (BPA) in baby bottles and sippy cups, while the U.S. Senate would not even debate the issue.  Born in London but now living in New York City, you’ve experienced life on both sides of the Atlantic. Why do you think the U.S. Congress lags the European Union on addressing environmental chemical pollution?  

Great question!  I think that because the European Union is not just one country, they have to consider the cultures and outlooks of all members as a community. The Dutch, for example had a big controversy with dioxins in the 1980s so they have been across this for a while and are able to influence other member states.  Not to be simplistic, it is fair to point out that politically, Europe tends to more “socially” engaged, so I think that it’s part of their culture to have an attitude of “what is best for us as a society.”  Influential individuals such as Prince Charles also have been strong advocates play a role (in the case of the Prince, second in line to the British throne, his advocacy lay with the organic movement and he was quite instrumental in keeping genetically modified foods out of the U.K. market) so all these things have a knock on effect.

The U.S., on the other hand, especially in its recent history, is culturally tied to a capitalistic model, and if you have a philosophy that sees profit (and the pursuit of profit) as the most important thing, you will get a scenario where anything that interferes with that is discouraged.  American companies have actively lobbied to restrict outside regulation, arguing that this would lead to lower profits, amongst other things. I think really it’s only now that American’s are waking up to the role that corporate lobbying and lax corporate regulation (see the banking crisis that brought on this recession) has played in our current plight.  It’s not so much the individual companies: some of the big chemical manufacturing companies are European, it’s the corporate culture that one finds in America that leads to this disparity.

How this plays out in our day to day lives is that there are many examples of American multinationals shipping less toxic options abroad to Europe, whilst still selling the original, “more toxic” versions at home. That seems a bit ridiculous. Don’t American children deserve the same protection?

In saying that, the European model isn’t perfect. A good example is the sunscreen chemical 4MBC that is widely used in the EU and Canada but has not been approved by the FDA. This compound is highly estrogenic and widely used in children’s sunscreens abroad.  I’m always happy to point out that whilst for the most part, what is happening in the U.S. requires urgent attention, it’s not all bad news.

You struck a chord with the audience when you said that “we have no concept of what I’ve been calling internal environmentalism,” and how “we are so ignorant of this sense of what happens when we put things or things are put into our bodies.” It seems that not only on the governmental level, but also on a daily level, the urgency of the situation gets overlooked.  Why do you think that is — when people will fret endlessly about abs and biceps and other elements of physical health?

I think it’s because this is something that is unseen. When the Clean Air Act of the 70s became law, you could see how dirty the air was.  The sky literally looked dirty. Dominique Browning, the founder of Moms Clean Air Force (an environmental advocacy group for mothers) talks about seeing her local river on fire in the 1970s. That kind of pollution is easy to see. This is much harder. If toxicity manifested itself as a deformity of the skin or any external feature, it is my opinion that this would have been dealt with a long time ago. If an estrogenic baby cream caused your child to develop large warts across its face, I don’t think we would be having this conversation. We can’t see our hormones being disrupted or microscopic compounds damaging our livers, so there is a disconnect. It’s the adage, “Out of sight, out of mind.”  I also think that the past 30 years has seen a collective disengagement by our society. We stopped asking questions and thinking of what the consequences of our actions might be.

Do you think the level of awareness has changed at all since 2010? These days there seems to be a near obsession with products labeled natural and/or organic. Is this progress? Or, alternately, a quick-fix, those labels providing a false sense of security?

I am amazed at how much this develops every year. It is progress to a certain extent, and the more products and companies that spring up, the more competitive the market and the more likely that prices will come down so in theory a good thing. However, consumers need to be really vigilant about this. I’ve seen labels with the words “organic, all-natural” and the ingredients list include synthetic preservatives. That’s why I always advocate that people get informed so that they can read a label and have a sense of what is in that product.

I’ve also seen a real upswing in “greenwashing” which is where a company dishonestly communicates a green or non toxic agenda.  There’s much money to be made in this brave, new, less toxic world and some brands are just tempted to be dishonest and jump on the bandwagon. I’ve also seen several big corporate brands entering the fray with less toxic alternatives, which might seem a good idea. I’m personally uncomfortable with a company that sells a toxic product AND sells a green version of that toxic product. I would rather see those corporations use their money and resources on cleaning up their products and reformulating than on just getting in on the action to make profits on both sides of the coin.

Can you tell us a little about what you’ve been up to the past year with Toxic Baby?

I’ve been trying to finish Toxic Baby with a newborn in tow, which has been very challenging.  I think perhaps one of the greatest challenges for women is when they become moms and how they balance a working life with motherhood.  It’s a challenge for sure and I hope it’s something that the TEDWomen community will discuss because it’s a major issue for so many women.  The film has it’s first public outing next week and I’ve spent the past week with sick kids so it’s an amazing clash of all these different things going on, but I am very grateful. Life is great.  When I had the idea for Toxic Baby, none of the TV and film executives I spoke to “got it”.  At first they said I was crazy (literally) and thought that I had made it up or at the least was exaggerating and when I showed them the research, they told me that no woman, let alone a mother would want to know about this.  Which I thought was very bizarre and patronizing so in the end I sold our home to make the film.  The film is truly independent and it’s a miracle it even got made.  Currently, I am trying to find a theatrical distributor and I am considering ways of expanding it into a multi part documentary series for TV.  I’m also moving the Toxic Baby project into apps and other ways of communicating solutions to this issue, so a very exciting time for me.

Some TEDxWomen followers may be surprised to learn that your earlier films do not focus on environmental toxins.  In addition to Toxic Baby, you’ve made the film Me and My Dad, documenting your trip to Trinidad to confront your father, as well as Shakespeare Stories, for the BBC. [Both of those films were nominated for a British Academy of Film and Television Arts Award.] These topics — environmental toxins, your relationship with your father, and Shakespeare seem quite different. Are they? Or is there a connective tissue for you?  What drew you to telling these stories?

There’s an emotional connectivity, running through all my work. I see myself as a communicator, but really I can only communicate emotions and thoughts that I feel, that are not being expressed anywhere else. I can’t imagine running out and making a film on global warming for example. Not that I don’t have a connection to that, but I think the communication is already there. Making films is not unlike having a child and they require huge effort so I have to feel that only I can tell this story in my own way. If I feel someone else can communicate this, I’m really happy to leave them to it.  With my dad, I wanted to communicate this unspoken despair that many women have with their fathers but also the redemptive power of communicating those thoughts with them. The spine of that film is a sit down interview with me, just asking my dad about his life and why he was the way he was.  It’s something that as women we don’t do enough of. We have a disconnect with our fathers and we seek to repair it in our adult relationships with boyfriends and husbands (recipe for disaster I might add).

With Shakespeare, I was really curious about the context in which he wrote, and why he wrote what he did. Politically what was happening, the male/female dynamics of the time and the style of literature of the day. It was something that I hadn’t seen explored.

Because I seek the unspoken and unknown stories of the human condition, I guess everything with me starts with “Why?” and if it becomes this gnawing question the answer to which truly fascinates me, then I’m compelled to communicate it. For Toxic Baby, I just kept asking “How come I don’t know about this.” It’s the one question people ask when they hear about it. “How come no one is talking about this.”

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One Response to The Conversation Continues: Penelope Jagessar Chaffer

  1. Barbara says:

    Thank you for this great Q&A with Penelope Chaffer and her film Toxic Baby. After reading this Q&A, February 29, 2012, I started researching BPA in cans. I thought BPA in food product cans had been out lawed 5 years ago in the US. Not so I discovered. I also checked the top list of fruits and vegetables with high levels of pesticides. I am no longer stating “organic fruits and vegetables are too expensive”! I now believe they are worth the cost, and I will try to eliminate pesticides as much as I can from my diet. Also, we have learned so much about BPA in water bottles and baby bottles, and I think we are more aware of companies that provide BPA free products in our water bottles and baby bottles.
    I’ve never heard of 4MBC, but will check out all sunscreens when gearing up for summer fun.
    Thank you for such an excellent forum to help “get the word out” and communicating this information through TedxWomen. PS. I’m sorry you had to sell your home to provide finances to make this film! Thank you, and you have “got us talking about this.”