Mary Brune looked worried. "I don't know what the problem is," she said, peering at the generator in the grass. Attached to it was a blower that was, in turn, attached to a puddle of yellow nylon. The next morning, that puddle was supposed to inflate to become a giant rubber ducky, the centerpiece of a protest Brune was leading at a Target store near her home in the San Francisco Bay area.
For Brune, the golden ducky represented much more than a call to remove
PVC from Target's shelves. It was her official coming out as an
Eighteen months earlier, Brune was home nursing her newborn daughter and watching the news when a story came on about perchlorate,
describing how this toxic component of rocket fuel had been found in
human breast milk. "I didn't have any idea what perchlorate was," Brune
says, "but I was really scared. Then I was outraged." By the time her
husband got home from work, she had made up her mind: "We've got to do
something about this," she told him.
Brune and three of her friends -- fellow new mothers and environmental
advocates -- got together to talk about it. "It started to snowball,"
says Brune, who had volunteered with Greenpeace and the Rainforest
Action Network. "We did some research and we found that there are
pesticides and DDT and lead and mercury and phthalates and flame
retardants and lots of other things being found in breast milk." That
food source, so perfect for growing babies, is also a living record of
a woman's chemical exposures. And many of the industrial chemicals that
have been found in breast milk are suspected endocrine disruptors --
chemicals that can alter children's development.
Though activist groups monitor chemicals in the body, Brune says,
"Nobody was focusing specifically from the nursing mom's point of
view." So the four friends founded Making Our Milk Safe,
or MOMS, which has grown to more than 300 members in 28 states. "There
should be nothing more basic than a mother's right to provide clean and
healthy breast milk for her child," says Brune. "Whether you're a
blue-state mom or a red-state mom, nobody wants their kids exposed to
toxic chemicals. This is a human issue -- something we all, as parents,
are confronted with."
Our Babies, Ourselves
By mid-October, when I met with Brune and a few volunteers before the
Target action, she had become a leading voice on the issue of
breast-milk contamination. This year, Brune testified about the issue
in Washington, D.C., and in Sacramento, where the state legislature was
considering California's biomonitoring bill. The first version of the
bill, which establishes a statewide program to monitor chemicals in the
human body, had been vetoed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in 2005,
partly on the grounds that testing might dissuade women from
Brune's testimony was important, because MOMS is adamant about
breastfeeding. "No matter what we know about toxic chemicals ending up
in breast milk," Brune says, "it's still best to breastfeed. We are
nursing moms, and we're doing this because we think it's such a
wonderful, amazing, miraculous food for our children that we want to
The bill was signed into law
this September, and Brune went to the signing ceremony in Sacramento.
But meanwhile, chemicals are still seeping into mammaries across the
country -- hence the giant ducky.
Because legislation can take a long time to have an effect, and can always be challenged,
MOMS decided to take their message directly to the people who could
make a big difference quickly: the retailers who supply the mothers and
fathers of America with critical baby supplies like bottles, diapers, and toys, which often contain surprisingly harmful chemicals.
"Moms spend a lot of money shopping, buying things for the home, buying
things for their children," says Brune. "That really represents a lot
To get their feet wet, MOMS teamed up with the Center for Health, Environment, & Justice, planning their Bay Area demonstration as part of a national day of action that served as the kick-off of CHEJ's anti-PVC campaign.
Protests took place at about 30 Target stores nationwide, calling on
the chain to phase out PVC. While other retailers have taken the issue
seriously -- including IKEA, which removed PVC from nearly all of its
products 10 years ago, and Wal-Mart, which is in the process of
removing PVC from its private-label products -- Target has not made any
Hitting Their Target
The ducky dilemma turned out to be caused by a too-small generator, so
Brune took off in her Prius to get a bigger one. The next day, she
stood in front of the local Target with her daughter on her hip,
watching the rubber ducky inflate. It went up without a hitch, an
immense, yellow specter next to the all-too-apt Target sign. Around it,
parents and kids chanted, "Phase out PVC!" and handed out literature.
For intransigent retailers, MOMS had officially become the mommy group
Emboldened, Brune led an impromptu march through the store. The sight
of a squadron of strollers rolling across the parking lot with banners
flying behind them seemed to bewilder the store's security team, and
MOMS was able to march through the sprawling store without any
unfortunate -- though surely telegenic -- arrests of new mothers.
More fundamentally, MOMS threw down the gauntlet that day, reframing
the question of industrial contaminants in the human body. Rather than
getting bogged down in toxicity studies and legislative process, MOMS
is, in effect, asking companies like Target to explain why it's
acceptable for the chemicals in their products to wind up in the sacred
bosom of motherhood. The next day, Target issued a statement saying it
would "explore alternatives" to PVC.
Brune was in high spirits after the demonstration. While the other
three MOMS founders have prior experience with environmental activism,
this was the first time she had ever organized anything like this, and
it found her redefining what motherhood means. "There is a perception
that new moms are inward-looking," she says, "but becoming a mother
brings something out in you that you never knew existed. The desire to
protect your child is just so powerful, you feel such a passion for it
that you'll do what you have to."
MOMS operates on a shoestring budget and staff --
the founders and volunteers "don't even make one full-time person,"
Brune says -- and schedules its campaigns around nap and feeding times,
rather than the daily news cycle. But Brune, who also works as a
technical writer, says there are many ways for busy mothers to get
involved, from demonstrating to making phone calls and writing letters.
"It's kind of unbelievable," she says. "Before I was a parent, I never
would have thought that I was capable of getting half of the stuff done
that I do, with so little sleep and so little time, with so little
money and resources. But MOMS has to be done -- we just have to figure
out where we can squeeze in the time."
- - - - - - - - - -
Gregory Dicum is the author of Window Seat: Reading the Landscape from the Air
. He writes a biweekly column for SFGate, the online edition of the San Francisco Chronicle
, and has written for the New York Times Magazine
, Mother Jones
, and others.
Fed Up with Breast-Milk Contamination, Mothers Form a National Activist Group
Mother Knows Best
Fed up with breast-milk contamination, mothers form a national activist group
By Gregory Dicum
Grist Magazine, Nov 6, 2006
Straight to the Source