From scared mom to science mom

Rewind to July 2013. Picture a typical elementary school cafeteria. Rows of uncomfortable plastic chairs filled with nervous parents of soon-to-be kindergartners.

Nervous parent: What kind of snacks do you offer in the afterschool program?

Principal: Typically, juice and a snack. Usually a CapriSun and Cheez-Itz.

Me, pregnant, gasping audibly:  But those have artificial colorings! I can’t believe they’re serving that to our kids.

Fast forward to now. I look back at my constant state of stress and anxiety and realize that my concerns were entirely misplaced. The story of how I got from there to here is a story of very slow and gradual change, marked by a few key moments.

Toxic food was my pseudoscience. As a scientist, I have always been firmly pro-vaccine. I have never doubted the scientific consensus on climate change. I think the scientific evidence supports evolution. Yet, grocery shopping was an anxiety-filled experience, with my face glued to my phone reviewing the EWG Dirty Dozen app. Buying household cleaning products and personal care products involved hours of scouring the EWG Guides.

Image from Pixabay

In 2009, when my daughter was 1 year old, I joined a lab with a focus on neurotoxicology research at the Emory University School of Public Health for my first postdoctoral position. When I joined this lab, I was certain the knowledge I’d gain would equip me to avoid all toxicants for my kids and guarantee them a 100% risk- and exposure-free life. Instead, I learned that my preconceived ideas about risk and exposure were largely incorrect and not evidence-based. I can pinpoint three specific moments that led me to this realization.

First, I realized that organic did not mean pesticide-free. Organic companies had been collecting my dollars based on this one false assumption alone. After all, if I could reduce my kids’ exposures by buying products without pesticide residue, wasn’t that worth the extra money?

However, as I learned about pesticide toxicity and its relationship to Parkinson’s disease for my new job, I read many papers about a pesticide called “rotenone” and its link to Parkinson’s. Rotenone is a naturally occurring pesticide (it comes from the roots of plants of the Leguminosae family). Fortunately, for us and for animals, rotenone use has greatly declined to almost none since its use in the US was limited in the early 2000s to only piscicide applications. But what really shocked me is that the National Organic Program allowed rotenone use in organic systems, since it is a naturally occurring pesticide. It became clear to me that the source of a pesticide (natural or manmade) is largely irrelevant to its toxicity and environmental impact.

Second, I took a closer look at the EWG methodology and found it lacking. The organization’s methodologies usually do not pass the most basic smell test. The entire Dirty Dozen database is based on the assumption that organic has lower residues of less risky residues or no residues at all. In order to claim, as EWG does, that organic strawberries are less risky than their non-organic counterpoint, they should be able to present data about the risks posed by both. EWG does not have this data. EWG uses publicly available pesticide residue data from the USDA Pesticide Data Program.  This program only tests organic produce for pesticides that are not approved by the NOP to ensure that organic growers are complying with organic standards. In other words, because some organic pesticides aren’t measured at all, we do not have the equivalent data on organic products to actually be able to make the claim they do that organic is a better option. Despite that limitation, what the USDA data do show is that pesticide residues on produce in the US, whether organic or not, are far below regulatory limits.

This was a turning point for me, as I started to question all of my assumptions about exposures and toxicity. I discovered many other problems with the EWG methods that have been written about extensively, both in the scientific literature, the media (here and here) and the science blogosphere (here). I started digging into the science behind those guides and, eventually, I found the NIH Household Products Database and the ToxNet database. I learned about the difference between hazard and risk. I learned about putting exposures and risks into perspective. These resources and my lab work brought me face to face with the actual science of toxicology and exposure science.

I also started to question myself as a parent. I had thought I was making good decisions for my family to keep us safe and protect us from the sea of toxicants in the world. I had thought that all the time I spent doing “research” in front of the computer was worth it. I had thought that my stress and anxiety over every tiny exposure was a small price to pay to protect my family. But what if I was wrong? What if I caused more harm to my own and my kids’ health and well-being by being constantly stressed out? What if I had missed out on valuable time with my family?

The final straw for me was the anti-GMO propaganda of the organic movement. While I have done all of my research in neuroscience, my Ph.D. is from the Molecular Genetics and Genomics program at Washington University in St. Louis, where most of my coursework was in genetics and molecular biology. Based on what I learned there, it was apparent to me that nearly every scientific argument I heard against GMOs was contrived. It became clear to me that most arguments raised against GMOs seemed to be a conflation of GMOs with other issues (some of which are valid).

I spent most of my second pregnancy taking a hard look at my past choices. By the time our son was born, I was much more relaxed about, well, everything. I am a better parent and a better wife now because I’m not spending all my time worried and stressed out. I have learned to look at the big picture instead of focusing on small, individual risks. I have stopped chasing the impossible idea of a risk- and exposure-free environment.

These days, I mostly try to focus on the big picture. Dr. Robin Whyatt, speaking about phthalates on the NIEHS Podcast in 2015, greatly influenced my new perspective:

Eat a lot of fruits and vegetables. Read to your kids. Keep your sugar and salt intake down. Exercise. Incorporate things into your life that keep your stress levels low. All of these things will do more to mitigate and reduce the risks of exposures than avoiding a few of them will accomplish. (This does, of course, reflect my privilege. There is a huge socioeconomic issue here that people without access to these things will show greater effects of exposures. This is why at the societal and regulatory level, we should take action to reduce these exposures and mitigate the associated risks.)

This new perspective has been freeing and has helped to dramatically reduce my anxiety. I started becoming active in science groups and on science pages on Facebook and sharing more science information on my personal page. Eventually, this led me to start my Facebook page, Mommy PhD. Through this, I met all of the SciMoms and we started working together. Natalie found our work, decided to make the Science Moms documentary, and, from that, SciMoms was born.