Sandra Steingraber

"One of the most profound things I think I did during my pregnancy with my son when I was 8 months pregnant was stand by the Hudson River near the Statue of Liberty in Battery City Park, which was a month or two before September 11 [2001]. The Hudson River, of course, is the United States biggest superfund site because it's contaminated from its head to its mouth with chemicals called PCBs, PCBs being industrial chemicals we used long ago, and we no longer manufacture them but they're so persistent they're still found in the sediment and in the food chain of that river.

"Now one of the things that we know with certainty that PCBs do when they enter the body of a pregnant woman is interfere with thyroid hormone, which normally would just simply regulate our metabolism. But during pregnancy the thyroid hormone plays a very noble role. It actually goes from the mother's body through the placenta and into the brain of her developing child and it helps guide the neurons to get connected up in the way they're supposed to. It forms the brain of the baby, and is a kind of conductor of the orchestra if you will.

"We know now that what PCBs do is bind to thyroid hormone. They actually bind to the protein receptor whose job it is to take the thyroid hormone into the brain of the child so that thyroid hormone is flushed from the system. And the more PCBs that you're exposed to as a fetus during that period of time when your brain is developed the more at risk you are for lowered IQ, for learning disability problems; essentially PCBs extinguish human intelligence. And to stand by a river so contaminated with PCBs, knowing that the body of my son was inside me and knowing on this summer day that PCBs were even now evaporating from the sediments of river, being carried in the winds and continuing to cycle through the food chain made me realize that the ecosystem of the Hudson River and the ecosystem inside my own pregnant body-there was an interaction between them, a communion between them-so that we can't even talk about the health of the Hudson River, and the fish that live there and the PCBs that evaporate from the sediments without also talking about the intelligence of schoolchildren born to the women who live along the banks of that river.

"And so I think that pregnant women have a role to play in talking about the health of our river systems if only because they are these marine ecosystems walking around and they are aware constantly of the swimming kicking motions of this amphibious baby living inside them who is at every moment swallowing amniotic fluid. The entire body of that child is assembled from the molecules of water, air and food streaming through the body of that pregnant mother. So the connection between rivers and women I think is a very profound one."