Friday, March 16, 2012

Nuclear accidents and breastfeeding, part 1

Deep River, a memory that fades in and fades out.  I look at the old photos of my family and remember the joys of childhood.  The freedom of running through the woods, smelling the pine, chasing chipmunks, and the Canadian crisp clean air. Time spent lying on the forest floor and staring at the fluffy white clouds rolling gently overhead.  My mom wanted us out of the cabin.  I can't remember what she said but I knew the cabin was hers for the day and all outdoors was our designated home for the day.  The clearest memory of that time is of my brother and I letting a chipmunk visit our cabin.  A vision of a madhouse with a terrified chipmunk running up curtains and walls and an angry mom.  She didn't understand why we brought the creature into the cabin.  I think we wanted a pet to play with but maybe that is the adult in me rationalizing my childhood actions.  My brother and I learned that day that chipmunks are very destructive and that mothers are not very happy when nature invades their territory.  I remember the winters in Deep River, a different cabin, near the Quebec River.  Lots and lots of snow, my brother and I skating the Quebec River or tobogganing down a hill, and me terrified that we would hit some tree.  We lived miles or so it seemed from the main road into town.  Trash day was often the highlight of my week.  My dad would put the garbage on our toboggan and let me ride on top of the garbage can.  One time I got frostbitten hands and feet from the ride.  I remember how painful it was and how my Dad was so very upset.  Upset with himself, as parents often do things that upon reflection aren't such great ideas.  I think that put an end to rides in freezing temperatures.  My memories of my Dad have stayed really focused over the years.  But my memory of my Mom has faded.  

When we lived in Deep River, my Dad worked in Chalk River, some miles away.  I knew he worked at Atomic Energy of Canada, which meant nothing to me.  I didn't see him much, he was gone a lot of the time.  One time he talked about being too "hot" to come home.  What did that mean?  I didn't know at the time, I was just angry that once again he was gone for long hours away from us.  He talked about being scrubbed down with a brush several times and something about a geiger counter.  But I didn't understand.  

My memories of childhood have always focused on the 2 years our family spent in Deep River.  It was a freedom that few American children get now.  That time gave me a love of the outdoors that has never diminished.  I don't understand people who spend all their days indoors.  Indoors is suffocating to me.  Open the doors and the windows; give me that fresh air.  We moved often, when I was growing up.  I found as time went along, it was harder and harder to connect with people because I knew my family wasn't staying long. Years later in another town (some 5 years later), my Mom was diagnosed with breast cancer.  I didn't know what she had because back then one didn't say "breast."  I knew it began with a lump in her armpit.  She got the standard treatment, radiation.  I remember that she went kinda crazy, babbling nonsense at times.  I suppose it was pain pills?  I didn't know, she talked crazy.  She had no one to help her at home with her dressings after her one breast was removed and her arm on the same side was useless.  She didn't want to ask me but I was the only one available. So at the age of 12, I became a "nurse."  Rotting green flesh, the smell was unbelievable.  Two years of dying, of being a kid and having to sit in hospitals or waiting rooms.  She even went to Sloan Kettering in NY City and yet the cancer continued onward in her body.  The smell of a hospital would make me sick and sometimes I just keeled over in a faint.  I hated the color of light green because all the hospitals seemed to have this putrid color.  I hated the time spent, doing nothing, just looking at the floor or the clock and wanting to go home.  Dying is boring for the young and healthy, an insensitivity to what will be lost.  She died when she was 48 years old.  I am now 60 years old, and that seems way too young to die.  Young people die, far younger than her.  But the child inside me has never forgotten that feeling, that gaping hole in my heart.   When birthing my first baby at home, I cried out for her.  I wanted her there, with me.  Part of the reason for having my baby at home, was my absolute fear of hospitals and doctors.  A belief that hospitals were about dying not birth. There were 4 midwives there and my husband, but what I really wanted was my mother.  Thirty-one years old and still needing a mother to be there.

I always wanted to know why my mother got breast cancer.  There was no family history of breast cancer.  It wasn't til my Dad died in 2009, that I started remembering bits and pieces of conversations with my Dad about his experience of working at Chalk River.  His questions about all the American soldiers working to help clean up after an accident at the atomic plant.  I later learned that Jimmy Carter was one of the American soldiers that came to Chalk River to help in the clean up of that 1954 accident.  I started wondering whether there was a connection between my mother's cancer and us living near a nuclear site that had had an "accident."  I'll never know, but I suspect that her cancer is related.  

Years down the road, I suffered a miscarriage that lead to the discovery of a tumor on my ovary.  It was a terrifying experience.  I wanted to wait and see if it would just go away.  But it kept getting bigger and was causing excruciating pain.  They did the surgery and found it was a benign tumor, a dermoid cyst.  I was happy it wasn't cancer.  But it seemed like a curious thing.  They took the one ovary.  I have a scar like someone who had a C-section.  I, who had home births, couldn't imagine how mothers cope with surgery and a new baby.  I felt like my insides were in danger of falling outside.   I wonder whether my ovaries were damaged by radiation exposure during the years at Deep River?  I played and swam in the Quebec River.  Those childhood memories no longer seem so beautiful.  They actually feel rather strange and malignant.  I lived in a world in which you cannot know the danger.  Those times seem like a foreshadowing of our present day reality in Japan at Fukushima.

As a retired lactation consultant, I am concerned about decisions that are being made regarding infant feeding in Japan.  I read that Japan is planning on breast milk radiation tests.  And I wonder what that will mean for breastfeeding.  How much testing is going on with infant formula?   China has banned imported infant formula from Japan because Japanese infant formula manufacturer, Meiji announced in December of 2011 that they found cesium of up to 30.8 becquerels per kilogram ( lots had already been sold or on store shelves).  Statements I read on various internet sites, believed that the water added to powdered infant formula would dilute the Cesium.  Yet, in Japan, tap water in various areas is also contaminated with Cesium.  So for the Japanese, would cesium be diluted by adding contaminated tap water?  How accessible is bottled water?  Is this imported?  According to an article written by Richard Knox in March of 2011 entitled, "How Risky Is Infant Formula Made with Tokyo Tap Water?" we should be reassured...."The reported dose in Tokyo tap water(210 becquerels) versus the Japanese safety limts (100 becquerels/liter for infants, 300 for adults) is not far from the difference in radiation dose people naturally get if they live in a place like Denver versus a sea-level city such as Los Angeles."  Hm...are people in Denver ingesting that radiation? 

In an article published by EurActive dated April 2011, "The risks associated with iodine-131 contamination in Europe are no longer 'negligible,' according to CRIIRAD, a French research body on radioactivity.  The NGO is advising pregnant women and infants against 'risky behaviour,' such as consuming fresh milk or vegetables with large leaves." The article states, "Fresh milk and creamy cheeses, as well as meat from cattle that have been outside eating grass..."may have been indirectly contaminated.  I don't remember seeing any warning for Americans last year...maybe I missed the warnings.  The article also states, "In normal times, no trace of iodine-131 should be detectable in rainwater or milk."  (CRIIRAD had detected it in rainwater in south-eastern France and the French IRSN had detected it in milk)

"CRIIRAD notes that 'huge amounts of radioactive material have been released by the Fukushima Daiichi plant since Saturday 12 march 2011.  On Tuesday 5 April, 24 days after the accident, the releases continue.'"

While contamination of radioactive material is greatest in Japan, particularly around Fukushima;  this radioactive material is spreading around the globe through winds and sea (TEPCO of Japan has been dumping radioactive water into the Pacific Ocean).  Truly our world is a small one, because an accident that happens thousands of miles away can impact us in very frightening ways.

So for mothers in Japan or mothers in our global community concerned about radiation contamination of breast milk, what is the safest way to feed a baby after a nuclear accident?  I recently read a statement by a Japanese mother that said that while the government was saying it was safe to breastfeed, she did not trust what the government was saying and was bottlefeeding infant formula to her baby because she believed her own milk was too highly contaminated with radioactive materials.    What do we know?  
Copyright 2012 Valerie W. McClain


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