A storyteller asks what you'd do if you knew your body was part of the water web.
You are a body of water.
If you knew this, would you protect yourself?
The water in your body is part of the water cycle and connected to every other body of water.
If you knew this, would you want to protect all the bodies of water on the planet?
I would ask my father this, if he were still alive, if his internal environment had not been polluted by the tributaries of toxins that flowed into his six-foot frame.
Standing in his hospital room, he handed me a note the doctor gave him, a small piece of white paper with the risk factors for his cancer. It was a checklist: saccharin in the products he used because he was a diabetic, asbestos in his childhood home and workplace, the cigarettes he’d quit smoking decades earlier, and the chlorinated tap water he drank for over 40 years. Looking up at him I said, “Well, you didn’t miss a beat.”
My father was a body of water. Like the rest of us, he was an estuary. We are 77 percent water at birth, and just as the land delineates the boundaries of the sea, our skin delineates the boundaries of our internal waters. Our bodies are like the planet’s estuaries—the bays, fjords, and sounds where fresh water surrounded by land meets the sea. We can protect what flows into us from the surrounding environment the way we protect the streams that flow into the planet’s estuaries.
Just as contaminants pass through the soil and enter the water, so the contaminants we put on our skin enter our bloodstream. We know that we should not ingest estrogen-mimicking chemicals like BPA, but are less aware that our body’s largest organ, with its ample blood supply, is remarkably efficient at absorption. Ingesting or inhaling toxins may produce an acute response, but absorbing the parabens in lotions, hairspray, make-up, shampoo, and cleaning solvents through the skin is often overlooked—until an illness develops.
The paper my father handed me was carefully phrased. Risk factors, not causes, were listed for his bladder cancer. No single entity could be pointed to or held liable for his illness. As with the pollution that flows off roadways into our nation’s estuaries from our cars, lawns, and farms, everyone is responsible but no one is culpable. His first risk was when, as a boy with skinned knees and elbows, my father beat the pipes in the basement of his West Philadelphia home to let the powdery asbestos fall on his skin like snow.
As a young man he began to smoke long slim cigarettes packaged in a golden wrapper. In the late 1960s the surgeon general’s announcement about the hazards of smoking filled the screen of our black and white TV, the warning repeated as men rocketed to the moon. Lung cancer could kill you. I was five years old, and used my voice to tug at him. “Daddy, if you love us, you’ll quit.” He did, eliminating one location at a time where he allowed himself to smoke, first our house, then the car. The last refuge was his office.
My father worked a white-collar job, as a real estate assessor for the city of Philadelphia. In 1986 his office temporarily moved from City Hall’s annex so that asbestos abatement could be done. He had worked for there for decades. By the time my father died from bladder cancer in 1993 he had been a nonsmoker for almost 27 years, but the cigarette smoke and asbestos particles he inhaled had flowed into his blood and urine streams, converging with two toxins he ingested, chlorine and saccharin.
When I was young, my father and I guzzled nearly a gallon of water a day, often racing each other in chugging contests. It was his way of making a sport out of being a diabetic; he would jump up and down so I could hear the water slosh in his stomach, with the thin orange insulin needle sticking out of his rounded beige belly. Then the water changed.
At first, our family thought “rinsing” the ice made it smell better. We took turns bringing beverages to the table, cracking the metal ice tray that stuck to our fingers before it was rinsed. Soon, all of us stopped putting the jagged frozen squares into anything that wasn’t strong enough to hide the odor. When we couldn’t stand the smell of the water, we substituted the non-caloric saccharin sweetness of soda, popping open the pink cans in order to quench our thirst. Labels warned us that saccharin caused bladder cancer in laboratory animals, but since we were not rats, we guzzled away.
In 1977, I sent a sample from our spigot to the independent lab that was suggested at the back of a vegetarian magazine I’d been reading for a year. I filled out a form describing the source of the water sample, the Schuylkill River and its municipal treatment site at the Philadelphia reservoir along Route 1. The results came back declaring the water was safe to drink, “but it was questionable whether we would want to.”
The Safe Drinking Water Act was only a few years old then. That lab report was like those nationwide reports today that show the trace amounts of rocket fuel, pharmaceuticals, and the pesticide atrazine that are considered safe for municipal water sources. At 63, my father died from the bladder cancer that metastasized to his colon.
Our bladder collects the urine that carries the toxins and pharmaceuticals we’ve ingested. The chemicals, which cannot be removed at the wastewater treatment plant, are released in effluent water. The effluent collects in estuaries, the planet’s bladder, before being flushed by the tide. The pharmaceuticals we ingest, the endocrine disruptors that leach into our food and water from cans and plastics, the personal care products containing parabens that we wash off our hair and skin, go back into the planet’s estuaries and eventually find their way back into our bodies.
It is what I call the water web. Unlike the traditional images of the water cycle, the water web connects our blood streams, urine streams, embryonic fluids, and breast milk to other bodies of water. The water web recognizes our bodies as part of nature. My father’s capillaries were creeks tainted by asbestos, streams of chlorinated water, rivers of saccharin, and floods of the kind of chemicals detected in drinking water today.
If you were taught that the environment was something else and somewhere else—important and wild, that it needed protecting but that it was seals, bears, and rivers and not your composition of cells, bones, and water —what would you do? If you found out that you were as contaminated as the estuary called Puget Sound, or as the endangered orcas that swim in those waters because, just like them, without your consent, you are exposed to known and suspected carcinogens on a daily basis, what would you do?
I asked myself this when, like my father, I got sick from ingestion of known and suspected toxins. The lump was the size of a quarter when I found it in my lower abdomen. Three weeks later when my naturopathic doctor examined me, the non-malignant uterine fibroid tumor had grown so large that immediate action was required. “Change your behavior,” she said, “avoid ‘extra estrogens’ from water and food containers. Extra estrogens make it grow.” I had been reusing plastic containers and the little white squeaky boxes of Styrofoam to keep them out of the oceans but I was polluting my internal sea. I was furious and heartbroken.
I grew up with the 1970s television ad of “The Crying Indian” in buckskin. He paddled his canoe from pristine rivers into a garbage-filled industrial waterway, where tankers and smokestacks polluted what had been his beautiful home. A single tear fell down his solemn face as a voice said, “People start pollution. People can stop it.”
I became an activist working to protect the planet, but I was putting my own health at risk. I lived by a single message, that “plastic and styrofoam is bad for the oceans and its inhabitants.” That myopic message is still broadcast today. Images of rivers, seals, whales, and humans all being polluted by the same toxins are never shown together. As Bill McKibben wrote, “So far the images and metaphors—the rich heritage of American environmental writing, on which the movement continues to draw—have proved insufficient against the force of daily habits.” Our images and metaphors reinforce a false sense of separation from the rest of the natural world. Humans are nature, we are estuaries—movable bodies of water splashing down the street.
About the Author: Jordan Imani Keith
Jourdan Imani Keith wrote this article for It's Your Body, the Fall 2012 issue of YES! Magazine. Jourdan is the founder of Urban Wilderness Project. She is currently working on her memoir, Coyote Autumn. This essay develops themes from her Tedx Talk.