Tainted Milk: Breastmilk, Feminisms and the Politics of Environmental Degradation

By Shewprasad, Sharmila | Women & Environments International Magazine, Fall 2008 | Go to article overview

Tainted Milk: Breastmilk, Feminisms and the Politics of Environmental Degradation


Shewprasad, Sharmila, Women & Environments International Magazine


TAINTED MILK: BREASTMILK, FEMINISMS AND THE POLITICS OF ENVIRONMENTAL DEGRADATION Boswell-Pene, Maia. (2006) State University of New York Press

Review by Sharmila Shewprasad

"Breastmilk is like the canary in the mine. Scientists often use samples of breastmilk to determine the condition of a local ecosystem because breastmilk contains pollutants that are not present in blood and urine samples."

(Boswell-Penc, 136)

As our environment becomes more toxic, higher and higher levels of chemical contaminants are found in human breastmilk. New York State-based author Maia Boswell-Penc looks at the reluctance of environmental, feminist and environmental justice movements in the United States to engage with the issue of breastmilk toxicity. Despite high levels of toxins found in breastmilk, however, the author maintains that breastfeeding is still the most preferable option for children.

The first chapter gives an Anglo-European historical overview of breastfeeding in the United States, and looks at discourses underlying wet-nursing, the rise of the formula industry, and early American discourses around breastmilk toxicity and contamination. This chapter focuses on an analysis of elite women, and alludes occasionally to the role of black women, slavery and the context of American colonization on breastfeeding.

Examining early environmental movements in the 1960s and 1970s, in the second chapter Boswell-Penc wonders why early warnings about breastmilk contamination, such as Rachel Carson's warnings, did not become a major part of these early environmental advocacy campaigns. The reasons that the chapter explore include the low and falling rate of breastfeeding in the United States in the 1970s, the fear in the environmental movement of being perceived as anti-nursing, and the reluctance in the environmental movement to promote formula use because the production of formula has significant environmental consequences. …

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