Raven Sankey sits on her front steps, cradling her new baby girl. Sankey’s daughter is beautiful, as the new mother is more than happy to confirm, but Sankey’s baby is also expensive. The mother chuckles as she explains why she decided to take part in a study examining toxins in breast milk.
“They’re paying me $100,” she says. “That’s the reason I called.” Like many Missoulians, Sankey isn’t getting much help from the troubled economy. She subscribes to the theory that every little bit helps.
The breast milk study is sponsored locally by Women’s Voices for the Earth (WVE), and is part of larger effort on the part of Northwest Environment Watch to gather breast milk from 40 women across Montana, Washington, Oregon and British Columbia. It’s WVE President Dori Gilels’ charge to recruit 10 new Missoula mothers.
“There’s been a great community response to the study, and we’ve actually had no trouble at all,” says Gilels. “I definitely think the money helps, particularly with some of the lower-income women we have participating in the study, but I think it’s a mixture. I think that women have really been interested in this issue, and they want to be able to help the community see what our body burdens are in Missoula.”
The study is mainly aimed at detecting levels of PBDE—a chemical flame retardant used in foam furniture padding. Some environmentalists and scientists are concerned by the rate at which PBDEs accumulate in the breast milk of nursing mothers. Not much is known about the toxicity of the chemical, but studies have shown it poses some of the same dangers as PCBs and DDT—two chemicals banned in the United States.
For Sankey, the money outweighed any fears that the study would reveal frightening chemicals in her body.
“I did think about what would be found in my milk,” she says. “I thought about Stone Container and living so close to the Clark Fork River. But it’s better to find out now and know.”