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Cassandra Carmichael

Cassandra Carmichael, director for the National Council of Churches' Eco-Justice program, reflected on how environmental toxins impact our lives and health. Photo by Leep Zelones.

Small inconveniences, big impact

By Jessica Reid

Sometimes it takes a tiny blessing to ignite big changes in our lives.

For Cassandra Carmichael, that blessing was news of her pregnancy. Cassandra serves as the director for the National Council of Churches’ Eco-Justice program. In her role, she is privy to key information about the toxins in our air, water and food. But, it wasn’t until she learned her daughter, Eliana, was on the way that she took action for herself.

“I knew about these issues all my life,” Cassandra said while speaking at the Thursday morning plenary on the subject of world water issues. “But my most drastic life style changes only happened the instant I thought outside myself and thought of my daughter.”

As a new mother in her early 40s, Cassandra knew the chance of having a child with birth defects was higher than for younger mothers. She also understood that toxins in the air, water and food could increase her baby’s chances for chronic diseases and more.

“The ‘River of Life’ theme of our Gathering seems appropriate to me personally,” she told the crowd about her now 10-month-old daughter. “Because I’m breastfeeding, I’m the ‘river of life’ for my daughter. What I consume flows to her.”

According to Cassandra, more than 84,000 toxic chemicals are registered for use but only 200 have been fully tested for their impact on humans. She said the idea of discovering the dangers and finding alternatives was daunting, so she decided to give up all conveniences.

“Every trip to the grocery store became a dance of avoidance,” she said, describing her struggle to live chemical free.

She gave up lipstick, hair gel, canned foods, fish, cover-up, nail polish and anything else that could contain harmful toxins. Instead, Cassandra focused on eating organic foods and says she suffered through a “naked face” but one of her biggest challenges was finding safe drinking water.

“I learned there was lead in the pipes at my workplace and one of the most important things for a new mother is staying hydrated,” she said.

So, Cassandra filled water bottles at her home and brought a backpack to work each day. But, she was quick to point out that there are millions of mothers who don’t have that option. She says more than one billion people a year don’t have access to clean water; another 2.6 billion lack access to good sanitation.

“Unsafe water or poor sanitation is linked to 80 percent of sickness in the world and 5,000 child deaths each day,” she said. “The Environmental Protection Agency estimates 218 million Americans live within 10 miles of [polluted waters].” Low income communities and communities of color are the most often impacted.

Cassandra says we can eliminate some of these environmental hazards through personal choices. “It turns out I’m connected to more than my daughter,” she said. “This River of Life—the water—is a metaphor of connection. It is in remembering our connection to each other that we will find solutions to environmental degradation. Solutions that include clean air, nontoxic products, and safe drinking water.”

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