When Min Sook Lee was pregnant a few years ago, she used noxious insecticides in her home and breathed paint fumes while decorating the nursery. Today, the Toronto filmmaker can't look at a hot dog without thinking of nitrates used in prepared meats and their link to cancer.
Motherhood changes everything, Ms. Lee says. Alarmed by a rash of toy recalls shortly after her daughter's birth, she began to conceive My Toxic Baby , a lyrical account of her journey down the rabbit hole of the chemically saturated world we inhabit, even in utero.
The documentary, which premieres Sept. 11 at the Toronto International Film Festival, is less strident than her earlier films, including Hogtown: The Politics of Policing , a 2005 Hot Docs award winner.
But Toxic Baby still packs a political punch. In it, she confronts melamine-tainted baby formula, toys laced with lead and PVC, and the chemical load in her own body.
After popping an organic chicken in the oven, Ms. Lee told The Globe and Mail why she ripped out her kitchen cupboards and how she avoids environmental toxins without resorting to growing her own food and living in a yurt.
When you started filming, which toxins worried you most? Bisphenol A. That was invented in the fifties as a hormone replacement therapy of some sort, which didn't work out, and then somehow [scientists]found it was useful in the manufacture of plastics. No one thought it would leach out from plastic baby bottles or the lining of tin cans into our food and liquids. And now we're finding that yes, in fact it does.
Many products are now labelled "bisphenol A free" but we don't know whether the compounds used instead are any safer. Can ridding our homes of a specific toxin give us a false sense of security? Of course. That's the thing with the baby industrial complex - it's this offshoot of capitalism and parenting fears sort of twinned together right so you'll buy, buy, buy your way out of your insecurity or guilt or whatever. Ultimately, the idea is to be more aware and to use much less products.
What are the biggest changes you've made because of Toxic Baby ? Food is major. But I can't afford to buy all organic and I don't think most people can. So [for]bananas or other things with thick rinds, which I know are less susceptible to pesticides, I don't buy organic. But meat products, it's always organic, especially the dairy. Second is any cleaning products. I get the organic stuff from the health-food store or I make my own, and that's with baking soda, water, vinegar and maybe a bit of lemon. If I use any shampoo or soap on my daughter, I buy them at the health-food store and the less ingredients, the better. And I got Song Ji [her daughter]an organic mattress - that was a big-ticket item for me but that's where she spends most of her life.
Is it easy to hire someone with an XRF analyzer to test for toxins in clothing, mattresses and toys, as you did in the film? It would be expensive. The people who do so usually have children who are severely ill, like a family I know who have three autistic kids. It's not realistic for every family.
There's footage of your husband tearing out your kitchen after the technician found lead in the layers of old paint - was that an emotional experience? Yes. Even when I think about it now I want to cry. My daughter spent so much time by my feet while I was cooking. And when I thought of all those flakes of paint that might have gotten on the floor or fallen into a cooking pot, I was absolutely horrified.
Do you think your home is safe now? No. But we all have to construct some sort of sanity to function in our lives today. This is as much as I can do without losing my mind.
When blood tests showed your body's chemical load was relatively low, did you feel any better? It wasn't low. There was a presence of chemicals that everybody has but are there acceptable levels? Frankly, I don't think so.
What about people who argue that our parents lived with even higher levels of lead and other household toxins and they turned out fine? I think those are very strange comments. Today we have the highest rate of childhood cancer, unprecedented levels of autism and asthma, food allergies, skin allergies - all these sensitivities that are clearly related to environmental conditions. And this idea that past generations lived in surroundings that were chemically toxic and they survived is also quite false. One in three die of cancer.
In the film you interview mothers from countries including China, Tunisia and the Philippines. Did you notice cross-cultural differences in how people think about toxins? It's funny because "organic" and "green" - there's a stereotype that they go with being white and privileged but that's just one sector of environmental consciousness. For example, Korean culture is very into the health thing, like whole grains and vegetables, the traditional rustic Korean diet. So it's weird for me when you go into the health-food store and there's seaweed that's overpriced and in a small package. Then you go to Korean grocery stores and it's there in volumes and everyone's eating tonnes of it and even though it's not organic, you know it's good for you. When I talk to people from other cultures, eco-consciousness is less about product branding and consumption, and more about living. And the living part is holistic, it's integrated into families and kinship networks.
At the end of the film you say you don't trust anyone to tell you what's safe for your baby. What can you trust? I trust myself. I do research, I talk to other people, I read books and I look at the media. That's how it is with mothering. You do your own surveys and then you go back to your own spine and you say, okay, what is the comfort level I have here?