Healthy Child Healthy World — A Story of Heartbreak and Hope
“When a parent loses a child, there really are no words. There are no words to describe this grief, and there are no words to mend the broken heart that remains forever after. But my husband and I chose to try to make a difference,” said Nancy Chuda, referring to the death of their only child, Colette. “We said, let us take the remains of what would have been her life and, in her memory, establish something that would give benefit to countless millions. It fueled our passion. It was our pain that carried us through — from pain to passion — in building the network.”
I spoke with Nancy Chuda about Healthy Child Healthy World, the organization she and her husband, Jim, founded nearly twenty years ago in honor and memory of their daughter. This is her story.
It all began with a group of very committed friends, Wednesday’s Moms. My best friend, Olivia Newton-John, and I had shared the joys of motherhood together. We conceived our girls within weeks of one another, and they were born six weeks apart. Like us, Chloe and Colette had a very unique bond. They were glued at the hip.
On Wednesdays, we would meet in special places with a group of friends and their kids. The William O. Douglas Outdoor Classroom is a beautiful park, filled with old-growth redwood trees and a duck pond with coots and mallards. It was the perfect place. It captured our children’s attention and inspired us moms to protect them and the environment. We sensed then that the fragile ecosystems that supported all life — air, food, and water — were becoming tainted with chemicals. Nature herself was beckoning, “Protect me.”
As mothers, we were sensitive to this calamity. We knew we had to defend our children. And we had to speak out against the use of pesticides and other chemicals that were invading our environment. Yet, in many ways, we felt helpless.
When Colette was born, I was a television journalist. I had been working as a reporter for The Home Show, an ABC network daytime talk program, a predecessor to programs like The View, where topical subjects became a platform for discussion. I was fortunate to obtain an interview with Meryl Streep, whom I had gotten to know as a member of an organization she co-founded with Wendy Rockefeller, called Mothers and Others for Pesticide Limits.
Meryl had graced the cover of Time to defend the rights of children whose food supply — mainly apples — had become tainted with Alar (daminozide). This agricultural spray, a pesticide, was causing worldwide concern. Meryl had testified before Congress, demanding its removal. The controversy became the centerpiece for the Children’s Environmental Health movement. It gave birth to the need for greater science and investigation in terms of children’s vulnerabilities.
Meryl’s determination to awaken others to the misuse of pesticides gave me an opportunity to take a stand. I rallied many of my influential friends in the entertainment community to support the passage of an all-inclusive environmental measure, California’s Big Green initiative.
To get national attention and raise awareness in support of this initiative — which would provide clean air, water, and food in California, as well as what I believed would be a template or model for other state initiatives — I produced an ABC television variety special called An Evening with Friends for the Environment. It starred Meryl Streep, Olivia Newton-John, Bette Midler, Goldie Hawn, Cher, Lilly Tomlin, and Robin Williams.
Then all of my work as an advocate became distilled in what I call an “infinitesimal moment of disbelief” the day I learned Colette had cancer.
On May 23, 1990, our lives changed forever. Colette was given an 80 percent chance of survival, but the odds changed when her cancer metastasized. She lived briefly, only five years. But she lived long enough to experience what she had always felt and believed as a child — something that is intuitive to all children — that animals and humans share a precious habitat, Earth. Nature had gone awry, and we had a mission to protect and defend life against the threat of man-made chemicals, many of which would cause illness and life-threatening disease.
Two weeks before she died in 1991, Colette wrote a short story called, “Inga Binga and Whitepaw on an Easter Day.” We sat on her bed, propped up against her favorite stuffed animals and pillows, and she recited, word for word, her dream for what she described as “the best day ever”: a world in which her loving animals, cats, birds, horses, dogs, chickens, zebras, monkeys all lived in harmony with nature — not against it. At a very early age, Colette developed a respect for life and living things, and, as a child stricken with cancer, she sensed her own vulnerability.
Even while undergoing chemo and losing all of her hair, she refused to wear a hat. Instead, she insisted on leading “babe walks” in the park she dearly loved. She wanted to teach other children how to protect the environment. This was her mission.
In our darkest hours, days before she passed, we made a promise that we would keep her memory alive. Like her favorite color, we would make the word “green” and children’s environmental health a global educational platform for all parents worldwide.
On April 21, 1991, on the eve of Earth Day, we held her in our arms for the last time. But when morning came, her spirit took hold. Within a few short months, and with the help of our dear friend, Olivia, and a small group of committed friends and family, we established The Colette Chuda Environmental Fund, to conduct research into the causes of childhood cancer in relation to the environment.
We knew that millions of dollars — now billions — had been spent trying to find cures for cancer, but very little effort was placed toward prevention.
We conducted many research studies, which led to major scientific epidemiological results. We proved that carcinogenic substances trapped in airborne particulates could traverse the blood barrier of pregnant women and affect the developing fetus in the womb environment.
The science mounted. In cities like Krakow, Poland, evidence revealed that environmental exposures to vulnerable sub-populations put children’s health at risk. Other parts of the world benefited from the early epidemiological studies we conducted. We later proved that children who suffer from early exposures have a greater predisposition to disease; however, the onset of certain childhood cancers could be prevented, if the exposures to harmful chemicals could be avoided.
Knowing that the science was critical to, if not the most important motivation for, establishing a grassroots movement, we decided to build an impossible dream. We would pull together a coalition of groups and committed citizens who would rally behind this basic principle: By educating parents, we would protect children and, hopefully, eliminate the use of harmful chemicals in the environment.
The Children’s Health Environmental Coalition (CHEC) was born in the summer of 1992, at the Snake River Ranch in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. A very dear friend, Elizabeth Sword, had offered her family’s ranch retreat as a meeting place. It was the perfect destination and location, set beneath the Grand Tetons, a pristine and inspirational gift.
The following year, 1993, the National Academy of Science (NAS) presented findings on how pesticides were affecting the diets of infants and children. Dr. Philip Landrigan, who is referred to as the “Father of the Children’s Environmental Health Movement,” and who is a leading pediatrician and scientist based at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York, joined us at the ranch for our second annual meeting to reveal the findings.
Jim and I had invited guests, who brought tremendous experience and expertise in pediatrics, science, media, and government. Those early meetings under the magnificent Tetons would later become the foundation from which we would create Healthy Child Healthy World‘s mission and goals. Together, we carved a vision for the future. Each individual dedicated their time and resources. Today, our founding Board members comprise an Honorary Board of great distinction.
Almost twenty years have passed since that historic meeting. Some of our earlier accomplishments include:
- the launch of our first website (www.checnet.org);
- the publication of the CHEC Report;
- an educational video called, Not Under My Roof: Protecting Your Baby from Toxins in the Home;
- passage of state and federal legislation protective of children’s health;
- working with the Clinton administration to establish an executive order that would protect children from harm in public places; and
- the launch of a national educational childproofing campaign, reaching more than 80 million people with our message of inspiring parents to protect children from harmful chemicals.
Looking back, I would say one of our greatest accomplishments happened in 1998, when the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) gave us a grant. “We’re going to give you half a million dollars to build a Health eHouse,” they told us. And it became the very first, virtual, Internet, interactive medium — a one-stop, cyber shop — that gave people the opportunity to explore, room by room, using a mouse or a keypad, to learn safer alternatives to protect children in their homes.
We did this with the help and support of the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR). We translated hard-to-comprehend scientific data by making it consumer friendly. At the time, most people did not understand, for example, what the term “VOC” (volatile organic compounds) meant, though it is a term that is well understood today. People now know that many products contain harmful ingredients that, when used, create a vapor trail we refer to as off-gassing.
We helped people understand the danger of exposure to certain chemicals that were found in everyday products used in homes. These products contain inert ingredients, some of which have been proven in laboratory studies to cause cancer. Yet, US trademark law does not require inert ingredients to be revealed on product packaging, even though they may be carcinogenic.
Today, parents enter the marketplace wanting to do the right thing — intuitively knowing that some products are safer than others. Thanks to companies like Seventh Generation, one of our partners, we are able to provide information about a multitude of consumer products that are safe to use.
By educating parents to become smart shoppers — to use the power of choice by purchasing cleaner, greener, and safer products, we were able to burst that bubble of trademark protection.
Today, focus studies on children’s welfare reveal parents’ primary concern is health and safety.
At a time when our nation’s economy dictates cutting back, for some that just might mean less money spent on recreational pleasures and toys. But for most parents, ensuring health care for the entire family is the only insurance they have to protect their children.
The sad news is that our children’s health is suffering due to the inexplicable amounts of toxic chemicals that are released into the environment. Only half of all chemicals have undergone toxicity testing, but less than 1 in 5 have been tested for possible toxicity to children.
In 1995, Senator Barbara Boxer introduced legislation in the United States Senate in memory of our daughter, Colette Chuda. The Children’s Environmental Protection Act (CEPA) was the first amendment to safeguard children from toxins in the environment. This vanguard legislation contains language inclusive of children and their unique vulnerabilities. It was later amended onto other bills to support children’s disproportionate physiological needs, as well as other vulnerable subsets of the population, such as pregnant women and the elderly.
As parents who lost a child to cancer in 1991, we believe that Colette would have survived had we had the knowledge and tools Healthy Child Healthy World provides parents today.
In the mid-eighties, we were all living in a “toxic soup.” Few knew about the harmful dangers of living with and around a perversity of chemicals — and fewer knew about the compounded exposures due to their cumulative effects. It took time for scientific studies to reveal that chemicals are now known to be a major cause of cancer, and it took even more time to prove that heredity may predispose cells and DNA to cancer.
This year, we invite you to share the news that Healthy Child Healthy World will expand its knowledge base throughout the entire world by:
- collaborating on the groundbreaking National Children’s Study that will collect health and environmental data on over 100,000 children in the U.S. for over 20 years;
- participating and partially funding the creation of the Autism Discovery Project at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine; and
- nationally advocating and promoting the Kid-Safe Chemicals Act, federal legislation designed to protect children from risky chemicals in everyday products by making manufacturers prove products are safe before they land on store shelves.
I wanted to share our story with the hope that together we can build a stronger alliance to protect children’s health. We want to partner with you — build a solid relationship with the Environmental Protection Agency and continue to work with the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences — to provide a solid platform for this change.
Jim and I are very proud of the organization we founded. Today, thanks to the leadership of Christopher Gavigan, the CEO of Healthy Child Healthy World, we have been able to reach a much larger audience, build a consensus amongst constituents, create partnerships that are aligned with our mission and goals.
Healthy Child Healthy World exists because of Colette and for the millions of children we protect everyday. And a day does not pass without her inspiring words, “Green is my favorite color. I love you a million, kabillion, trillion, bigger than God, bigger than the universe, two times.”
Many years ago we decided we weren’t going to let our personal tragedy, losing our only child to a non-hereditary cancer, beat us. Instead, we decided to set some winning goals — to help others — so that other children would not have to experience our daughter’s fate.
Nancy Chuda, Co-Founder
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