Aryae: For everyone listening, just a few words of introduction to Sharyle. Sharyle Patton is an environmental advocate who has spent much of her life working to reduce toxic chemicals from the landscape and to empower communities to monitor their toxic burden. She is director of the Commonweal Biomonitoring Resources Center in Bolinas, California. The Biomonitoring Resource Center speaks of itself as "an international resource seeking to promote individual and community resilience through the collaborative use of knowledge about hundreds of environmental chemicals that people all over the world carry in their bodies."
What they do, as I understand it, is go to communities where they are invited, measure the level of toxic chemicals that are in the bodies of peoples in that community. Then they share the results with the people involved. And then they use this information to start conversations. What is going on? What does this mean for our health and the health of our children? What can we do about it? And how can we be part of changing this in the world?
Sharyle grew up in a small town in rural Colorado, and that experience of growing up in that small town was very influential in shaping her outlook and her values. She studied music. She went to college at the Berklee College of Music in Boston, became a pianist and singer, and played jazz and bluegrass for a living in the 1970s.
She later settled in Bolinas, California, a coastal community in Northern California, among farms on the coast. There she met her husband, Michael Lerner, who is the founder and director of Commonweal, an alternative medicine think-tank and cancer healing center.
For several decades, Sharyle has been a social activist for causes that she has cared about. She was director of United States Citizens’ Network for Sustainable Development and served as an NGO liaison on the United States delegations to the United Nations commission and the UN Habitat Summit. And was an NGO delegate to the UN Women's Conferences, focusing on women's sexual rights and reproductive health.
In 2001, she lead a network of 350 non-governmental organizations from around the world that met in Stockholm, and their mission was to guide the UN's Persistent Organic Pollutants (POP) treaty which calls for the world-wide elimination of the dirty dozen list of chemical contaminants considered among the world's most hazardous.
And then I have to say from a friend just yesterday, I learned a little more about her involvement with some other causes earlier in her life which we might explore later. So anyway, Sharyle, thank you so much for being with us this morning.
Sharyle: Thanks, Aryae, I'm so pleased to be here and excited to talk to everyone about the work that you are doing and what people think about biomonitoring and how they might find it useful in their own community activism.
Aryae: Speaking of bio-monitoring, what I'd like to start off by asking you is can you give us one or two examples of bio-monitoring work that you have done lately? One that we spoke about earlier this week was when you worked with the firefighters who fought the recent fires in Northern California. Could you say a little bit about that and give us an idea of what bio-monitoring is and how it works?
Sharyle: I'd be glad to. Just so everybody understands, human bio-monitoring is the process by which we can look at human tissues and human fluids for levels of chemicals. And I'm particularly interested in those chemicals that are used in industrial processes. Man-made chemicals by and large, but also sometimes the heavy metals. So that is one very broad definition of bi-omonitoring. But I see bio-monitoring as looking at the human body and seeing how it mirrors what is going on in the globe, in terms of how we are polluting the air, the water, the soil, the food we eat, the products we use.
So I've been interested in trying to document that and use that information to make change. And I got interested in firefighters because clearly they are real heroes to all of us. They have really dedicated their lives to saving our lives. They will step in in all kinds of situations whether it is a three-story fire or responding to such events as the Boston Marathon where they are the first responders to just help people. They are not there to judge, they are not to figure out who is the bad guy or the good guy. They are just there to help.
I realize that they are out there. Every small town has the firefighter who is somebody's sister, mother, father, brother. They are from the community and they just really dedicated their life to making sure that everybody is safe. And I looked at what they might be exposed to when they are out fighting fires. And got interested in whether or not someone was measuring that, and what kind of tools are used to keep them from harm in terms of protective gear. So I've been working with firefighters for a while.
But this most recent project that I am working on with Tony Stefani who runs the San Francisco Firefighter Cancer Prevention Foundation and also scientists from the California bio-monitoring program, Nerissa Wu, and also Rachel, involving firefighters to kind of look at what's happening to firefighters going up to northern California and also probably what's happening to California firefighters fighting in southern California -- because what's happening is that as the firefighters are sent out, basically ready to fight wildfires, forest fires and when you fight forest fires you have to go really quickly...so you're wearing basically a jumpsuit that is somewhat fire resistant but you're not using that kind of what's called turnout gear, that firefighters would use in an urban situation, in structural fire, and that's you know jacket and the helmet and the pants and interlining that can protect you from chemicals and you're also usually having a self-contained breathing apparatus giving you air, that you can breathe, that's separate, it's from the tank. So it's not contaminated by the kind of chemicals might be being emitted from the fire itself. So the firefighters setting out for these fires in California -- northern California or in the wildland fires, they're fighting structural fires and they're fighting fires that are occurring in mobile home communities, or hospitals or hotels, or just people's homes with propane tanks, and stories of paint cans and things like that.
Aryae: So in a way it sounds like they're fighting more dangerous fires but wearing less protective gear.
Sharyle: Well that's exactly right and I was just really worried about that. Well that's actually what happened to 9/11 we all remember that. The volunteer firefighters, everybody wanted to help, went to the site without enough protective care and you know some serious diseases probably resulting from that and some of which are documented and so I got Tony to get some funding together and pull in some scientists and get all the kinds of approval we needed and order the equipment and recruit firefighters and spent about five days-six days talking to firefighters, and collecting their urine and collecting their blood, and we're going to be testing them now for some of the chemicals they may have encountered.
Aryae: So you were up there when they were fighting the fire or this was afterwards?
Sharyle: No, this was afterwards. This is afterwards -- most of the fires were out and they were maybe a little bit of smoldering here or there, but the fires were done and we had wanted to get there sooner than that, but in order to bio-monitor, you're required to get an approval from an Ethics board to make sure you're following all the protocols that honor human rights, you know.
And that takes a bit of time and we just couldn't get approval to get up there quickly and so in a way what we did recently is probably, unfortunately, preparation for going up next year fire season, and by that time we'll be able to have an approval set in place, so we can get up there really quickly. And the reason you want to get out quickly is some of those chemicals that are really dangerous will go through the body, you know, quickly, which is good. But you won't be able to capture them. But they may not go through so quickly before they cause some harm, and so we are able to capture those. But we will be able to capture some of the flame retardants that can be dangerous and we’ll be able to capture some of the heavy metals that people will encounter in fires of this sort.
Aryae: So once you have all this data, you've collected the samples, you have it and analyze it, what are you going to do? Are you going to get together with the firefighters and talk about this?
Sharyle: Oh, yeah. You know I never ever do a study that we don't go back to everybody, and as individuals, give them their individual results and give them the aggregated results, of everybody in the study, and then any kind of information we have of similar studies, or from Federal work -- that is a kind of a broad, broad bio-monitoring to get average exposures across the United States. So we give them that information and we talk to them about what we can say, about what those exposures might mean to them. It's really hard to say this chemical causes that disease -- it's cancers and other diseases, ALS, Parkinson's -- complicated diseases. Many factors play into that, but toxic chemicals have a strong role, so we just talk about what it all means and ways they could avoid future exposure, if possible.
I'm sure the firefighters will get together and look at -- maybe there is some protocols that could be changed to keep them safer, but they're the experts on this. I'm not. But we'll just talk about to them about what it means to know your own chemical body burden. That's the bit or information that you carry, you don't forget that information...
Aryae: So Sharyle, can you give us another example of a bio-monitoring project that you've recently done where you actually went through the whole process and completed it and talked to people, and then share the story about, you know, about what you did and what happened.
Sharyle: Sure, but if it’s OK, I'd also like to tell you about how I got into this, while doing some U.N work?
Sharyle: Because I have a story that kind of really kind of transformed how I thought about all this, that I think might help people understand the significance of bio-monitoring. And that was when I got together with some amazing people around the world to start this advocacy group to work on the Stockholm Convention which bans, as you said, twelve of the worst chemicals. That's the kind of chemicals that end up in your body and stay there for a long time when they are toxic.
Aryae: Yeah, that’s very interesting, so tell us about that.
Sharyle: Ok, well one of my jobs other than bringing together people and of course, I work closely with World Wildlife Fund and Greenpeace and women's groups around the world to do this. This is, by far, a collaborative effort. One of my jobs was to bring together panels of scientists to talk to the delegates about what we knew about these chemicals that we were thinking, we were asking to be regulated, and a lot of these chemicals were called endocrine disrupting chemicals which means they can cause harm sometimes, at various levels, during critical times of development -- you know when the baby is developing and puberty, and later on in life as well.
So we wanted to bring together standards so that the delegates would understand why it was important to get rid of these chemicals. And a lot of the delegates didn't know a lot about chemicals. They knew a lot about Economics and the way treaties should work, negotiations between states -- that kind of thing, but didn't understand toxics, except what they were being told often by the chemical industry. And we thought, probably, we had a different opinion. So on one of these panels -- different scientists from around the world were just talking about recent studies that just said that this chemical, mostly animal studies, can cause harm in the following ways, and I asked a woman named Sandra Steingraber to speak as well.
And she is a biologist and has done a lot of work on toxic chemicals and she agreed, and was delighted to come, and she was coming with her baby. I think he was about six months old at that time and breastfeeding and she had written this book called -- 'Having Faith'. What it is like to know as a biologist what it feels like to be pregnant, and know that the chemicals you're taking in could be harmful to your developing baby. So what she's talking about -- I asked why don’t you talk about chemicals and breast milk and we all know breast milk is incredibly important for keeping a baby healthy, but it's slowly becoming contaminated by these chemicals. And we want to work to maintain the integrity of breast milk so why don’t you talk about that. So she said OK, she'd be glad to.
So she was with her baby, of course, and the baby had a nanny and so Sandra extracted some breast milk, so that baby could be fed while she was in the panel and she had also put some breast milk in a little tube, so when she was talking to the delegates in this session -- she passed around this tube of breast milk. And just talking about how in many countries in the world, this breast milk had so many chemicals in it that it would be illegal to sell, and she also talked about the enormous benefits of breast milk and why we need to maintain those. And while she was speaking, the nanny was walking in the hall with the baby named Faith.
And Faith heard her momma talking and Faith started to cry. And it just changed what was happening in that room. All the delegates had gotten the sense of the importance of the data, the science which is really important, but when they heard that baby crying and it was almost like it was a voice of all the future generations -- there was an incredible moment of silence and it's just -- I thought we could not have planned this. It was truly a moment of grace, and after the session, the delegate from France said he was going to go back to France and change that country's pesticide policy. And that the gentleman from Kenya who had walked in, pro-D.D.T. said he was going to change, he was going to ban D.D.T. in Kenya, except in complete emergency and Kenya did do that.
You know, people coming in saying, "Well, yeah -- But we need these chemicals" walked out and said, "Now we really get it." And so that was I think a turning point in negotiations. So I just really got, at that point, the power of the human story and the power of telling it. And of course the essence of it is -- yes, we are poisoning our bodies and ourselves and those chemicals are changing what it means to be a human being in many ways. It's compromising the way our bodies have maintained themselves, maintained their wellbeing for, you know, hundreds of thousands of years. Some profound changes are happening because of that. I don't want to say that all chemicals are bad. But many chemicals have not been tested and there are some chemicals that have been and just indicate we are...
Aryae: That really is an amazing story of the power of the cry of a baby! What occurs to me, Sharyle is - it's really two things: It's both the data, right -- you had the data -- and it's also the baby's cry. And somehow it sounds like it's the combination that's so powerful!
Sharyle: I think that's it! You need both of those things. You need very solid science, and then you need to bring it home for what it means to an individual, and to a family, to a community, to the globe. Absolutely, you need both of those things! And you wanted to have me talk about how I do a bio-monitoring study when I can do everything....
Aryae: I am interested if you've got a story about one that you've already done in a particular community -- why did they call you? What did you do when you were there and how did the conversation go and what happened as a result? Could you give us an example?
Sharyle: I'd love to do that. I want to tell you about a community in Lindsay, California and a group we worked with there was called El Quinto Sol. And this group had been working with Pesticide Action. Network of North America around trying to get rid of a pesticide called Chlorpyrifos. Chlorpyrifos is used on Oranges and Almonds and other crops. It's been banned, at that point, just had been banned from indoor use -- you know, pesticide strips and things like that, because there'd been many studies showing that it damaged how the brain develops. And animal studies and some preliminary studies around human children as well, that if exposed in utero and in early childhood, it can have profound effects on how well they think. So they had been working with Pesticide Action Network and talking about doing air monitoring around the fields during spraying time to see whether there was Chlorpyrifos that was drifting into the residential areas and around health centers, around schools. I basically approached PAN and the community. I said, "Why don't we try to do some bio monitoring?"
Aryae: Who was the community that contacted you?
Sharyle: That was El Quinto Sol.
Aryae: Who were they? Were they farm workers, were they farmers? Who were they?
Sharyle: It was a group of what's called -- Promotoras: which are groups of men, and women mostly, in Latino communities that take your community wellbeing. So they will do everything from healthcare to information about immigration, to publishing when the soccer team schedule is and hold health fairs. They'll do everything to promote communities coming together and taking care of each other. They are quite effective and they're quite amazing people.
Aryae: Got it! Thanks.
Sharyle: Yeah! So I approached them and I asked them if I could come and talk to them about what Bio monitoring might tell them and what it might not. And so we held a couple of meetings and you know we invited the community to come and we would provide childcare and lunch and just spend time hearing people’s stories about how when spraying would happen, sometimes during the day, time children would get sick at school, or how they would hear the helicopters at night spraying, and of course it's very hot there in December -- they would close the windows, but still the smell would come in, and how people always felt ill afterwards. And so we talked about if we could test a small group of people at the same time we were doing air monitoring. We wouldn't have enough science to show a statistical relationship, because you need lots of that, lots of data points, with say, lots of air monitoring over a period of time, and lots of data from monitoring of people's bodies. And in this case you’d look at the breakdown products of Chlorpyrifos, that you would collect in urine.
But we said we could do a small study, then possibly could we could interest state agencies into doing larger studies. But the information we get from a small study might be sufficient to make some changes in local policy. So that might be the upside of it. But I wanted to talk to them about the downside -- from what we have known, from other communities that did monitoring. And the downside, of course is -- if you, if you do the monitoring, you know your results and you decide to go public, will there be any kind of backlash from that? Because in other communities, sometimes people might lose their job or their uncles would lose their job or maybe a rental agreement would suddenly disappear. You know, things can happen from people in the community that wanted to continue to use this pesticide. Because they didn't have, you know, alternatives to it. So they were making that choice between having a good crop that was pesticide treated, without bugs, and the health of the community. There may be backlash or there may not be. We don't really know. We talked a little bit about that. They were so tired of being sick and feeling ill and not always knowing whether it was being caused by pesticide drift, but thinking probably it was, because it happened at the same time.
Aryae: So they decided to take that risk.
Sharyle: Oh! Let me tell you the rest of the story! I wanted to say- we may find this chemical in the body, but we won't know whether it's going to be related to some of the health problems you have. We can tell you what health problems they are related to, but it may not be related to yours, because these things are always fairly complicated. And so once you have your chemical body burden, you carry that information with you and when something comes up -- you have that question and so but you have to live with uncertainty.
So we're sitting around a small table and I'm talking about the fact that I had been by a monitored as well over this small project that Commonweal had done -- to just check it all out see how we all felt about doing it and what it meant to us. And I had said basically -- my husband and I had tried to have children and we couldn't do it, we just could not do it -- it was always unexplained why. But by bio-monitoring data in my body, I had, you know, over sixty chemicals that were related to reproductive harm.
Aryae: Oh wow!
Sharyle: Yeah! And did that make me infertile? I did not know. I had no idea. But my mom had no problems in having babies before the pesticide era and my grandmother and so on. So my sense was probably, but I would never know that.
And so when I was telling this story, I suddenly looked up -- I just could feel the you know how the room changes. And there were a couple people in the room crying. And one man said, “Well you know that my son that I brought to this meeting -- he's playing back with the other kids, he's my adopted son. I've never been able to have children, and I think it's because I worked in the fields and I was sprayed often when I was working in the fields." And then a couple other people said, "Well, yes I had a preterm baby that was born far too soon, and I think it was because when I was pregnant there's a lot of spraying going on. But I don't really know."
We heard these stories -- you know the data from these stories would not have been captured by the kind of public health survey, because it would not be the kind of information people would be asking for. Possibly some people in a room were undocumented. I don't really know. But just the stories everybody shared about what it meant not to be able to have children or healthy children, and probably it might have been related to the spraying of this chemical and it kind of brought us together in ways, that I hadn't expected, that I hadn't planned. I didn't want this to be about me at all, you know. I just wanted to open it up and say, this is this is how it is. And so when you get your results, you know, it's not just oh results that you would get from a dental X-ray. It's more profound than that. And so we'll find ways to hold it, and carry that and support each other.
But this is it. And so, it was that moment, they all decided that they wanted to be tested. And they would want to go public with the result. Now, we usually do 2 things. We ask people, first, don't go public until you get your result, til you talk to a physician, til you talk to each other. And then make that call. So, everybody is onboard and you feel comfortable talking about it, what it means because there may be reasons why you decide that you don't want to go public, so you are not required to go public with the study.
And the other thing I just wanted to say is when you go in with your sample, whatever it is, uh, thank yourself, take a moment of silence. Thank yourself. What you are doing is important for yourself and your family and your community and for future generations. Consider yourself pioneers, consider yourself a hero because not a lot of people could do this and would do it. You are have the gratitude the future generations will have for you, because I always wanted to honor people's participation and what it means to them. They were so eager to do it, even before I could finish the sentence. They were ready to go. Just an amazing group of people.
Aryae: So, what happened after you did the bio-monitoring? What happened then?
Sharyle: Well, we did the monitoring, got the results back to them. We did a little pamphlet that they could use. We interviewed everyone that participated, so they can tell a little bit of their personal story and a photograph of them and the results were over the EPA standards for Chlorpyrifos for women of child-bearing age. So, we had that, that they could use. And we helped them to do flyers and they did public meetings. They went to the County of Agricultural Commission and there was a law on the books that said if you are spraying Chlorpyrifos, you have to do it from a certain distance away from schools, or homes and health centers. But it simply hadn't been implemented.
So they pushed them to promise that it would be implemented, that if it was being used, there would signs put up and so on. And that happened and that was a small, first step. And that community continued to move on and get Chlorpyrifos banned for agricultural use in California and federally. So, the work now, with California growers, is to find alternatives to Chlorpyrifos. So, that's happening and this group is very much involved in that.
And federally, it looked like we'd be able to ban it, federally. But the new administration came in, and of course, we’ve had to renew that fight, and in time, if possible, to move things along. But the information is still there and people are using it. And we actually showed it to the California Environmental Health and Investigative Branch and they got very interested and said let's do a larger study and we'll try to do something statistically more significant, because that would be more powerful, in many ways, for people who need to see the hard data. And we tried to do it and it was easy to go out and collect air samples and urine during times when there's no spraying happening, because we can always look at historical records and see what months and what science-worth of spraying would be required but it was easy to get through that.
But when we came in the summer time when spraying was supposed to start, spraying did not happen. And we'd wait for a week there so we could go out and get our samples. And the neighborhood organized itself so that if they smelled anything they'd go out to the field and see if there's a sign up for Chlorpyrifos. It’s called Dursban. And the company that does the spraying would not spray until the day after we left. This happened twice -- that they would not spray until we left, so we could not get a larger study out of that. But the story is still there and the community found a way to talk about it that was useful and continued to be engaged. And the chemicals are still being used and children's brains are still being harmed.
Aryae: So, has anything changed at this point? And physically in that community is the chemically being used less, or is it banned or is it more regulated?
Sharyle: Yeah, it’s more regulated. They've passed the laws to increase the distance between where the chemical is used and where people are living. And of course, they can not spray when there are people on the field, so they spray at night, and they’re just assuming that you can give them enough distance away from where you need to spray, and where people are living, so people will be safer. And just relying that the air currents...that there is not a lot of air that will move down there in the summer, that will keep the people safe. That's what we've got so far. But things are not as simple as we'd like.
Aryae: Yeah, and as you've said that what you really do is you really began the conversation and the power of that conversation causes the ripples, which eventually cause change. It strikes me that this is a similar kind of story related to your UN story -- that it's not just about giving people information, but it's about connecting...uh, connecting yourself, connecting your heart to their heart, in combination with the information -- that really has the power to motivate people.
Sharyle: Well, I think it really does. I think that kind of information shared in a way that brings us together that we can have open hearts with each other and can speak frankly with each other and create a community around this that can continue on. However, whatever cause that asks community to care about each other -- to me, that's as important as the data.
Aryae: Um, I'd like to...speaking of heart...change course a little bit here and talk about, um you know, I asked you about your early life. You and I have been talking about the inner transformation and the outer transformation and you spoke about your growing up in rural Colorado and how that was important to your start and your values in life. Can you share a little bit about your childhood and how it affected the way you look at life and what your values are.
Sharyle: Glad to...uh..I grew up in this incredibly beautiful little town about 8000 ft up in the Rockies -- about 2000 people. Strong community. My parents both worked. Everybody's parents did. So, my brother and I basically grew up outdoors. Get up in the morning, get on your bike, go to school, and just spend all day outdoors. And my brother is a biologist as a result of that. He spent a lot of time looking at clouds and water and wildlife. It was just the perfect childhood, it really was, and I'm very, very fortunate for that and a warm, loving family.
I had a piano teacher who was very influential. Her name was Dorothy Roman and she was a wonderful teacher, wonderful piano teacher. Really taught me how to focus, really taught me how to just open up to music, how to concentrate, how to dig into it. And for some reason, she kinda got what I was and told me two things. She said playing music -- that kind of focus that you’re talking about and that you're describing -- you are communicating with your soul. This is like, this is a hardcore, cowboy Republican! You know, nobody talks about things like that. I mean they're there to help you plough out your driveway, when you've got three foot of snow. Right there, whatever you need. Yeah, but nobody talks about soul. And so there she was talking about soul to me. It's just like a light went on -- that 'oh yeah this is really...this is life'. She gave me a subscription for a special Christmas present. It was a Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.
Aryae: Now, that it really wild. Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. What year was this and how old were you?
Sharyle: I can't remember. I made a point of not keeping track of dates of my life. Time is not to be measured in that way. Don’t ask -- it is just one of those things that I believe. But I must have been 10 or 12. So I'm reading the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists and getting really interested in those days.
Aryae: Was this when the nuclear testing was still going in the atmosphere?
Sharyle: Yes, it was. And the dust is going everywhere and that was right when Barry Commoner did one of the first bio-monitoring studies. Everybody says, "Oh no nothing happened.. the dust stays right there. Besides it's okay as everything disappears". And he has "No it doesn't. That dust goes everywhere and stays a while". So he had women from all across the country, including Vermont, send him baby teeth. And he tested them and sure enough they had Strontium ninety. So that really changed how people thought about what we're doing. So I got really interested in that.
And with Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists I would stand up on occasion and tell people what I thought about what we were doing to ourselves and to the globe with above-ground nuclear bomb testing. They didn't particularly want to hear it, of course, because I'm just a little kid. What did I know?
But what happened is that years later, I met the niece of Leo Szilard, who was the guy who basically invented the Atomic bomb. Nobody ever hears about him because he was a bit of a curmudgeon. He wasn’t affiliated with, you know. But he was the one that got Teller and said let's go tell Einstein about how to make a bomb. Leo was Hungarian and knew that the Germans were working on atomic bombs, he knew how they were doing it, knew it was going to take a long time and wouldn't work that well. He knew a better way to do it and he thought, Mr Rational, if we could make a bomb, it would be so terrible, he could persuade, the scientists could persuade the world not to ever use it.
Aryae: The Irony of that, eh?
Sharyle: We got to do a documentary about his life that we eventually sold to NOVA but in the course of that we got to meet all these old physicists that talked to us about why they did it, why they thought it would work. We didn't get a lot of that into the NOVA program because they edit it out. They said this is a science program, this is not a heart & soul program.
Anyway, I just had the opportunity to talk to some of the Soviet physicists -- and this is an important thing, I think - he said the Soviet physicists we talked to, including Sakharov -- we talked to Sakharov about 6 months before he died. He said that kind of communication between scientists established kind of a brotherhood where they could really talk about these things and talk about what needed to be done to keep the bomb from being used, from being sold, distributed around the world and so on. They started a group called Pugwash that brought scientists together. It's a town in Nova Scotia, so that's why they chose that peculiar name. It was were the decisions are made, where people come together in a community and do really concrete things. And it’s just, you know -- once again, decisions are made when people come together in community and do really concrete things. So that's you know the point of Leo Szilard is well, yeah, he made the bomb...
Aryae: Is that documentary available now? Can it be seen?
Sharyle: I think it's probably in the NOVA archives someplace. And I think it's called Leo Szilard, the Man Behind the Bomb. But you know, a lot of things that should be in it aren't.
Aryae: It appear that you at some point after all this, decided to be a musician and you went to Boston & you studied in the Berklee School of Music.
Sharyle: Yeah, I did that. Before I went to the School of Music I actually went to Reed College. We started a rock and roll band there called the Portland Zoo. And if you google that up you can see me with really long hair. You know it was the late 60's, early 70's and what I really loved about the band is (besides it's so much fun to be playing rock-n-roll in those days, maybe not so much now, but then, it was great then) that we used our band to raise money for the underground newspaper, and for the free health clinic, and good causes around Portland Oregon, just to bring attention to the issues we thought needed a little financial support to get them out to the public and to help make change right there. Of course, we were all doing the anti-war benefits, Vietnam, and trying to help kids that had gotten AWOL and needed to get up to Canada and things like that. My college education was a little remiss -- we spent so much time playing music. Just using music to bring people together.
Aryae: That beautiful! I get what you're saying about music being so much fun in those days. How interesting that you are using the music to bring people together, to bring attention to the social activism, to the causes that you cared about and music was very much a part of that, in those days.
Sharyle: It really was. And then I did go to music school, because as wonderful as rock and roll was, and as wonderful as bluegrass was, I really wanted to pursue jazz because I really liked it. So I had the opportunity to go to Berklee School of Music and then study with a couple of really excellent seamstress. Charlie Banacos (https://www.charliebanacos.net/) who died of pancreatic cancer, and Allan Zavod (http://www.allanzavod.com/) who died about a year ago from a cancer -- brain tumor. But were amazing musicians.
I suppose part of that was getting to concentrate on the power of music but started to think more about what I really came out of my small town with. And I just want to tell you this really quickly -- my experience of this small town was that I was asked to play organ in three different churches because not too many people played keyboard, so the three churches staggered their services and I could race from one to another. And my father got special permission to cutting across people's fields to race up and start pumping the pump organs in and play the hymns for the Sunday service. So I did that -- I suppose I did start in the 8th grade and played organ in three different churches. Not too well, I must say, but I loved it -- I loved playing those hymns in the church.
So I just I think I took myself back to what it's like to practice hymns for the church on a Saturday and air and light coming into the glass windows, the dust in the air, the smell of the furniture polish, and how much fun that was, and how much I love that quietness and that stillness. The sermons, I just couldn't listen to just because having a brother who’s a biologist who is always raising questions, I just didn't really want to get too much into what some of these stories are. But I came away from all of that thinking that the one thing I could do out of that whole Christian tradition was Jesus's words just saying, "If you love me, feed my sheep". For me what makes a life, make sense, is to be of service. So that was always kind of a theme song for my life.
Aryae: Beautiful. So then that became some of the spiritual foundation for what you've chosen to do.
Sharyle: Absolutely, it is. And then of course then I found Commonweal and Michael Lerner, my husband. Commonweal is full of people being of service. Amber Far was up in Sonoma doing a distribution center for undocumented Latinos, who lost everything in the fire. David Steinhart who's shut down ninety percent of the prisons for adolescents in California, to find alternatives for them. Michael's Cancer Help program that's helping people become healthy cancer patients at a very deep level. So Commonweal is about service, so I've just landed in a place where very quietly we can each find a way to be of service and feed the sheep basically.
Aryae: That's great, I was going to ask you a little about Commonweal, about what it's like for you to be there. What it's been like on a day to day basis, on a year to year basis. And what are some of the key features that life there has given you?
Sharyle: I think one of the key features is the beauty and sacredness of the site itself. A cliff overlooking the Pacific Ocean. It's wild, we don't do landscaping here. We try to keep species going that create habitat. Just looking out the window and seeing this daily, this incredible beauty really feeds me and I think it feeds everybody that comes here and gets a sense the specialness of the site. And of course the other feature here is all the people here that have programs that are of service and the monthly pulse of the cancer-help program where people come to learn what kind of choices you can make to become healthy. Whether it's dealing on issues of death and dying, how do you talk to your family, what kind of meditation do you want to do, if any, diet -- all of that.
People who come here are transformed. As you probably know, people learn about it through their own oncologists and word of mouth, so the demographics of who comes here changes a little bit through the years. Right now, it seems to be younger women with metastasized breast cancer and they're coming now, learning as best they can, as best we can share with them. How do you say goodbye to your children. So that's one reason I got involved in another study, which is women firefighters seem to have a higher risk of breast cancer. So now we're doing a bio-monitoring study with women firefighters and some scientists at UCSF, Rachel Morello-Frosch being one of them. To test, to biomonitor women firefighters to see what exposures they may have to chemicals that might in fact be related to tumor development. So it provides a pulse. As you know, people come here, nobody ever seems to leave, nobody quits.
We're an unusual organization. I think for the first 10 years, we've had a staff meeting maybe once a year. Because it's not a top-down organization, we all bring our own funding in, and our own sense of service, and we support each other deeply. We all have the freedom to be nimble, so if I want to do a study, I don't necessarily need to clear it with anybody. I can just look around and see this is would be a really good idea, let me go exploring and just keep everybody informed. That's the same with everybody here, so we support each other but being small and a little bit under the radar, we have a lot of freedom to find ways of service that we feel are really effective.
Aryae: How wonderful to be able to do service and create a project with a group of colleagues. It sounds really wonderful. We're getting to the top of the hour, I'll ask you one more question and I'll turn it over to Kozo for further questions who may be listening.
The other question I just want to ask you is, what do you see on the horizon for yourself at this point? Where do you see your journey leading you into the future, right now?
Sharyle: I think I want to do a little more music in my life. That's one thing. Because when I wake up in the morning I hear tunes. I've been ignoring them for a while. I hear not necessarily melodies but whole pieces of music floating by, so I think I need to do some more music now. That's one thing because it does feed my soul and provides a kind of rest and peace that I need, given that a lot of information I'm dealing with is bad news, as you might know.
And the other thing is that I see that this information and campaigns we're working on, they're really making changes. It's really happening! It is slow, it is slow, but as we continue on with the work, you can see that we really can turn this around. We can find chemicals that are safer. We can get rid of the bad guys. We can do clean-ups. People are understanding what it means to make personal choices that are useful. But more than that, how you need to get involved with the authorities and manufacturers and say look folks, this is affecting all of us. Let's make it better. So I think politically, I think there's an opportunity to turn this around. But that happens, that change happens by building community. And that's what's happening.
Aryae: That's such an important message for many of us right now. In really troubled times, where so much of what we get on the news, is so discouraging. And you say, hang in there, keep building community, find the opportunities to turn it around.
Sharyle: Yeah, that's really true.
Aryae: So Kozo, I'd like to turn it over to you for some further questions from people who are listening.
Kozo: Yeah, Sharyle did you want to finish what you were saying?
Sharyle: I think I'm good. I'm really eager to hear people's comments and questions.
Kozo: Yeah so, if you want to ask a question or comment, you can hit *6 on your phone or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org and I'd like to take the host privilege and ask a question, Sharyle. I know you're working on the larger level, the systemic level of halting these chemicals and protecting us. I'm wondering what we can do as individuals, not only to protect ourselves from all these toxic chemicals but also to, as our bodies are reflecting what's going on in the environment, in our own way, to help clean up what we have contributed to?
Sharyle: Hmm, that's a big question, Kozo. I think people can get a little too focused on trying to shop themselves into a clean environment. By reading labels and selecting green products to keep themselves and their families a little bit less exposed to chemicals. Whereas I agree that's important, but it won't really do it, unless they also start calling companies that provide greener products and thank them and celebrate them in very public ways. Joining campaigns that will change regulation to make sure chemicals are tested for safety, before they're ever put on the market. And then when chemicals are out there, because they weren't tested and all of a sudden, it turns out, oh guess what, not only are these chemicals everywhere, but they are harmful, that companies are held accountable.
Now that's difficult, but then has to happen because some of these chemicals can stick around for a long time. So there has to be that other dimension, in a sense, requiring people to stand up in ways they haven't before, to enter a kind of political sphere, to speak out, support, and it's really best to do that with the support of your family and community, and hold each other while you do that. So that's one thing, finding a way to step forward to making those changes.
The other of course is to honor yourself and honor your community by daily thinking about what you are doing and being very conscious about how your actions are contributing to more pollution or less pollution. And not to be heavy about it -- but just be aware of that and know that one way to make your body, keep your body healthy is to choose the healthier foods and products, of course. But the other way to keep healthy is to care for each other and take care of each other, because that kind of thing can actually be measured in how well your immune system works. There are studies that show that people who spend time hugging and caring for each other have stronger immune systems. So, of course, why wouldn't it work that way. That we are designed to love each other.
Kozo: Beautiful, beautiful, that actually segues into something else that I wanted to ask you. I think you answered it in a couple different ways, but I'd love for you to articulate it directly. I noticed that you brought up gratitude a number of times on this call, you know you said that if you were gonna go get a monitor, you know, thank yourself, and thank yourself from the future generations.
And you bring up gratitude and honoring the self and you know, if I were to go out and be bio-monitored like you did, and saw all those chemicals that perhaps prevented you from having children, I would be pretty upset and I would feel like I was betrayed by the larger corporations. I wouldn't be too happy with those test results and I'm wondering how you continue to do what you do, without building up anger or resentment. Just that story you told about how people were not spraying on the day, until the day after you left. Like how do you keep doing what you're doing and how do you self-care yourself, to stay positive in situations like that?
Sharyle: I've asked myself that question Kozo, the same question actually. Because, of course, when people get those results, they react differently, and most of the time if I can do it on a monitor study, I have people join a conference call, and without necessarily giving out their names, just talk about what their reaction was, when they first got those results. Because I found that when people just say it, just say it, whether they're angry or sad or stunned, or whether they expected it and moved on. Whatever their reactions are, it's their reaction. I found that when people can just express it, then we could move on.
If you stay with the anger and the despair, and it will come back periodically. But if you stay there, then you''re mobilized. So, you have to remember what is possible. And trust that what you're doing, this stepping forward is going to be helpful. Whatever that is. So, that's how I think about it. I wake up in the morning, and I am so ready to go because I know that working together and the love that comes through this, we can change. I read something the other day that just resonated, I wish I could remember who said it, but they said that the fire within me burns stronger than the fire around me.
Kozo: Wow, beautiful. Thank you, Sharyle, thank you. We have a caller in the queue, so I'm gonna turn it over to our caller.
Caller: Hello, can you hear me?
Kozo: Yes we can hear you
Pancho: Good morning, everybody. This is Pancho. It's just so wonderful to hear your voice, and thank you so much, Aryae and Kozo for holding space and this is a perfect segue, this is like a comment with a question -- about how loving it was to be with you and how we’ve been feeling about how you've been cultivating that space for love, for all individual healing, collective healing, how you speak. If you ever have the chance to meet Sharyle in person, you will see that she is all about these moments of grace and you feel that and are showered by her presence.
And you can even feel it in the texture of her voice. So there might be some toxins there in the environment but there are also some really sweet sense of voice and music. As she says, right? About using music to bring people together, and you know, the song for her life is to be of service. Just very grateful that you are reminding us about the feeling of gratitude that future generations will have for us. And to have fierce care! You know, that’s so key!
We were talking with the indigenous folks here from the part of the Planet we call Yucatan, which is a part of Mexico and they were talking about the same thing. So for me, as a recovering sexist and recovering left-brainer, what I hear from you is that- people science is so beautiful and that people can be empowered by their own means. I think what you said was, real science is about brotherhood and sisterhood.
Here is where my question comes -- There's a big toxin out there: it is called imperialism. You have some interesting stories too. Many laps around the sun, around the 80's or so, that you decided to go south of the Rio-bravo, how we call it over here, and you might be aware right now how the US legal arms sales to the Mexican police and military have grown by probably 3.5 billion dollars, only between three years. It is something tremendous. There have been deaths more than any of the combined wars and atrocity from the part of planet called Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria all together, down there in the part of planet I call Mexico. The point is that this suffering the families are experiencing in the part of the planet called Mexico, we need it to be visible to the people who live in the part of the earth we called the U.S., in order to understand the connection and the cost of these policies.
When you went to the part of the Planet called Nicaragua and even made a little documentary there...I am wondering if you would like to mention about how can we heal ourselves from the disease of imperialism and try to weave that with the current atmosphere, but of course without exacerbating the friction. As you say, reality is purely composed to take care of each other, because if we knew that we were all in this together, in this glorious earth, then we would be doing very different things.
Sharyle: Pancho! I'm so glad to hear your voice. It is so sweet to hear you, and I so enjoyed meeting you and sharing some of the good times we had with you when you are here at Commonweal and I hope you come back soon.
I don’t know -- imperialism in Mexico and Central America and South America, we know how brutal it has been and how the stories have not been told in this place we call the US, as you say. How the politics here have been so damaging and harmful. They cause so much pain. And so how to stop that? I wish I knew. I wish I knew how we could bring sense to some of the people that are responsible for that. I've met some of them and looked in their eyes.
There was a guy called Pete Barber that set up the Tobacco Institute, basically, the whole purpose of which was to create doubt about whether cigarettes were harmful or not. That was its whole job -- to create doubt and prevent them from being regulated. And then he moved on from that, to work with the companies that make toxic flame-retardants. Basically it a series of companies that use bromine, which a chemical easily mined that used to stop you know flames from growing, in situations that are rarely encountered, but really harm human health, especially how kids think.
And so he was in a conference and came over to me and he wanted to talk. I was with a colleague and he had bought us drinks or something. We were just sitting there. Then we thanked him and he said he was almost afraid to come over and talk to us. I said, “Don't worry, Pete, but I have one question for you.” He says, “Yes?” I said, “When are you going to start working for the forces of light?” I just said that, you know. And it was...he couldn't really answer that. He started talking about how he was going to move into retirement, the next day was his wife’s birthday. He just didn’t know what to say. I just think you have to, kind of, look for where just to find a way to talk to somebody and just say -- but what are you doing? And that's just one way. The other, of course...
Aryae: Sharyle, your voice is fading out a little bit.
Sharyle: I’m sorry. I grabbed my microphone -- it seems to be sliding around. I'm sorry. So the other way is of course what we're doing with toxic chemicals. We've got a chemical that's bad, we know it's bad, then we go out and the people, they work with organizations, advocacy groups go out in a variety of different ways. Whether it's talking to the federal government and saying you've got to stop this, whether it's going to the industry, to the manufacturers who would prefer to make products that are clean, and so inform the people that supply them, but we go to the chemical industry itself and say, look you've got to make safer chemicals.
And it's, you know, the kind of conversations that happen that people don't know about. To try to change people's minds and change how they work, through the kind of campaigns people do to just say -- OK this product contains toxic chemicals, everybody just stop shopping there, stop buying that product, so that really hits people's bottom-lines, about what they're selling and what they're making money on. And that can work -- we’re banning flame retardants, for example, through the work of many people that are taking some of the bio monitoring data and product data, and working through the state legislation saying we don't need this stuff -- it doesn't work, it's harmful, let's find safer ways to prevent fires. So you know it's just step by step -- you we that, in terms of stopping the wars in the Middle East.
Of course, it's oil and gas companies that are so involved in much of this. We believe and of course, even here in the United States, what's coming out of the ground in terms of natural gas production -- all of that kind of fuel is being used to make plastics. So they are campaigning to stop, encouraging people to find alternatives to using plastic goods, as much as possible, that are basically supporting the oil and gas industry, as oil and gas moves away from combustion engines and moves into household products...So you know, it's just, it's very practical stuff -- the campaign to stop this, stop that. Or go to every possible political arena and make your voice heard. Going to the people when you can and just trying to find a way to say -- ask them, “Why are you doing this? These are your children too. No one is safe from this. And what will you tell your children? What will tell your family?” And just keeping those doors open, as much as possible -- saying we can do this together, you don't need to do this. And I don't have any simple answers on how to stop this.
But those two things are very practical -- the personal and then keeping our communities strong and caring and resilient. To make sure that we have what we need and that includes clean air, clean water, clean food, clean products, and the kind of care, loving that makes a community actually function -- so it's all of that. And that may seem a little too superficial, but that's the best I can do, Pancho.
Pancho: Power of the human story, Thank you!
Kozo: Thank you! Thank you, Pancho, for sharing your presence here today and for voicing for many of those voiceless that are suffering from the policy that we're creating in this part of the planet we call the US.
I love that, Sharyle -- when are you going to start working for the forces of light? I think that's a question we can always wake up to every morning and ask ourselves, you know? In what way are we going to start working for those forces? It's so beautiful. We have another question- caller, from Wendy. Wendy, are you there?
Wendy: Oh yes, I'm here, yes. So I love that you were mentioning about honoring yourself and honoring your community and that's just so empowering. I had a question when you were talking about firefighting. And that so many prisoners are actually used to fight fires, and I'm wondering if you are working with any of the prison population who are exposed to these chemicals when they do their firefighting?
Sharyle: I've not, we're not working with prisoners, and would like to be able to do so but haven't been able to make those kind of connections. So I think that the prisoners are fighting under the same circumstances as trained firefighters, except they have no training, and they are also lacking the protective gear that they may need. And I'm not sure what the protocols are for sending them in and bringing them back, and helping them clean themselves, and their clothing, and all of that, and follow-up in terms of health-care, so it would be an important thing to do, which we have not been able to do. And I hope we can do that in the future, because I'm really concerned about that -- because we all should be.
Wendy: Thank you very much.
Kozo: Thank you, Wendy. We have a question from online, from Mish in New York, and she says: “Thank you for the important work you devote yourself to. I wanted to tell you that your voice holds a beautiful vibe of peace and has imparted deep calm in me. So grateful. Two questions for you, Sharyle. Are there other healing centers connected to the one in Bolinas in other states. Might you know where in relation to other countries in the chemical burden we carry -- are we any better or any worse regarding environmental toxins, or how we endeavor to fix it?” And then she says -- in smiles, Mish, New York, from New York City.
Sharyle: Thank you for your kind words, Mish. I appreciate them. Healing Centers! Well, Commonweal has just started in the past couple of years with what we call healing circles which are groups with a leader, where people can get together, usually on a weekly basis and talk about personal healing, and that sometimes extends to community and planetary healing, and if you wanted to email me later, I could let you know where those are. I don’t think we're doing it yet on the East Coast, and these things kind of crop up by word of mouth and who wants to take them on and work with us to, so we can do some mutual learning about how it might best work in that community. So that’s there.
There's bio monitoring going on in different places around the world. It depends a little bit on the chemical but some places have higher levels of some chemicals, than other places depending on what kind of production they're doing of chemicals, what kind of chemicals are using or extracting, and what kind of regulations they might have.
In general, the European Union has just begun its human bio-monitoring program and we don't have a lot of data from that yet. We have some data from their pilot study and they looked at a few chemicals and that involved seventeen countries in the European Union. And different countries had different higher levels and some the average levels one would find in the United States.
So and then Canada has its own human bio-monitoring program. So you know, it's just, it really varies but you can see that the use of industrial chemicals is on the rise globally, and it's greater in the industrial countries and in north. It's less so in the global south, except for the use of pesticides. So you have to kind of look at a country basis to see what might be high and what might be low, and what the community and advocates know about it. But through this this international network, we started out with about 350 advocacy groups around the country, and I think it's increased to about 5000 now. This organization is called the International POPs elimination network, and it's called I P E N. And you can go to their website and you can kind of get a sense at-least under the mandates of the Stockholm Convention what's been measured in each country and what they're doing about it, in terms of the chemicals that are included under that particular convention. So it's a really great thing to look at.
And the Stockholm convention itself maintains a website where they're monitoring air and water and breast milk. There's some holes in the data, as different countries are able to do not everything. But you can go to that website -- it's a little hard to maneuver -- but you can find out, for example, what areas of China, what chemicals might be higher or lower in breast milk, and how many of these levels have decreased, since the inception and implementation of the Stockholm Convention itself. So it's one way to look at how one should regulate some stuff -- that levels in human bodies will go down. So you asked a really broad question and that's a very general answer. There are different regulations in different countries and it looks like European Union have stronger regulations and it's easy to find out what's in different products. But they have their struggles too, trying to get rid of toxic chemicals or trying to get chemicals tested fully for their safety.
Kozo: Wonderful. I wanted to reiterate something that Mish said -- that your voice holds a beautiful vibe of peace -- and it has imparted deep calm in me and the listeners. You know you said earlier how music is the way to touch your soul or get in contact with your soul and and I think we feel that and what that inspires me to say is that you are waking up with this calling for music and I think that's a calling that should be honored and we'd be honored for you to bring that beautiful voice and your music skills, and be able to get in contact with our souls through it. So I really encourage you to answer that calling and share with us.
Sharyle: Thank you, thank you very much. I appreciate that and that maybe will give me a little bit more courage to step forward and go back to playing a bit more music, as it really is for me a source of strength and peace and perhaps I can share that a little bit.
Kozo: And we'll look forward to hearing it. We have one of the last question that we ask all of our guests. What can we, as a ServiceSpace community, the whole ecosystem do to support your work?
Sharyle: I think what you're doing supports the work. I mean the work is all of ours, right? So what supports my work supports your work. And the work of everybody who is a part of your network so I think these calls and being with each other in person and in spirit, and continuing to hold that space, as as we can and move forward -- that's how we do it.
Kozo: Beautiful! Lovely! Aryae, do you have any closing comments?
Aryae: Thank you, Kozo. Thank you, Sharyle. Yeah you know my closing comment is having listened to the conversation and having been part of this conversation, I am just really taking away the image of Sharyle, of your lifelong commitment, of what your life's work has been. And in particular, the sense of dealing with very unpleasant facts and very unpleasant politics and arrangements and situations and facing that with continual hope with continual going forward with continual finding the small things that we can do over time to make a difference and that's a big takeaway for me. Thank you.
Sharyle: I've enjoyed talking to you both and thank you very much for this opportunity to meet you both a little bit more and get to know you. And to talk about what we do here at Commonweal. I really appreciate that and I deeply appreciate the people who joined in the call and the questions are very, very insightful. I thank you all for asking questions as well.
Kozo: Thank you Sharyle. We're going to close with a moment of silence. And one last thought before we go into the moment silence is something that really rung true for me especially in this time when there's a lot of difficult things to deal with in politics and environmentalism, so one thing you said really resonated with me - "Change happens by building community" and that gives me so much hope. It gives me so much inspiration and it gives me so much gratitude. Just today, in this call, we are building community. Thank you. Thank you, Sharyle. Thank you, Aryae. Thank you all the listeners and callers today and thank you everybody who is becoming a part of this community. Have a wonderful weekend!
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