Colette was our daughter. It is because of Colette — and the countless other children whose lives are being lost to cancer and other childhood diseases that are linked to hazards in the environment — that we are reaching out to you. We want to share with you what parents who have lost children tragically to cancer have learned, and what together we can do about this terrible threat to all children.
When Children are Stricken
When children are stricken with cancer, you fight for their lives and look for reasons. We asked all along about the cause. People would say, «This is rare. This is non-hereditary.» But we had been so careful as parents. We couldn’t imagine an environmental cause, so we underwent tests to see if something in our own health profiles might have affected Colette. The tests yielded no clues and it was proven that her cancer was, in fact, not genetic.
We began to question whether something in the environment had interfered with Colette’s gestational development. We learned, after consulting an expert on Wilm’s Tumor, that it was possible that something Nancy had ingested or was exposed to in the environment during her pregnancy could have triggered the destructive mechanism that caused Colette’s cancer to later develop.
Learning the Truth
It would take four years for our fears to be confirmed. In March 1995, we received a newly released study, «Parental Exposure to Pesticides and Risk of Wilm’s Tumor in Brazil» (1995), published by the American Journal of Epidemiology. The study revealed a link between parental pesticide use before pregnancy and the age of the child at the time of the diagnosis of Wilm’s Tumor. It said that maternal exposure to pesticides was most likely a cause of the disease when the tumor was diagnosed 48 months after the child’s birth. Colette was diagnosed when she was four years old — at exactly 48 months of age.
The study also noted that «the effects of pesticides could be mediated by mutations in germ cells, by exposure of the fetus in utero, or by exposure after birth from residues present in breast milk, in foods, in the home, or in the surrounding environment.»
Nowhere to Turn
But at the time of our daughter’s illness, we looked in vain for any clues to the cause of her condition. Much to our surprise, we found that there was very little scientific research on the link between the growing incidence of childhood cancer and environmental toxics. In fact, we discovered that virtually all of our environmental protection standards in the United States are based on research that measures the potential effects of carcinogens on a 155-pound adult male.
Intuitively, we felt that this didn’t make sense; that children were much more vulnerable and standards set for adults were inappropriate. We began to see that if the gap in research on environmental toxic impacts on children could be filled, perhaps more appropriate protection standards could be set, and growth in the incidence of childhood cancer might be checked. But all we could think about then was our child and her suffering.
As Colette’s parents, we will never forget her bravery. She taught us not to be afraid to die. She proved to us that unconditional love lasts forever. It is this flame that burns deep in our hearts even today.
The morning after Colette died, our close friend and neighbor, Marcy Hamilton, came down the hill to our house. She said, «Colette’s favorite color was green. She loved the park. She loved nature. Why don’t you start an environmental fund?»
Of course, at the time, we had all we could do just to survive the overwhelming loss. We were dazed. But the seed of an idea was planted; one that has actually helped us over time transform our pain into a hope that we can do something to help others avoid what we went through.
A Seed is Planted
In 1991, with the help of our best friend, Olivia Newton-John, and Wednesday’s Moms and other close personal friends, like Bette Midler, Lyn and Norman Lear, Cindra and Alan Ladd Jr., to mention only a few, we raised funds to launch the Colette Chuda Environmental Fund (CCEF) to support scientific research on the risks to children from environmental toxics.
In 1994, the hard work of the many thousands of individuals who have contributed to CCEF resulted in the release of the first systematic analysis of children’s exposure to carcinogens in their home and school environments. The study, «Handle With Care: Children and Environmental Carcinogens,» was researched by the Natural Resources Defense Council and distributed around the world.
Knowledge Leads to Action
It was this study — as well as others by the National Academy of Sciences, the Environmental Working Group, and Columbia University — that sparked the interest of Senator Barbara Boxer to take action to change current environmental protection policy. In March 1995, she proposed an amendment to the «Toxic Substances Control Act» designed to address the need for greater protections for children, as well as for other vulnerable groups including pregnant women and the elderly. She dedicated this bill in Colette’s honor:
«Nancy and Jim Chuda, despite their grief, chose to turn their own personal tragedy into something positive. They have labored endlessly to bring to the country’s attention the environmental dangers that threaten our children. They want to make sure that what happened to their Colette will not happen to another child. No parent should have to go through what the Chudas went through. If future deaths can be prevented, I know we will all be indebted to the tremendous energy and perseverance of Nancy and Jim Chuda.» — Congressional Record, Proceedings and Debates of the 104th Congress, Second Session. Washington, Thursday, May 9, 1996
Jim and I also began to turn our attention to the task of mobilizing parents and caregivers, environmental groups, the scientific community and media to work together to help make the necessary changes in national policies to protect our children. Armed now with more reliable scientific research, we also wanted to educate parents and other caregivers about the environmental dangers to their children, and to share some of the practical strategies and alternative products we were beginning to learn about that could be employed at home or at school to help minimize the environmental health risks to children.
Toward this end, we formed the Healthy Child Healthy World. Our information is a vehicle for you to have reliable information, practical advice you can use in your own home or school, and ways to join with others to make change in our community.
There are no words to describe the loss of life when a child dies. We have only to imagine what Colette’s life might have been. Her spirit lives on through the lives we save by preventing exposures to environmental toxics.
We encourage you to join in our efforts in one of the most important public health and environmental movements of the 21st Century.