A tyre washed up on the beach at Prestwick, Scotland. Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Meet the women sailing across oceans to understand what toxins are really doing to our bodies

The aim of the voyage, and the play inspired by it, is to make “the unseen seen” and enhance understanding of what the chemicals we put into the sea and our own bodies are actually doing.

A group of women are assembled in the OvalHouse Theatre on a rainy evening in London to discuss a new theatre production, provisionally called SeaTown Ladies. We begin with a performance from poet Meg Beech, who pours out an internal-rhyme-laden polemic on the birth of a baby girl: “Minute old miniature goddess,” who “will spend life struggling / in debris of sanctified sexuality”. There’s a burst of whooping applause, and then Anne Langford of Likely Story Theatre Company stands up to tell us about the inspiration for the play. She had been on a walk, she said, in Wales, which ended at a pub. The pub had a picture on the wall of a group of women sailors from the early 20th century. They stood face on, chests thrown out, and heads up; legs firm and arms straight down by their sides, in skirts and gumboots. “They looked so bold and full of life,” Anne said. “Like people I wanted to know.” She went to have a closer look and saw that the photo carried a tagline: “Rude and Coarse Women”. 

Anne was intrigued by the disparity between what she saw when she looked at this picture – and what the caption writer had seen. Since she is a dramatist, she decided to explore this disparity by creating a play about women in a boat. And when she hit Google for inspiration, she came across Exxpedition, an all-female crew who will be sailing from Lanzarote to Martinique this November, to raise awareness of the plastics and toxicants in the oceans, and how this may be contributing to a rise in cancer rates among young women. Anne invited Dr Lucy Gilliam, co-founder of Exxpedition, along to speak to us and get our thoughts channelled in the right direction.

Lucy, dressed in a colourful jumper, stands up and starts telling us about the project, which carries the tagline “making the unseen seen”. The unseen that Exxpedition wants us to see is a combination of women’s bodies, which are disproportionately underrepresented in both research science and sport, and the thousands of toxic chemicals that pollute our oceans and marine life. These toxicants adhere to the plastic waste, much of which is so small as to also be more or less unseen, that also dominates our oceans (“There’s more plastic in some parts of the ocean than there is plankton,” Lucy tells us) and gets swallowed up by fish who mistake the plastic for food. The toxicants on the plastic leech into the tissue of these fish, and carry on up the food chain until they reach human bodies. Exxpedition will be trawling the ocean picking up all the plastic and micro-plastic they come across along the way and then testing it for toxicants. They will also be catching fish, assessing the plastic in their guts, and testing their toxicity levels. 

They will also be carrying out what Lucy calls “MeSearch”. Scientists estimate that we are all walking around with at least 700 contaminants in our bodies, many of which have barely been researched, but which may be carcinogenic, and also may be disrupting our endocrine and reproductive systems, potentially causing birth defects. When I meet Lucy earlier on in the day for an interview in a deli in Vauxhall (she brings along her own organic Marmite) she tells me about how scientists accidentally discovered that the Inuit living in the Arctic were carrying the highest levels of contaminants of any population. They had originally tested this population’s breast milk imagining that because the Inuit are not an industrialised nation, they could provide a negative control for research into the problem. But “because of the way that pollutants travel around the earth, industrial pollutants end up up getting deposited on the poles. And most of these industrial pollutants are persistent bio-cumulative and toxic, which means they build up in the food chain. And so people that are eating a diet that’s high in blubber and eating whale meat or seal, are eating loads of toxins.” So because we industrialised nations are pumping noxious untested chemicals into the oceans, babies in the unindustrialised Arctic are chowing down on POPs, PCBs and other incomprehensible acronyms? “It’s incredibly unfair”, Lucy nods.

Lucy is a microbial ecologist who specialises in greenhouse gas emissions in soil. She used to advise the government on climate change, biodiversity and food security, but she “quit all of that to sail around the world selling rum, chocolate and spices” with Fairtransport shipping, an organisation that runs the world’s only engineless sail cargo ship. She met Emily Penn, her Exxpedition co-founder while she was working at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) on chemicals and nanotechnologies. At the time, Emily was campaigning on plastics with Pangea Explorations, an organisation that works on marine exploration and conservation, and which is providing Sea Dragon, the 72ft research vessel which will be used for Exxpedition. “We found that we had an awful lot to talk about,” Lucy tells me as she butters her toast. “I think from the first time we met we were saying how great would it be to put together an all women voyage”. They also decided that they wanted to use the expedition as an opportunity to raise awareness about toxicants in the ocean. Emily is friends with Kris Hallenga, the founder of the breast cancer charity Coppafeel, who developed cancer at the age of 23, and this relationship led Emily and Lucy to discuss the rising prevalence of cancer in young women. 

“I don’t think it’s all down to genetics,” Lucy says. “I think there’s an element that is about toxics and environmental exposure and alongside that we’re also seeing what I think of as essentially like cancer in the world’s oceans: plastics and pollutants [are] building up to enormous levels in the environment and we wanted to tell a story that really joined that up, that drew a parallel between ocean pollution toxics in our body and what that means for humanity and the diseases that we’re getting.” So they set up their organisation and started recruiting for crew members, who have ultimately ranged in age from 24 - 65 (the oldest crew member was one of the original women who protested at Greenham Common), and come from around the world. Their first applicant was Sierra Campbell, who had grown up on a farm that was downstream from a pharmaceutical company. She developed ovarian cancer when she was 14; by the time she was 21 she had had most of her reproductive organs removed. Next to get in touch was Anna Karmen, a Swedish research scientist who works with a UN project called Safe Planet, which tracks twelve key toxicants in blood that indicate a “body burden” of industrial pollutants you’ve been exposed to over your lifetime. She offered to analyse the blood of all fourteen crew members. They will be receiving the results on the 14 November, the first day of Exxpedition, and exactly a month from when I meet Lucy. Is she nervous? “It’s a little bit scary”, she says, but “the interest of getting and analysing the results removes some of the fear”. For Lucy it’s more about questioning how she feels about her lack of choice in having been inevitably exposed to theses toxicants, and what she wants to do about it now. “Are we more in favour of these international regulations, do we want to change the things that we’re putting in our body, putting on our skin?”

For Laura Coleman, director of ONCA, an environmental arts charity, and another member of the crew, to think about the chemicals inside her and how they relate to how she’s been living her life is “very scary”. “Since I’ve started this project I’ve just gradually stopped using anything because I look at the ingredients lists and I don’t understand any of it. It’s so baffling. And so many of those ingredients have potentially negative impacts on our health”. It can be paralysing, she says. “I think it’s very easy to say, ‘there’s chemicals everywhere. We’re all being infected, everything gives you cancer’, and that just terrifies people”. So for her, testing the crew’s blood, although personally scary, “is about finding a way to reach people’s hearts and really think about how we can progress in the future in a positive way. I think focusing on the individual stories of the fourteen women on board could be a very powerful way to present female role models who are willing to looking inside ourselves and look at the stories that have built up over our lives in our blood.”

These questions have taken on a whole new relevance for Lucy since she found out that she was pregnant. “I’m a little bit freaked out getting my toxic results and being like, “oh god what’s that going to do to the baby?”. No one really knows, because the majority of medical trials “are on fit young men”. Women are less researched, partly, Lucy says, because “things can just be dismissed as ‘women’s problems’”, as peripheral and inessential to humanity. “Taboos around things like having periods […] it’s just kind of dismissed as the curse, it’s one of those things, but how much money really gets spent in actually understanding what’s going on there?” As Lucy and Emily tried to find the answers, they were struck by how hard it was – so part of Exxpedition is to be “a platform to discuss these issues and to be able to educate ourselves and then to be able to share the conversation with other people”. It was for this reason she felt it was so important for the crew to be interdisciplinary (they will have artists, activists, scientists, technology developers, policy-makers, nurses, psychologists on-board): together, Lucy hopes that they might be able to design solutions, and “build things that enable us to have more control over our bodies, or to be able to direct research to things that we feel are important”. 

So what can we do in the meantime? “I buy natural fabrics, a lot of recycled things,” Lucy says. “Synthetic clothes can be treated with flame retardants and cotton is one the most sprayed crops globally.” Although, she says, as a continually broke campaigner she doesn’t buy clothes anyway, “so if anyone wants to sponsor me in organic clothes, they are so welcome!” She laughs and takes a bite of her toast. “There are some things that I think about”, she continues, “and there are other things that are so beyond my control, like [tap] water, that I try not to concentrate on them too much. I think being vegetarian, not eating meat, and doing my best to buy organic dairy products [makes me less susceptible to toxins]”.  Food is a major source of what we’re exposed to, she tells me, as are the products we put on our skin. “I don’t use deodorant. I just don’t find that it’s necessary. And there’s lots of ingredients in there that I’m just like oh I don’t want that being absorbed into my body. Your skin can absorb a hell of a lot” – 70 per cent, to be precise. Lucy says that industry is slowly bowing to pressure to become cleaner and greener. There are EU regulations and UN agreements with which industry must comply. And there are organisations working to design out waste and convince businesses of the benefits of a circular economic approach towards products – Lucy mentions the Ellen MacArthur Foundation as a good example of this approach.

But for now, Lucy’s just looking forward to getting out on the water. “I can’t wait to be on board,” she beams. “I like being in the middle of the ocean.” When I ask why, she pauses for a long time, before finally producing a long list. “It’s peaceful it’s not stressful, it’s quite beautiful, when you’re sailing at night, all of the stars”. She tells me about anchoring at the deepest point of the Atlantic and going swimming. Being out there, she says, makes her “feel rooted in the universe”. I reflect that this is the perfect way to be feeling, when you’re considering the connection between the cancer in our bodies and the cancer of the oceans. I hope they come back with some answers. 

Caroline Criado-Perez is a freelance journalist and feminist campaigner. She is also the co-founder of The Women's Room and tweets as @CCriadoPerez.

Show Hide image

Shami Chakrabarti’s fall from grace: how a liberal hero lost her reputation

Once, it was trendy to say you liked the former director of Liberty. No longer.

It might be hard to remember now, but there was a time when it was trendy to like Shami Chakrabarti. In the mid-2000s, amid the Iraq War backlash and the furore over identity cards, speaking well of the barrister and head of the human rights campaign group Liberty was a handy way of displaying liberal credentials. She was everywhere: Question Time, Desert Island Discs, Have I Got News For You. A young indie band from Worcester called the Dastards was so keen on her that it even wrote a song about her. It included the lyric: “I turn on my TV/The only one I want to see/Is Shami Chakrabarti.”

The daughter of Bengali immigrants, Chakrabarti was born and brought up in the outer-London borough of Harrow, where she attended a comprehensive school before studying law at the London School of Economics. Her background was a great strength of her campaigning, and during the most authoritarian years of New Labour government she burnished her reputation.

Fast-forward to 13 September 2016, when Chakrabarti made her House of Lords debut as a Labour peer. Baroness Chakrabarti of Kennington wore a sombre expression and a rope of pearls looped round her throat beneath her ermine robe. It was hard to recognise the civil liberties campaigner who was once called “an anarchist in a barrister’s wig” by Loaded magazine.

Yet Chakrabarti has also been cast in another role that is far less desirable than a seat in the Lords: that of a hypocrite. On 29 April this year, Jeremy Corbyn announced that Chakrabarti would chair an independent inquiry into anti-Semitism and other forms of racism in the Labour Party. The inquiry was prompted by the suspensions of Naz Shah, the MP for Bradford West, and Ken Livingstone, for making offensive remarks that were condemned as anti-Semitic. On 16 May Chakrabarti announced that she was joining Labour to gain members’ “trust and confidence”. She said that she would still run the inquiry “without fear or favour”.

The Chakrabarti inquiry delivered its findings on 30 June at a press conference in Westminster. The atmosphere was febrile – there were verbal clashes between the activists and journalists present, and the Jewish Labour MP Ruth Smeeth was reduced to tears. The report stated that Labour “is not overrun by anti-Semitism, Islamophobia or other forms of racism” but that there was an “occasionally toxic atmosphere”. It listed examples of “hateful language” and called on party members to “resist the use of Hitler, Nazi and Holocaust metaphors, distortions and comparisons”. Many Labour supporters were surprised that the report’s 20 recommendations did not include lifetime bans for members found to have shown anti-Semitic behaviour.

Then, on 4 August, it was revealed that Chakrabarti was the sole Labour appointment to the House of Lords in David Cameron’s resignation honours. Both Chakrabarti and Corbyn have denied that the peerage was discussed during the anti-Semitism inquiry. But critics suggested that her acceptance undermined the report and its independence.

In particular, it attracted criticism from members of the UK’s Jewish community. Marie van der Zyl, vice-president of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, said: “This ‘whitewash for peerages’ is a scandal that surely raises serious questions about the integrity of Ms Chakrabarti, her inquiry and the Labour leadership.” A home affairs select committee report into anti-Semitism in the UK has since found that there were grave failings in the report for Labour.

Two further incidents contributed to the decline in Chakrabarti’s reputation: her arrival on Corbyn’s front bench as shadow attorney general and the revelation that her son attends the selective Dulwich College, which costs almost £19,000 a year in fees for day pupils (£39,000 for full boarders). She said that she “absolutely” supports Labour’s opposition to grammar schools but defended her choice to pay for selective education.

Chakrabarti told ITV’s Peston on Sunday: “I live in a nice big house and eat nice food, and my neighbours are homeless and go to food banks. Does that make me a hypocrite, or does it make me someone who is trying to do best, not just for my own family, but for other people’s families, too?”

This was the end for many of those who had respected Chakrabarti – the whisper of hypocrisy became a roar. As the Times columnist Carol Midgley wrote: “You can’t with a straight face champion equality while choosing privilege for yourself.”

Hypocrisy is a charge that has dogged the left for decades (both Diane Abbott and Harriet Harman have fallen foul of the selective school problem). The trouble with having principles, it is said, is that you have to live up to them. Unlike the right, the left prizes purity in its politicians, as Jeremy Corbyn’s squeaky-clean political image shows. Shami Chakrabarti started the year with a campaigning reputation to rival that of the Labour leader, but her poor decisions have all but destroyed her. It’s difficult to recall a time when a liberal icon has fallen so far, so fast. 

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood