I've built a hand-crafted butcher block countertop for somebody's lavatory. Real wood is lovely in bathrooms, but soap usually finds a way to penetrate the finish and ruin it. For protection I'm applying layers of Marine Spar Varnish in the small room while my eyes are crying, my nose is running, and my head is aching.
The housecleaner arrives. She sniffs. "Is that stuff harmful?" she asks.
"Of course," I say. It's the usual toxic crap you find in petroleum distillates.
"I'm leaving," she says. "Tell them I'll come back next week."
"I'll be done in fifteen minutes."
"I'm pregnant," she says. "I'll come back next week."
She's gone. She just abandoned half a day's pay.
And I'm thinking, she's right. Why subject a fetus to all the toxic crap that I take for granted?
For the money, of course. But she chose not to.
Next I'm thinking, why subject myself? Over ten years of nonstop construction work I've taken a get-things-done attitude toward preservatives, pesticides, all the nasty poisons you encounter on a daily basis in this line of work. For the money, of course.
It's my ah-ha moment, and way overdue.
Pregnant women are like the miner's canary.
Not that I instantly reformed, of course. Nontoxic alternatives weren't easily available in 1987, and meanwhile a century of toxins lingered in old construction. Twenty years after this incident, while writing my novel Clear Heart I wrote a passage in which Wally, the main character, nearly blinds himself:
Fresh in Wally’s mind was the history he’d just given to the nurse: thirty years of exposure to copper chromium arsenate, pentachloraphenol, toluene, chlordane, PCBs, benzene, asbestos, and a long, sorry stew of chemicals used in some phase of construction. Even the ones that were outlawed were still lurking in old crawlspaces and attics, embedded in the dust and the lumber itself. You try to protect yourself, but also you try to get the job done. Respirators, goggles, earmuffs, body suits are all hot, bulky, and uncomfortable. You weigh risks against comfort and speed. Sometimes you make the wrong choice. Even at your best there are accidents. After thirty years of weakening his body’s defenses, Wally had allowed sawdust containing lead and arsenic to float directly onto his eyeballs.I didn't make that passage up. I lived through it. In spite of the precautions, my eyes, my lungs, and my flesh have paid the price. And it still happens to people every day.
I wonder what the construction industry would be like if all construction workers were pregnant. Maybe then we'd stop being so macho and finally protect our own bodies as we'd protect an unborn child.