It would seem that the problems confronting Chicago’s public school system couldn’t get any worse. Well, now comes a complaint that the system is endangering the health of thousands of children by serving them milk from cows injected with a potentially dangerous synthetic hormone.

The accusation is wildly inaccurate, some dairy and chemical-industry officials contend. They maintain that exhaustive research has determined that there’s nothing even remotely dangerous about milk from cows injected with the bovine growth hormone known as rBGH.

“Chicago’s school system has much bigger problems than this,” says Robert Collier, dairy research director for Monsanto, the Saint Louis-based conglomerate that produces rBGH. “I know this milk is safe. I have kids of my own, and I wouldn’t say this if I didn’t know it was so.”

Yet the fear won’t die, as growing numbers of pure-food activists press the school board to outlaw milk from cows injected with rBGH. “We’re talking about the fate of thousands of our children,” says Kathy Cummings Dominguez, founder of the Milk Outrage Organization, a local grass-roots coalition better known as MOO. “I can’t think of any issue that’s more important.”

The larger nationwide debate on this issue really started raging last November, when the federal Food and Drug Administration approved the use of rBGH. This was an enormous victory for Monsanto, whose scientists insist rBGH is nothing more than a laboratory-engineered variant of a natural lactating hormone that all cows have. By injecting cows with rBGH farmers can increase the amount of milk each cow produces–and decrease the number of cows they have to care for, which decreases their costs. Or so Monsanto argues.

“What we’re doing is accelerating the process of genetic selection,” says Collier. “To get an equivalent increase in milk production without using rBGH it would take about 25 years of breeding the highest-producing cows with the highest-producing bulls. This is a situation where there are many benefits and no risks.”

But other scientists and pure-food activists vehemently disagree. They argue that federal rBGH testing is incomplete, and they fear that rBGH is a major cause of mastitis, an udder inflammation that causes pus to be secreted into the milk. “Just think about that–milk contaminated by cow pus,” says Mike Durschmidt, a member of the Chicago-area Pure Food Campaign. “It’s absolutely disgusting.”

He argues that to curb mastitis and keep pus out of milk farmers must feed antibiotics to their cows. “So now we’re getting cows with synthetic hormones and antibiotics. Those antibiotics get passed on to humans when we drink the milk, which means we’re building up our resistance to antibiotics. We’ll have to take two or three times more than the normal amount to have any effect.”

Dr. Samuel Epstein, an environmental-medicine specialist at the University of Illinois at Chicago, cites research that shows rBGH causes an increase in insulinlike growth factor-I (IGF-I), which he calls “a growth factor for human breast cancer cells” that maintains “their malignancy, progression, and invasiveness.”

On top of all this, says Durschmidt, it’s inhumane to make cows bear the weight of more milk than they would naturally carry. “Think what you’re doing to cows by making them carry 20 percent more milk. It’s amazing that alone doesn’t kill the cows. You can understand why this issue makes animal-rights people go berserk.”

Nonetheless the issue didn’t stir much local interest until the spring of 1993, when Kathy Cummings Dominguez, a former public school teacher, got involved. “I heard a few news stories, and I began to wonder what this growth hormone does to kids who drink the milk. If it makes cows lactate more, what does it do to humans? I thought of the little girls in my classroom who were getting their periods at an earlier age than girls in my generation. I thought of the teachers I knew who came down with breast cancer. I don’t know if there was a connection, but I began to wonder, Has this even been explored?”

Dominguez called the FDA in Washington, only to be bounced from one unsympathetic bureaucrat to the next. “They dismissed me. They said it was good nutrition that made girls have their periods early. And they said there’s no connection between rBGH and breast cancer.”

That fall she hooked up with local members of Pure Food. “There was a milk-dump rally at a Jewel store. Mike Durschmidt was there. He was dressed up as a cow, and he knocked over some milk. It made the news. There’s been very little serious coverage of this, but if you do something silly you’ll get on the tube.”

Then she began asking school officials how much school milk comes from cows given rBGH. “They didn’t know. So I did a little research, and I discovered that of the three companies supplying them with milk only one–Swiss Valley–certified that their farmers were not injecting cows. I went back to the board with this information.”

Dominguez’s persistance left board officials in a quandary. With all the headaches of running a billion-dollar operation, the last thing they wanted to do was get in the middle of a fight over milk. Yet they couldn’t completely disregard her, as they do with most gadflies, because she’s married to Len Dominguez, Mayor Daley’s chief educational advisor (her husband has pledged to stay out of the debate). So they returned her phone calls.

Over time a curious dialogue took shape. “Mainly I talked to the director of the Department of Food Services,” says Dominguez. “I told him, once you inject a cow her udders get so big they drag on the ground and get infected, which means they need more antibiotics–and maybe that’s why people are dying of stress and penicillin doesn’t work with gonorrhea. And he said, ‘Oh, Kathy, I don’t have time for this–I have 600 schools to watch.’ He said, ‘Do you expect me to follow up on every rumor about contaminated sausage in Colorado caused by pesticides that cows were eating out there?’ I said, ‘Yes. Don’t you think pesticides are a real concern? If you don’t do it, who in the system will? Who is protecting the children?;'”

Over the winter Dominguez put together an impressive citywide coalition of such influential local school council members as James Deanes and Lafayette Ford. Together they managed to win support from board member Clinton Bristow, who proposed that the system reject any milk from cows injected with rBGH.

By then word of their campaign had spread to Monsanto officials, who have spent the last few months fiercely defending their product. (Monsanto recently sued Swiss Valley, arguing that it can’t label its milk safer than milk from cows injected with rBGH.)

In the spring of 1994 the matter was dumped on the board’s operations subcommittee, then chaired by Steve Ballis. “We were getting it from all sides,” says Ballis. “Monsanto and the activists were all over us. Most of us on the board, to be perfectly honest, were overwhelmed by other incredibly pressing concerns, like whether we can keep the system solvent.”

Ballis organized a task force to study the matter, and two hearings were held. Collier and other Monsanto officials flew up from Saint Louis and Washington, D.C., to testify that there was no research whatsoever to support any of the allegations made about rBGH. “Ninety-nine percent of scientists who have reviewed this data have solidly reiterated that [rBGH] food is safe,” says Collier. “Ms. Dominguez has some fears that aren’t justified.”

They also distributed a fact sheet that said, among other things, “When it is necessary to administer antibiotics to dairy cows, the milk from those cows is discarded,” that milk with pus was rejected by milk processors, and that the FDA had concluded, “The suggestion that IGF-I in milk can induce or promote breast cancer in humans is scientifically unfounded and misguided.” The fact sheet also quotes C. Everett Koop, the former U.S. surgeon general: “Milk from cows given [rBGH] is the same as any other milk.”

Dominguez, Durschmidt, and others testified that not nearly enough objective research on the matter had been completed. In the end the school board members, undoubtedly baffled by the cacophony of conflicting opinions, replaced Bristow’s proposal with a recommendation to ban rBGH milk only if research conclusively determines that it’s a health hazard.

As it is school officials estimate that about 80 percent of milk served to students comes from bottlers who certify that their farms provide rBGH-free milk. “That’s not enough,” says Dominguez. “School districts all over the country are banning rBGH-contaminated products. Meanwhile we have at least 24,000 kids in Chicago who are still drinking this stuff. We also have to ask, Is it in other products, like cheese, pudding, yogurt, and beef? I won’t stop until this stuff is out of the schools.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Yael Routtenberg.