After being 'humiliated' by TSA, one mom helped write a bill to make traveling with breast milk less of a hassle

·Senior Editor
·6-min read
Emily Calandrelli took to TikTok after the TSA cost her precious breast milk. (Photo: Courtesy of Emily Calandrelli)
Emily Calandrelli took to TikTok after the TSA cost her precious breast milk. (Photo: Courtesy of Emily Calandrelli)

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On Netflix, Emily Calandrelli is known for enthusiastically leading kids through science experiments and shouting out her mantra — “Stay curious and keep exploring!” — on Emily’s Wonder Lab, the educational series she hosted for two seasons (filmed when she was 35 and 36 weeks pregnant!).

On social media, she shares her contagious passion for space and space travel, educating her 195,000 Instagram followers and 1.1 million TikTok followers — using the username the Space Gal, natch — on the finer points of rockets and satellites.

And in real life, the mom of two is fast becoming known as an activist around various parenting issues — parental leave policies and, most visibly around infant feeding, and the specific needs of breastfeeding moms when traveling by air.

Calandrelli worked recently with Rep. Katie Porter (D-CA) to craft bipartisan legislation, the Bottles and Breastfeeding Equipment Screening (BABES), to make it easier for parents to safely travel with breast milk. That bill was introduced on Aug. 9 — just three months after Calandrelli was “humiliated” in the Los Angeles International Airport by two male TSA agents who stopped her from bringing ice packs, for milk she was about to pump for her 10-week-old son, through security, despite rules allowing it — which both Calandrelli and the agents were unaware of at the time.

“It was one of those situations where you were like, ‘Surely this can't be right. Like, surely you are incorrect,'” she tells Yahoo Life about the incident that inspired her to take action. “I was like, ‘They're not going to take [these ice packs] away from me.’ And then I was like, ‘Oh my God, they're going to take them away from me. What is happening? Wow.’”

Calandrelli, who had experienced blocked milk ducts before, says she remembers explaining the concept of mastitis — painful inflammation and sometimes infection of breast tissue often caused by a blocked milk duct — to help them understand why she had to pump. “I was like ... I need to pump for a few reasons — one, for my baby, but also because if I don't, I risk mastitis. Like, I could go to the hospital. It's a serious thing … I shouldn't have to be explaining mastitis to a full-grown man. That's very weird.”

Add to all this the backdrop of her being away from her baby for the first time (an older child, 2 1/2, was also home) and of her having dealt with breastfeeding difficulties, including lots of travel and pumping and all the anxieties that brings, as well as a condition called D-MER (Dysphoric Milk Ejection Reflex), which brings on feelings of sadness or panic while nursing. “You feel this incredible wave of, like, anxiety. Some people describe it as guilt. It's a very weird feeling,” she explains, noting that she has just weaned her baby after six months of nursing (as with her first child). “And I think, in general, breastfeeding is hard.”

An Instagram post she made about her upsetting TSA experience — which she took down and then reposted — went viral.

“I cried in the airport,” she wrote in the comments. “I was embarrassed about having to explain breastfeeding to 3 grown men. I felt humiliated and emotional and so I deleted the post … But guess what? They were wrong. TSA rules specifically state that you are allowed to have gel ice packs (regardless if they are fully frozen!!) for medically necessary purposes. And emptying my breasts on a regular schedule and providing food for my child IS medically necessary (and especially [important] with the current formula shortage!).”

Her post was also flooded with comments from fellow moms who had had similar encounters in airports — including TSA agents telling them to pour out just-pumped milk or handling fresh milk in a way that contaminated it. Those stories “crushed” her, she said, but also made her feel “validated” for being so upset — much of which, she says, stemmed from her feeling like she had been a scofflaw.

“I'm someone who loves following rules,” she explains. “When I thought that I had broken a rule, I felt so bad. And I was just embarrassed that I didn't know. And I felt like they made me feel like ashamed that I was trying to break this very important rule — that wasn't a rule! And so, once I had found out that wasn't actually the policy, I was like, oh, I did nothing wrong.”

Most importantly, the feedback on social media helped spur Calandrelli into action, for which she leaned on her master’s degree in technology and policy from MIT. “Before I became a TV host, before I did any of my science communication work, I was likely going to end up in D.C. … trying to influence science and technology policy,” she explains. "I've always been very interested in policy work, and so that was for me. What are the policy tools that we have at our disposal that could help fix this inefficiency?”

She posted her thoughts on social media and was soon connected to folks in D.C., including her own Rep. Porter, which is when things started really moving. The two worked together on crafting the BABES bill, which Calandrelli is proud of.

“I think the fact that this bill is both bipartisan and immediately bicameral — there's … a complementary bill in the Senate — speaks to the fact that this is an issue that affects all people, across lines,” she says.

Calandrelli, pictured at the 2018 Daytime Creative Arts Emmy Awards, has just penned a breastfeeding-related bill with her local Rep. Katie Porter. (Photo: Greg Doherty/Patrick McMullan via Getty Images)
Calandrelli, pictured at the 2018 Daytime Creative Arts Emmy Awards, has just penned a breastfeeding-related bill with her local Rep. Katie Porter. (Photo: Greg Doherty/Patrick McMullan via Getty Images)

In a press release about the bills, Senate co-sponsor Mazie Hirono (D-HI) noted, "We have heard far too many stories about mothers being harassed, humiliated and even put in danger simply for traveling with milk and supplies they need to keep their babies fed. By requiring TSA to clarify and regularly update its guidance on handling breast milk and baby formula, [BABES] will help ensure parents and their young children can travel safely and with peace of mind.”

Calandrelli notes that the bill, which will ensure proper handling and safety of milk, is needed everywhere. “I mean, no matter where you are, if you're at an airport that's small, if you're at an airport that's large, in big cities, small cities, this affects so many people. And it's one of those things where I think people maybe didn't realize that it was an issue until somebody spoke up.”

That happens so often, she points out, when one sees an inefficiency in society or in the government “and you just sort of assume that somebody else is going to fix it. Or if it's a problem, there's a reason that it's a problem, and that's just the way it works. Right?" she says.

“But,” she adds, “that is not always the case.”

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