Here, ecologist and cancer survivor Sandra Steingraber offers her perspectives on the latest research on environmental contamination and cancer and encourages us to become environmental detectives and seek out our ecological roots.
Q: What does your research show regarding the connection between environmental contamination and cancer?
A: A growing body of research, including the recent report issued by the President’s Cancer Panel, establishes a clear connection between carcinogens in the environment and human cancer. The evidence now is even stronger than it was in 1997 (when I wrote the first edition of my book, Living Downstream).We have made great advances in epigenetics, showing that our DNA is an instrument that responds to our environment. We also now have the ability to biomonitor, which, in essence, allows us to measure the levels of pollutants in people and look for genetic signatures left by people’s exposure to different chemicals. Together, these advances have helped us to see that our health is based not just on genetics and our lifestyle. Our environment plays an important role in shaping our health, too.
Q: In your book Living Downstream, you advocate the adoption of the "precautionary principle" when it comes to the way we evaluate pesticides and insecticides for widespread use. What is this principle, and how does it differ from the way we evaluate these substances today?
A: The precautionary principle refers to the idea that indication of harm, rather than proof of harm, should be the trigger for action-especially if delay may cause irreparable damage. Most of us use this principle in our lives every day. For example, as a mom, if my kids are in the swimming pool and I hear a rumble of thunder, I call them out of the water. I don't need absolute proof that they will be struck by lightning; I take action based on the inherent danger I know thunderstorms cause.
We should apply the same idea to toxic substances. If we know that a substance has been linked to cancer, we shouldn’t use it. We should seek out non-toxic alternatives. We should embrace organic approaches to farming. Plus, we should require advance demonstration of safety before a substance is marketed. The European Union is already moving in this direction.
Q: As a cancer survivor and an ecologist, what advice do you have for people who are looking to reduce their environmental exposure to potential carcinogens?
A: As a general rule, I don’t tell people how to lead their lives. Instead, I tell my own story and let people decide for themselves what they should take away from it. I, do, though encourage people to become environmental detectives. Go in search of your ecological roots.
Q:Given the public’s growing interest in where their food comes from and our increasing understanding of how agricultural practices affect our health and the health of our environment, do you envision a large-scale shift to organic practices in the coming years?
A: It’s hard to say. We live in a time of incredible contradiction. We continue to burn petrochemicals and use them as feedstock for cancer-causing substances, including pesticides; at the same time, we are seeing incredible innovations in green chemistry and green engineering. If we want to create a more sustainable place to live, the chemistry and engineering is there to do it. But we have to do more than simply have the right tools; we have to commit ourselves to putting those tools into action.
This is an all hands on deck moment in history. The environmental crisis, which is killing us and killing the planet, is THE human rights issue of our time. Just as previous generations had to end slavery or defeat global fascism, our urgent task is to end economic dependencies on petrochemicals. It's the human rights issue of our age. Everything has to change. If you want the chance to be a hero--to be a member of the underground railroad, the French resistance--here it is.
About Sandra Steingraber Ecologist, author, and cancer survivor, Sandra Steingraber, Ph.D. is an internationally recognized authority on the environment links to cancer and human health.
Steingraber’s highly acclaimed book, Living Downstream: An Ecologist’s Personal Investigation of Cancer and the Environment presents cancer as a human rights issue. Originally published in 1997, it was the first to bring together data on toxic releases with data from U.S. cancer registries and won praise from international media including The Washington Post, Publishers Weekly, The Lancet, and The London Times.
Released as a second edition in 2010, Living Downstream has been adapted for film by The People’s Picture Company of Toronto. This eloquent and cinematic documentary follows Steingraber during one pivotal year as she travels across North America, working to break the silence about cancer and its environmental links.
Continuing the investigation begun in Living Downstream, Steingraber’s book, Having Faith: An Ecologist’s Journey to Motherhood, explores the intimate ecology of motherhood. Both a memoir of her own pregnancy and an investigation of fetal toxicology, Having Faith reveals the extent to which environmental hazards now threaten each stage of infant development. In the eyes of an ecologist, the mother’s body is the first environment for life. The Library Journal selected Having Faith as a best book of 2001, and it was featured in a PBS documentary by Bill Moyers.
Called “a poet with a knife” by Sojourner magazine, Steingraber has received many honors for her work as a science writer. She was named a Ms. Magazine Woman of the Year and later received the Jenifer Altman Foundation’s first annual Altman Award for “the inspiring and poetic use of science to elucidate the causes of cancer.” The Sierra Club has heralded Steingraber as “the new Rachel Carson,” and Carson’s own alma mater, Chatham College, selected Steingraber to receive its biennial Rachel Carson Leadership Award. In 2006, Steingraber received a Hero Award from the Breast Cancer Fund and, in 2009, the Environmental Health Champion Award from Physicians for Social Responsibility, Los Angeles.
An enthusiastic and sought-after public speaker, Steingraber has keynoted conferences on human health and the environment throughout the United States and Canada and has been invited to lecture at many universities, medical schools, and hospitals—including Harvard, Yale, Cornell, Columbia, and the Woods Hole Research Center. She is recognized for her ability to serve as a two-way translator between scientists and activists. She has testified in the European Parliament, before the President’s Cancer Panel, and has participated in briefings to Congress and before United Nations delegates in Geneva, Switzerland. Interviews with Steingraber have appeared in The Chicago Tribune, USA Today, The Cleveland Plain Dealer, on National Public Radio, “The Today Show,” and “Good Morning America.”
A columnist for Orion magazine, Sandra Steingraber is currently a scholar in residence in Ithaca College in Ithaca, New York. She is married to the artist Jeff de Castro, and they live in a 1000-square-foot house with a push mower, a clothesline, a vegetable garden, and two beloved children.