A Look from Sandra Steingraber’s “Raising Elijah”

By Michael Galvis

More than 40 percent of Americans will contract cancer in their lifetime. It is the second leading cause of death overall and the number one killer of Americans under 85.

Sandra Steingraber, an American biologist, is attempting to understand how these numbers, at least in part, may correlate with chemical use.

Her work stems from a personal struggle with cancer. Raised in rural Illinois, Steingraber developed bladder cancer in her 20s. In her family, cancer has been a plague. Her mother was diagnosed with breast cancer at 44; she has uncles with colon, prostate and stromal cancer; and her aunt died of bladder cancer.

Sandra Steingraber (L)

Yet, while cancer is attributed to genetic predisposition, there was one point amiss for Steingraber: she was adopted.

What she did know was this: bladder cancer is an environmental cancer; its prevalence is largely linked to toxic chemical exposure and bladder carcinogens have been found in her hometown aquifer and in sediments of the river that runs by it. Could these toxic chemicals have been responsible for her young diagnosis or was it coincidence?

Not a lot of effort seems to go into the study of toxic chemicals. Despite regulations on environmental contaminants, there’s little momentum in banishing them from our economy. Of the 80,000 synthetic chemicals in use, about two percent have been tested for carcinogenicity. Since the 1976 Toxic Substance Control Act (TSCA), which regulates the use of new and existing chemicals, only I’ve chemicals have been outlawed.

Thus, Steingraber has taken a personal and professional journey to research and emphasize patterns between environmental contamination and human sickness. While her 1997 acclaimed book “Living Downstream” explores cancer as a human rights issue, her most recent work, “Raising Elijah: Protecting Our Children in an Age of Environmental Crisis,” explores parenting in the face of toxic hazards.

The book focuses on her efforts to minimize her children’s exposure to contaminants, and she provides a thorough look at everyday chemical exposures, from the pressure-treated wood playground at her children’s  nursery school (and of which she learns has high traces of arsenic seeping out of it into the soil), to exploring pesticide residue on fruits and vegetables, which don’t wash off. She invites us to question why studies that attempt to determine the safe amount of exposure assumes everyone contaminated is a full-grown adult.

Steingraber writes: “A 1993 report from the National Research Council about the special vulnerabilities of children to pesticides…documented that the major source of pesticide exposure for kids was food. It also uncovered regulatory lapses, such as the fact that the maximum allowable level of pesticides in apple juice had been set with adults in mind even though the average one-year-old drinks, in a year, fourteen times more apple juice than the average adult.”

Meanwhile a backlog of old chemicals on the market today exists despite never having been tested for safety. Part of the reason this backlog exists is because when the Toxic Substance Control Act of 1976 was passed, all existing chemicals were grandfathered in, assumedly safe for use. In fact, of the 3,000 chemicals produced in high volume in the United States, only 20 percent of them have been tested for developmental or pediatric effects. Also, there is no existing law that requires the screening of chemicals for their ability to damage or alter pathways of brain growth.

Many pesticides used in the production of non-organic foods drift in the air and dissolve in water. Although a particular danger for people living near farms in the Bible Belt, these pesticides are present in our rain and wind, on the kitchen floor and in the dust in our bedroom sheets. One such pesticide is atrazine, an endocrine disruptor. Endocrine disruptors interfere with our hormones, yet it is the most widely used pesticide in the United States.

Sandra Steingraber

Despite emerging evidence to suggest a link between atrazine exposure and cancers of the ovary and lymph systems, atrazine is used in 90 percent of sugar cane production, most cornfields, on golf courses and in backyard lawns.

In an interview with Blindfold, Steingraber said, “Pesticides are, by design, poisons, and many of them have the ability to break our chromosomes (thus causing mutations) or otherwise interfere with the activities of our genes (thus affecting child development).”

Chemical exposure is measured in parts per millions. Such an amount may sound inconsequential, but human hormones are designed to have profound affects at levels of parts per billion or parts per trillion. The human body is stupendously susceptible to outside contamination that pesticides, particularly endocrine-disruptors, have no truly safe level of exposure, yet they find their way into our food.

A silver lining in the chemical melting pot is the organic food movement and the rate at which it is being adopted. Though the availability and governmental support for organic foods leaves much to be desired, even during the economic downturn organic sales were on the rise. Part of the solution in reducing daily chemical exposure is supporting organic foods, which are grown in a heavily regulated system.

Part of what makes “Raising Elijah” such a compelling read is the practical solutions Steingraber offers. Following the birth of her second child, Elijah, she and husband, Jeff, settled down in a modest 1,000-square-foot home. It was around that time she decided she “wanted to show how we fed our kids and
ourselves organic, locally grown food on a food budget of $140/week.”

Because she and her husband both work full-time and she travels 150 days out of the year, Steingraber’s mission was partly to show how the greatest hurdle in creating a healthy relationship between children and food is in creating new habits.

It also means educating children about climate change, farm chemicals and even the shortcomings of the EPA. As of writing this piece, Steingraber has been invited to speak at a Congressional briefing on the EPA’s proposal to register an herbicide mix of 2,4-D and glyphosate for farm spraying.

A World War II-era chemical, 2,4-D has been linked to cancers, decreased sperm count, liver disease and Parkinson’s disease. The EPA’s risk assessment, according to Steingraber, fails to examine risks posed in communities where the herbicide mixture will be sprayed.

The very fact that EPA would consider green lighting a pesticide that combines two very dangerous chemicals is regressive and shows the influence [the pesticide] industry has over the regulatory agencies that are supposed to govern them.

For Steingraber, cynical passivity about the environmental crisis is not an option. Parents have two main duties: protecting children from harm and planning for the future. That includes acting as a hero in children’s eyes (a theme in “Raising Elijah”) by being environmental activists and by being honest to children.

We can pretend to our children that these problems don’t exist…or we can show our kids that we are concerned enough to take heroic action.

The whole realm of food, water, and environmental toxicity is a paralyzing issue. It’s easy to look at all the problems our regularly system has and consider all the chemicals that have leeched into the earth, into our water and into our own bodies and think any action is senseless because it’s too late or isn’t enough. But, once you know something is systematically wrong and that our children are inheriting our problems, you can’t help but to act.

Whether you change certain habits, contact representatives, or do individual study of farm chemicals, every action has a purpose, especially when it’s for future generations.

In the words of Sandra Steingraber: “What we love, we must protect. That’s what love means.”

For resources of further information, visit: http://steingraber.com/resources/