Sandra Steingraber breaks the silence about cancer's environmental links
by Liza Gross
Near the end of her keynote address at a conference on pesticides, Sandra
Steingraber impishly produces a jar from behind the podium. "Human milk," she
explains. "I expressed it this morning."
The gesture is quintessential Steingraber, for whom politics is a very personal
matter. She sends the jar into the crowd. "This is the most chemically
contaminated food on the planet," she says. "It has more dioxin, more PCBs, more
DDT and fat-soluble pesticides than any other food. It is also absolutely
Steingraber's crusade to expose the reckless dissemination of poisons into our
environment has prompted many to call her the heir to Rachel Carson. Like Carson,
she's a respected writer, activist, biologist, ecologist, and outspoken critic of
toxic pollution. But an easy candor about her personal life sets her apart from
her "patron saint," who feared that public disclosure of her battle with cancer
would fuel efforts to discredit her work.
Steingraber has no such fears. Yet she didn't begin to examine the connections
between human health and the environment until years after her own diagnosis of
bladder cancer at the age of 20. "I was very closeted about it," she says,
"because there wasn't really a language for young people to talk about their
mortality at that time. As people began to ask about the causes of cancer, I
started talking about being a cancer survivor."
With years of scientific training under her belt and a doctorate in biology,
Steingraber knew she "could answer some of the questions that women activists
were asking. I decided after grad school that I would become a scientist within
the activist community."
And as a cancer survivor, she challenges the way we think about the disease.
"Cancer runs in my family," she says. "I have an aunt who died of the same kind
of bladder cancer that I had, my mother had metastatic breast cancer, I have many
uncles who had colon cancer." She pauses. "But I'm adopted. So cancer runs in my
family, it doesn't run in my genes. That leads us to ask, what else do families
have in common? We drink the same water, we breathe the same air, we have the
same dietary habits, we often work in the same places."
Steingraber draws damning connections between pollution and cancer. Women born
between 1947 and 1958 are three times more likely to get breast cancer than their
great-grandmothers were at the same age. Since Silent Spring was published in
1962, pesticide use has doubled. Why didn't the book have more influence? "Carson
died of breast cancer eighteen months after the book came out," Steingraber says.
"And there was no grassroots movement, like there is now, to champion her ideas."
But Carson's work ignited a grassroots movement, and Steingraber is keeping her
ideas alive. "It's impossible to live safely in a toxic world," she says. "It's
not all about creating your own little survivalist bubble in which you think you
can live safely-you can't. The Woburn families in [the book] A Civil Action are a
great example of this. A lot of those families barely drank the water, it tasted
so bad. So how did they get exposed? By flushing the toilet, taking showers,
using dishwashers and washing machines-they were breathing water-borne
carcinogens and in fact had a hundred times greater exposure just breathing than
they did drinking the water. You can carry around all the Evian you want, but
it's not going to save you."
As Steingraber talks, I notice the word faith engraved on her ring. It's a word
that carries special significance for a cancer survivor. "It's a very profound
thing when someone who has cancer has a baby," she says. "We're not used to
looking into the future very far."
But having a new baby-Faith-has changed her outlook, and given her new direction.
Earlier, in her keynote, she recalled a prenatal checkup when she had an
amniocentesis. Looking at the vial of amniotic fluid, she thought, "It's
astonishing that we all begin life within this glowing, golden liquid jewel."
When she shared this epiphany, the technician responded, "Yeah, that's baby pee."
The biologist side of her brain thus roused, Steingraber began to see amniotic
fluid as the distillation of everything she ate and drank, and her own body as
"the first environment." And that's the premise of her new book, The
Ecology of Pregnancy and Childbirth.
"As a walking habitat, I know that all the contaminants that have been laid down
in my body over a lifetime are going through the placenta and through my breast
and that there's nothing I can do about that." Even if women eat very little
animal fat (where toxics tend to accumulate), she explains, studies show that it
takes at least two decades to have any effect on breast milk. But she doesn't
want to frighten women away from breast-feeding. Breast milk, which she calls a
"magical holy water kind of formula," is filled with antibodies and all sorts of
other biological potions that a baby can't get anywhere else.
Instead, Steingraber hopes her book will convince nursing mothers that the best
way to protect their babies is to keep these poisons out of the environment in
the first place. "We have to get political," she says. "We have to clean up the
outside environment to clean up the inside environment." That's the same message
Carson was trying to get across more than 35 years ago.