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Sierra Magazine
Rachel's Daughter

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 unsubstitutable."

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.

More Resources on breast cancer research and treatment.


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