Something’s in the Water
Photo © P Marco Veltri/The PPC
Sandra Steingraber (M.S. ’85, Ph.D. ’89) was perplexed when she was diagnosed with bladder cancer at age 20. She didn’t know why she’d developed a type of cancer associated with chemical exposure. And the fact that other family members, including her mom, also had cancer didn’t directly answer any questions: Steingraber is adopted.
Years later, she found out that the drinking water wells in her Illinois hometown contained traces of farm and industrial chemicals, including those specifically linked to bladder cancer. What’s more, she learned that the county had statistically elevated cancer rates. She was only a sample size of one, but she wondered: had exposure to environmental contaminants caused her cancer?
Since then, Steingraber has spent her career as a biologist and ecologist investigating the implications of the environment on health. Her first book, Living Downstream: An Ecologist’s Personal Investigation of Cancer and the Environment (Da Capo Press, 1997), is widely known as the first to bring together data on toxic releases with data from U.S. cancer registries. Currently a resident scholar at Ithaca College, Steingraber was hailed by the Sierra Club as the “New Rachel Carson,” and she received a national Heinz Award in 2011 for her research and advocacy.
To those who dismiss linkages between cancer and environmental contamination, Steingraber points to a file folder on her desk containing studies connecting bladder cancer and a group of synthetic chemicals called aromatic amines. The earliest report comes from a German surgeon in 1895, who noticed bladder cancer among textile dye workers. The most recent addition is a 2009 study that found elevated bladder cancer rates among farmers who use imazethapyr, a pesticide that came on the market in 1989.
Aromatic amines have been known to cause bladder cancer for at least 100 years. And yet this knowledge, Steingraber observes, has not stopped their production or use. “This is a file folder of madness,” she writes in the second edition of Living Downstream (published in 2010).
According to the President’s Cancer Panel’s 2008–09 Annual Report, approximately 41 percent of Americans will be diagnosed with cancer at some point in their lives. The report notes that a commonly cited statistic regarding environmental factors—that they account for only six percent of all cancers—derives from a 1981 study and is thus “woefully out of date.” Testifying before the panel, Steingraber encouraged dialogue about this linkage, stating, “. . . genes and environment interact in ways that are so complex that it’s really not worth arguing in my mind about how much plays what role. . . . We can’t change our ancestors. So a practical place to begin a program of cancer prevention [is] with the environment, and lifestyle is wound up in the environment.”
“I left the lab bench for good and reinvented myself as somebody who writes about scientific evidence for the public,” Sandra Steingraber says in the documentary Living Downstream. “The disconnect between what we in the scientific community know about carcinogens and what cancer patients are told is huge.” Photo © Benjamin Gervais/The PPC
Steingraber argues that these contaminants can pollute the interlaced systems of the water supply, farms, vineyards, and dairies—with potentially lethal effects. In the September/October 2010 issue of Orion magazine, she wrote, “By 2012, 100 billion gallons per year of fresh water will be turned into toxic fracking fluid. The technology to transform it back to drinkable water does not exist.”
Steingraber’s concern led her to donate her 2011 Heinz Award prize—$100,000—to the grassroots fight against fracking of shale gas in New York State.
“I consider fracking the environmental crisis facing us today,” says Steingraber. “It destroys more than bedrock. It fractures our food systems, our communities, and our families.”
While calling for chemical reform—including a ban on fracking and an agricultural system void of pesticides—Steingraber says that environmentalism isn’t about “doom and gloom.” It’s about innovation in design based on systems thinking. She uses her own household as an example.
“There are creative solutions to the environmental problems facing us today,” she says. “The ecological cycles of my household mimic what I’ve learned out on the fields. I believe that the food web of my own home should reflect how the world should be. And it doesn’t involve pesticides either.
When she’s not conducting research out on the fields or preparing healthy foods in the kitchen, Steingraber writes regularly about environmental and health issues for theHuffington Post, Orion magazine, and other publications. In a recent article for theCanadian Medical Association Journal, Steingraber says that, as a cancer survivor, she views growing old as her life’s work. But as a biologist, she says her life’s work has been—and will remain—“understanding the public story of cancer.”
Photo: Carrie Branovan for Organic Valley
Keeping the Chemicals Out of the Kitchen
Steingraber offers these three tips for healthy, sustainable eating at home:
KEEP IT SIMPLE. Mindful of their carbon footprint, Steingraber, her husband, and their two children live in a 1,000-square-foot house with a push mower, a clothesline, and a vegetable garden. She shops for locally sourced foods at a co-op, where her husband works two hours each week so that their family receives discounted groceries.
CAN AND PRESERVE HARVEST. “In my 40s, I learned how to can tomatoes from a neighbor,” she says. “Canning requires learning a skill set, from the very basic of cutting peaches to more complicated skills. It takes time in September, but having the jars right there in the house ready to be opened in January and February makes up for it.
COOK MEALS AT HOME. Ever since her kids, Faith and Elijah, began eating solid foods, they’ve received mashed-up versions of the home-cooked meals that Steingraber and her husband consume. She says they aren’t “picky eaters”— except when it comes to fast food.
“My kids think [fast food] is over-salted and greasy,” she says. “Junk food isn’t inherently attractive; much of it is brown and ugly. A bell pepper, a carrot, green eggs from an heirloom chicken: they are all more attractive and interesting to children.”
And due to Crock-Pot cooking, this working mom says she can prepare meals for her family any day of the week.
“I travel 100 days a year, but I feed my family with home-cooked meals 365 days a year. I may be far away, but I can call and ask, ‘How did that cabbage turn out?’” says Steingraber. “Food binds us together, as it should.”