photo Dede Hatch
Sandra Steingraber’s gentle voice belies her fierce outrage at the destruction of Earth and human life, a rage that has driven her to devote herself to combating the chemical contaminants that endanger our well-being. An ecologist, cancer survivor, poet, and mother, Steingraber has authored three critically acclaimed books that explore the environmental toxins that permeate our land, air, water, and food. In Living Downstream she documented her struggle with bladder cancer at age 20 and supplied a data-driven analysis of the relationship between cancer and industrial and agricultural pollutants. Her second book, Having Faith, explored the ecology of motherhood and the alarming ways environmental hazards threaten infant development. With Raising Elijah, her latest book, she explains how our children face an environment more threatening to their health than any generation in history. Steingraber’s skillful interweaving of personal stories and lucid, almost lyrical explanations of chemical and biological processes has earned her comparisons to Rachel Carson.
Most recently, she has become a vocal opponent of hydraulic fracturing for natural gas, which she believes is prolonging America’s “ruinous dependency on fossil fuels in all their forms.” Steingraber spoke with the Journal about her transition from a field biologist to an environmental activist fighting for what she says is the “biggest human rights issue of our time.”
—Maureen Nandini Mitra
How did the experience of battling cancer and having children affect the way that you work and the kind of work that you do?
Having cancer at 20 derailed my idea about going on to medical school. I was always really good at biology in school and was part of this elite group of biology majors who were being groomed for medical school, and suddenly I was a cancer patient and had no desire to make a hospital my workplace. That was a kind of crisis for me. Then I discovered field biology and went into research. Eventually the women’s cancer movement caught up with me in the late ‘80s. It was a radicalizing movement in which women, especially with breast cancer, and especially lesbian women, were insisting that science address the role of the environment in causing women’s cancers.
As somebody who was very quiet at that point about my cancer but knew that my cancer, namely bladder cancer, is almost always attributable to environmental exposure to carcinogens, I just got very swept up in that movement. It kind of opened my eyes and gave me a voice. I ended up quitting my job as a biology professor. I wanted to build a bridge between what we in the scientific community knew about environment and cancer and what cancer patients are told about that connection. So that became my life’s work.
What’s the connection between the crisis of toxic chemical exposure and climate change?
The environmental crisis we popularly talk about is really two twin crises. One has to do with melting icecaps and rising seas and so forth that come with a destabilizing climate caused by us using the atmosphere as a waste dump for fossil fuel combustion. The other is the crisis of toxic chemicals where we have to worry about pollution, pesticide residues in food linked to learning disabilities in children, about toxic chemicals from oil and gas exploration, especially fracking, some of which are reproductive toxins and can lead to miscarriage risks. Really the toxic crisis and the climate change crisis are two branches of the same tree. They share a common trunk – and that is our ruinous dependency on fossil fuels. When you light [fossil fuels] on fire to make energy, you threaten to destabilize the climate; when you take those hydrocarbons and use them as feedstocks for pesticides, fertilizers, plastics and all kinds of other petrochemicals, then you poison kids, you poison animals, and you have a toxic problem.
You talk about this also as a human rights problem.
It is a human rights problem because it’s poisoning and killing people through toxic contamination and it’s also degrading the ecology of the planet on which future generations will depend. We are violating the rights of future generations to have the biological resources that they need. They need pollinators. One-sixth to one-third of all the food we eat is brought to us by insect pollination and those systems are now falling to pieces. We need plankton in the ocean. Plankton provides us half the oxygen we breathe and those plankton stocks are now in trouble because of warming ocean temperatures and ocean acidification. It’s our responsibility as members of this generation to safeguard all these things for our children.
What led you to become concerned about fracking?
As with a lot of people, it arrived at my doorstep. Forty percent of the land in my county is leased to the gas industry, including some fields very near our house. And this is in a state [New York] where our governor has not yet lifted the moratorium on fracking. I don’t know how that battle’s going to turn out, but I’m in the middle of it. I live on top of the Marcellus Shale. The bedrock under my feet is full of bubbles of methane. The biggest industry in the world would like me to move away so that they can have it and turn the land inside out. The industry calls everything between the surface of the earth and their area of economic interest “overburden.” I call it my home, and I’m not going to let them come into my community.
Could you talk a bit about the toxic links between plastics and natural gas?
Natural gas is methane, some of which we burn and some of which is actually a feedstock for making stuff that can include plastic. PVC, or polyvinyl chloride, begins as natural gas, although you just need a source of carbon as a starting point. (In China they use coal to make PVC, but here in the US it’s natural gas.) Natural gas is also the starting point for anhydrous ammonia, which is a synthetic fertilizer that is responsible for the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico and also a water pollutant that causes miscarriages and reproductive problems for people. In addition, the shale below our feet contains not only natural gas, but also bubbles up other hydrocarbons and those include butane, propane, and ethane. These collectively are called “liquefied petroleum gases” and are feedstocks for all kinds of stuff. Ethane is used to make ethylene, which is a building block for lots and lots of kinds of plastics.
PVC is especially dangerous because it’s full of chlorine and when you burn it you get hydrochloric acid, which can liquefy your lungs. You also get dioxin, which is very toxic. It causes cancer, is an endocrine disrupter, it messes around with our liver and enzymes and it lasts in the body for 35 to 50 years. Plastic in general, whether it’s PVC or not, it just never degrades.
You talk about how people feel helpless in the face of the scale of the environmental crisis. How do you try to move them from this “place of inaction”?
We can’t change the scale of the problem, so that means you have to change the scale of your actions. I don’t tell people what those [actions] should be or what they should do. Everybody has to find their own path. I use autobiography to talk about some of the big things that I’ve done and by doing something big I try to inspire other people to do big things, too.
When I became one of the lucky recipients of the Heinz Awards last year, I chose to donate the cash prize that came with it – $100,000 – to the anti-fracking movement. I tell people that the check far exceeded my bank balance. In fact, it exactly equaled the amount of money that I paid for my house. I live in a little $100,000 house. My son shares a bedroom with me because we just don’t have enough space. But I’m not interested in buying a bigger house or a bigger car. (I never owned a car.) None of my plates match. My furniture comes from Goodwill. I’m not interested in acquisition because we are in the middle of a crisis. The people who come after us are going to be inheriting a planet that’s not suitable for life.
I’ve been moved by some of the writings of an environmental attorney, Joseph Guth, who wrote that a functioning biosphere is worth everything we have. So that’s what I’m going to be investing in. I’m investing my love, my money, my future in preserving the abiding ecology of the planet. And I think that’s a hard road, but it’s an inspiring road. I feel really honored at this moment in history to be playing this role. This is the human rights movement of our time. I’m getting on the bus and I want other people on that bus with me.
Maureen Nandini Mitra is managing editor of the Journal. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.