The Collaborative on Health and the Environment, February 1, 2007


[Rachel's introduction: Sandra Steingraber is the author of Living Downstream and Having Faith. In addition to being a powerful writer and speaker, she is a biologist, cancer survivor, and mother. In this interview, as in her writing, she transforms the intensely personal into the intensely political.]

By Steve Heilig

Steve Heilig: What first brought you into the environmental health movement?

In 1979, between my sophomore and junior years in college, I was diagnosed with bladder cancer. I was already a biology major, so I read a lot about my disease in the medical and epidemiological literature.

It didn't take me too long to learn that bladder cancer is considered a quintessential environmental cancer. We have more evidence about the environmental contributions to this disease than almost any other form of cancer -- with data going back more than one hundred years.

I learned that 19th century English mill workers exposed to textile dyes got bladder cancer. So did dogs. Indeed the first animal experiments ever done to identify chemical carcinogens were conducted on dogs exposed to bladder carcinogens.

I discovered long-standing evidence that exposure to dry-cleaning solvents (perchloroethylene) is linked to bladder cancer. People who live near certain kinds of toxic waste dumps have elevated rates of bladder cancer. So do their pets.

I was then shocked to find out that, in spite of all this accumulated knowledge, known and suspected bladder carcinogens have hardly ever been banned from production, use, or disposal.

In short, there was a disconnect between what we knew about the causes of my disease (a lot) and what preventive public health actions were taken on the basis of this knowledge (almost none).

There was also a disconnect between what the research community knew about environmental links to bladder cancer (a lot) and what patients were being told by their doctors or by the perky little pamphlets one picks up in their waiting rooms (almost nothing).

But I was only 20 years old when I started thinking about all these things. Out of fear that the word "cancer" would somehow be stamped into my academic transcript, I told no one about my diagnosis -- or my ongoing research -- except for a few trustworthy professors. Frankly, my biggest concern of the day was how to have sex without contracting yet another bladder infection.

I also picked up a master's degree in creative writing before I went on to do Ph.D. work in biology. Not because I planned a career as a science writer but just because I wanted to. I didn't really make long-range plans in those days.

It was only when the environmental breast cancer movement arose in the early 1990s that I began openly talking about my own cancer experience. By then, I was a biology professor with a published book about environmental health in east Africa.

Throughout the 1990s, the work of radical breast cancer activists opened up a critical space in our culture to talk about the role of environmental toxicants in cancer causation. Scientific research was redirected by their work. And trade publishers wanted books on the subject.

So I left behind the lab bench and field research and a tenure-track position to reinvent myself as a science writer. I decided that my calling was to construct a bridge over the breach between what we scientists know about environmental links to health and what the public knows. I wanted to open up even more critical spaces in our culture for that conversation.

It helped that I had a fellowship at Harvard, along with seven research assistants, to accomplish my transformation from professor to author.

SH: What is the primary goal/mission of your work?

I see myself as a two-way translator between the public and scientific community. I like to bring the ongoing debates of environmental health before the public, and I like to bring the questions and concerns of the public before the research community.

As an author, my goal is to seduce readers through some complex scientific topic -- one that involves a lot of organic chemistry, say, or molecular epidemiology. I try to do this by creating a compelling story with characters, dialogue, imagery, and a plot on which to hang the data.

To that end, I try to deploy the best techniques of creative non- fiction writing to help my readers confront otherwise terrifying topics -- such as cancer and birth defects. Then I present the science as objectively and clearly as possible.

I believe deeply in dispassionate, hardheaded scientific analysis. I also believe deeply in the transformative power of autobiography. In the field of environmental health, there is a human life behind every data point. There is a story to be told.

I see myself as bearing witness. Essentially, what I do as a writer is say, "behold." Then I step back. I never tell people what to do or what to think. Sometimes, my readers find this frustrating.

The field of biology is about the mystery of being alive. So is poetry. I am always striving to find a vocabulary lovely enough to honor the loveliness of biological systems.

What have been the most significant obstacles and successes you have encountered and achieved in this work to date?

My books Living Downstream and Having Faith now have lives of their own. They've been translated into other languages and released as paperbacks. They're used as textbooks in college courses. Living Downstream has been optioned for documentary film. That's all very satisfying.

As a public speaker, I've had the chance to travel all over the world with my books and have been invited into many communities where public health is being threatened by an environmental problem. I've met with Irish sheep farmers, Montana wheat farmers, Canadian autoworkers, and those suffering from the effects of mountaintop removal in West Virginia.

I consider it a success when my writings and public presentations are useful to community organizing efforts. Recently, I worked on a campaign back in my hometown community with Peoria Families Against Toxic Waste. This group was fighting the expansion of a toxic waste landfill that sits atop the drinking water aquifer. And much to everyone's surprise, they won. The county board, contrary to all prediction, voted against permitting the expansion.

Of course, books don't change the world. Only activism brings about change. But it was nice to know that my books have provided these citizen activists with some needed scientific arguments as they conducted their public education campaign and testified at the hearings.

The biggest obstacle I've faced is fatalism and defeatism. Some people are so afraid of the despair they anticipate feeling if they learn about environmental problems that they decide not to think about it at all. They justify their inattention by convincing themselves that the problems are intractable and unsolvable anyway. Nothing will ever change, so why deal with it?

In my experience, people who allege that the world will never change -- that toxic pollution is an immutable fact of life -- are really talking about themselves. They mean that they are unwilling to change.

That attitude -- giving up before you even start -- is harder to fight than industry opposition.

Happily, though, I see less and less of that. People everywhere are becoming conscious of environmental health.

SH: What is the number one change you would like to see for the future of environmental health?

I'd like to see the Precautionary Principle become the basis of environmental decision-making on every level, from United Nations treaties to the lawn-care practices at the local public library.

SH: What or who continues to inspire you in your work?

Rachel Carson is my mentor in all this. I constantly reread her writings.

The suffragettes and the abolitionists inspire me. They struggled. They were mocked and persecuted. They worked really hard. And they won. The writings of Illinois abolitionist Elijah Lovejoy especially inspire me. My son is named after him.

Contemporary sources of inspiration include cancer activists Rita Arditi, Judy Brady, and Beverly Lowe. I'm inspired by the work of the Science and Environmental Health Network, which is the leading voice for precaution in the United States (I'm also a board member.)

Every single organic farmer I've ever met inspires me.

Then there are all these grassroots organizations that blow me away. Groups like Christians for a Healthy Macon County (in Decatur, Illinois) and Mama86, a group of Ukrainian grandmothers who stage sit- ins (formed in response the Chernobyl explosion).

SH: Any comments or suggestions for CHE [Collaborative on Health and the Environment] itself?

I like the way Orion Magazine recently described CHE as a series of "intimate conversations" between scientists and public health advocates. I think that's exactly right.

In addition, CHE serves such an important role as a clearinghouse of good, readable information on so many environmental health problems. The peer-reviewed summary reports are just great. I've seen firsthand the effect the CHE website has had in community organizing efforts.

The more outreach and publicity that CHE can do, the better. Folks in far-flung and red-state communities need to be brought into the conversations that CHE sets in motion.


The Collaborative on Health and the Environment c/o Commonweal, PO Box 316, Bolinas, CA 94924