"The diligent farmer plants trees, of which he himself will never see the fruit."
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2003 Fair Poster


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 Sandra Steingraber – “The New Rachel Carson” Minimize

Sandra Steingraber
Sandra Steingraber

By Sharon Tisher

More than 80 Down East residents gathered one warm June evening at the Addison Town Hall to learn about chemicals sprayed on blueberry crops and about objections of the Maine Department of Agriculture to the town’s recently enacted aerial spray ban. They were assured that only 2% of cancers were attributable to environmental causes and that our food is the “safest in the world.” Gasped one exasperated nurse who had seen growing incidences of cancers and asthma among younger and younger patients, “I don’t want to talk about rats, I want to talk about people.”

The writings of this year’s keynote speaker, Sandra Steingraber, Ph.D., Cornell University biology professor, 1997 Ms. Magazine “Woman of the Year,” cancer survivor and mother of two, are the best antidote I know to what Rachel Carson called those “little tranquilizing pills of half truths” that we still too often hear when government officials talk to the public about toxics. Steingraber will talk about her life, her work and her writing at her keynote speech, “Protecting the First Environment: Ecological Threats to Pregnancy, Birth and Breast Milk,” on Saturday, Sept. 20, at 11 a.m. in the Common. She will refer specifically to agrichemicals and to conventional farming and gardening.

Called “the New Rachel Carson” in a 1999 Sierra magazine story, Steingraber well deserves the encomium. Like Carson, she writes beautifully and accurately about chemistry, biology and ecology. Like Carson, her writing is meticulously researched and documented. Like Carson, she artfully and persuasively challenges the conspiracy of silence and ignorance that continues to downplay environmental risks to the American public.

Steingraber diverges from Carson, however, in one compelling way. Carson struggled to keep the knowledge that she was suffering from breast cancer from all but her closest friend during the writing and controversial aftermath of publication of Silent Spring. The “New Rachel Carson” is freer to mix the personal with the political and the scientific, just as they mix every day in our lives. Steingraber’s Living Downstream: An Ecologist Looks at Cancer and the Environment (1997) is both a memoir of a victim of a rare form of bladder cancer seeking answers about what caused her disease, and a scientific review of what is known and unknown and unstudied about the links between our environment and cancer rates: rates that have risen by 35% in the United States, age adjusted and excluding lung cancer, since the chemical revolution of the 1950s. Personal history and science interweave in a forceful tale, reminding us that the endpoint of the complex migration of toxics through our environment is our bodies, our selves.

Having Faith: An Ecologist’s Journey to Motherhood (2001) continues the personal saga through Steingraber’s first pregnancy, birth of daughter Faith, learning to breastfeed and, ultimately, weaning. Here Steingraber seizes the occasion to explore perhaps the most important, yet most often concealed, aspect of the toxics threat in our environment – impacts of toxics on fetal development. Steingraber criticizes the double standard that characterizes advice typically given to mothers-to-be: Err on the side of caution by complete abstinence when it comes to alcohol and tobacco, but don’t even think about environmental toxins. “When it comes to environmental hazards, not only do we dispense with the principle of ‘In ignorance, abstain,’ we fail to inform pregnant women that the hazards even exist. … And the rare book or magazine article that does choose to mention them surrounds the topic with tranquilizing reassurances and downplaying qualifiers.”

Having Faith is a fascinating read, not the least for the way Steingraber plumbs the depths of history in exploring her topics. We learn that the Latin name for lead – Plumbum – is a clue to one of its earliest and most toxic uses; that since ancient Sumerian times, breast milk was identified as an effective topical treatment for infantile conjunctivitis (a treatment from which Faith benefits); that the 18th century Swedish scientist Linnaeus, who coined the term “mammalia,” championed breast feeding over wet-nursing, but for some suspect political reasons.

What emerges as Steingraber explores human interaction with toxics over time is the disconcerting fact that the U.S. government has let its people down time and time again. United States paint manufacturers continued to market lead paint until 1977, even promoting its safety with the “Little Dutch Boy” label, while a 1925 international covenant had banned lead paints for interior use in much of the rest of the world. Many European nations, as well as New Zealand, have programs for monitoring contaminants in breast milk. The United States does not. Although birth defects are the number one killer of infants in the United States, no national system exists to track birth defects and report on trends. Some tracking occurs at the state level, but 17 states have no registries. (This May 1, Maine launched its first birth defects registry, under the Bureau of Health.) Data on birth defects in European countries are far better. And while U.S. representatives signed the U.N. treaty on persistent organic pollutants in 2001, it has not been approved by Congress yet. Steingraber’s advice to Americans, pregnant and otherwise: Be activist and promote the precautionary principle in political decision-making. That’s exactly what the folks in Addison are doing.


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