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Sandra Steingraber

Mother on a Loving Mission

Sandra Steingraber is a mother, a cancer survivor, a Ph.D. scientist (biology; she is currently a visiting scholar at Ithaca College) and an activist in the best sense, which is to say informed, reasoned sense. Even more, Sandra Steingraber cares. She cares about her children, her children's children, her life, her husband, and the families of the entire world's population. She is not a Sister Teresa, she is not a Joan Baez, she is a mother who sees a world where short-term thinking and profit obsession is robbing the world of its environmental stability and endangering the health of children, living and yet to be born.
In three books, Living Downstream, Having Faith, and Raising Elijah she focuses on several events of significance in her life; Living Downstream details her personal history as a person who was diagnosed with bladder cancer when she was twenty leading her to question factors that contributed to her contracting the disease; other members of her family had suffered from the same malignancy and it would have been "natural" to suspect genetic predisposition except for one thing, Steingraber was adopted. She suspected that her cancer was developed of environmental factors, at least in part. When her cancer went into remission, she became a biologist and wrote her first book, Living Downstream: An Ecologist's Personal Investigation of Cancer and the Environment. Detailing her exploration of that explanation she argued a scientifically reasonable conviction that the manmade substances linked to cancer are largely byproducts and derivatives from petroleum and coal. As part of her thesis, she also provided compelling reasons to consider dedication to an environment unpolluted with contaminating chemicals a matter of human rights.
Steingraber was recently jailed for fifteen days for trespassing as part of the “Seneca Lake 12,” dedicated activists who blocked the entrance to an intended natural gas storage facility in the Finger Lakes area of upstate New York. They, with Steingraber, acted on their concern that the planned storage of compressed hydrocarbon gasses from hydraulic fracturing (fracking) in the previously abandoned salt mines at Seneca Lake presented a significant risk of explosion and contamination to the area (Lake Seneca serves as the drinking water for around one hundred thousand area residents). New York State has a moratorium on fracking in the State while impact studies are being conducted, but that does not restrict fracking gases from other states being stored in the salt mines.
While she had the option of paying a fine, Steingraber chose jail believing that lent emphasis to her conviction convinced that the out-of-state business, Inergy, which had already had accidents at the site, were the true trespassers; despite their purchase of the acreage along the lake where the abandoned salt mines are located, she believes they are potentially “trespassing” on the well being of the community.
Her second book, Having Faith tells of her pregnancy, at thirty-eight with her first child, Faith. In her signature way, she combines personal experience, science and devotion to a healthier world into a remarkable esxploration of environmental dangers and hope, knowledgeably and professionally. While the book moves from conception to her daughter’s birth, in considerable detail, clinically and psychologically (Steingraber’s was not an easy pregnancy, with implication that no pregnancy ever truly is), she moves to her concerns for the safety of breast feeding. Not all that long ago, the benefits of breast feeding, in terms of both emotional and physical health were reasonably and medically taken for granted. But times have changed, toxins now inhabit breast milk and the risks to the very young are growing. Those toxins, which can be replaced with benign chemicals, leach into people in myriad ways. But the power of corporations and lobbyists work in terms of the familiar, not the new; farm chemicals, drilling and fracking operations are associated with what Steingraber refers to as, “the new morbidities of childhood.”
In her third book, Raising Elijah: Protecting Our Children in an Age of Environmental Crisis, inspired of her second child, Elijah, Steingraber continues her polemic on behalf of children now and yet to be. She brings her professional awareness of science to bear on her continued concern for our dependency on fossil fuels and our expansion of complex, environmentally compromising activities such as fracking and other modern day practices in service of that dependency. Her arguments are sobering; chemicals in breast milk, diminished fertility, neurotoxicology, preterm birth and autism, accelerated sexual maturation, climate destabilization are all concerns on which she elaborates with knowledge and wisdom. Ultimately, she argues that not only must our environmental policy change, we absolutely must abandon our dependency on fossil fuels and that we need to dedicate ourselves to that end via intelligent, uncompromising, non-violent activism. The health of children and of the human race depends upon it. In Raising Elijah, Steingraber quotes a study by the National Academy of Sciences, “The most desirable solution to preventing chemical releases is to reduce or eliminate the hazard when possible, not to control it.”

Published: June 15, 2013
Issue: Summer 2013 Issue