Silent toxins

Writer Sandra Steingraber spoke at UNR’s journalism school during her visit to Reno.

Writer Sandra Steingraber spoke at UNR’s journalism school during her visit to Reno.

Photo By David Robert

To make a point about breast-feeding, author Sandra Steingraber appeared on national TV with her shirt half-off.

“My sister said, ‘You did your book tour naked,’ “ Steingraber said. “We looked at the photographs and she said, ‘There you are on Bill Moyers’ show with your blouse unbuttoned.’ I lactated throughout the whole book tour.”

Steingraber, speaking in Reno about links between environmental contamination and cancer, said she’d been worried about the paradoxical message she’d send to American women. Her worst fear was that she’d wake up one morning to a headline like: “Cornell Prof Says Mother’s Milk Poisoned.” So she brought her son with her, feeding him during media interviews as a visual aid.

Two things are true about breastmilk, said the author of Having Faith: An Ecologist’s Journey to Motherhood. These two things also contradict each other.

“First, it’s the best food for human beings,” Steingraber said. “The data is conclusive on that. … It’s also the most chemically contaminated food on the planet.”

Mother’s milk, she said, is much better for infants than prefab formula. Breastfed babies are healthier, less prone to respiratory infections, diarrhea and ear infections. Children breastfed as babies suffer less from juvenile diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, obesity and some leukemias. They have better hearing, eyesight and physical coordination.

But there’s a dark side to mother’s milk. That’s what worried breastfeeding advocates, who urged Steingraber to keep the science to herself. Steingraber refused. One way to get people thinking about toxic contaminants is to discuss how they have an impact on vulnerable infants.

“I’m not a confrontational person by nature,” she said. “When it comes to science, I let the data speak for itself. I lay it out and let people make up their minds.”

That’s what she does in Having Faith, a tale of pregnancy and childbirth based on Steingraber’s experience as a scientist and cancer survivor giving birth to her first child.

Steingraber chose to breastfeed, knowing that human breast milk contains high levels of chemical contaminants like “insecticides, PCBs, flame retardants, fungicides, wood preservatives, termite poisons, mothproofing agents, toilet deodorizers, dry-cleaning fluids, gasoline vapors and dioxins.”

Steingraber believes known toxins should not be released into the ground, air or water—not in any amount. She models her work on that of Rachel Carson, author of the landmark Silent Spring. Carson’s 1962 book led to awareness of the devastating effects of DDT and to a ban on the pesticide. Carson died of cancer in 1964.

Steingraber came to Reno for the Nevada Humanities “Books & Authors” series. She gave talks called “Toxic Trespass: Talking About the Body as a Contaminated Landscape” and “First Environment: How Early-Life Exposures to Chemical Contaminants Threaten Health and Human Development and What We Can Do About It.” A lean Midwesterner with sandy brown hair, she explained she had recently cut her hair short.

“Two months ago, I had my ovaries removed,” she said. “I’m going through surgical menopause, and I cut my hair as a visible sign.”

Steingraber’s adoptive mother was diagnosed with cancer when Steingraber was 15 years old. In two years, her mother’s cancer metastasized. While in college studying biology at age 20, Steingraber received a diagnosis of her own—bladder cancer. “I wasn’t handling that very well on a personal level,” Steingraber said. “I went on a ‘Why me?’ quest—not in a metaphysical way, but in a biological way.” She began to collect studies and data that showed links between contaminants in a person’s surroundings and rates of cancer.

She looked at cancer clusters and the relationship to everything from Superfund sites to simple use of household cleaning products or exposure to polyvinyl chloride (PVC) used in everything from credit cards to lawn furniture, shower curtains and children’s toys. The PVC exposure of factory workers is linked to high incidences of liver, lung, brain and breast cancers.

Steingraber went on to receive a doctorate in biology—and an MFA in poetry. She thought she’d be a “poet by night, biologist by day,” she said, “combining both in service of trying to make the world a more sustainable place.” Her acclaimed 1997 book, Living Downstream, earned high marks for its combination of memoir and meticulous science. That’s what attracted Lake Tahoe college instructor Kris Hansen to Steingraber’s work.

“She puts a human face on the science that’s there,” Hansen said.

Steingraber said she writes strategically. The science is stark. Facts can be frightening—especially when they connect the profusion of toxic crap in our surroundings to what some deem a “cancer epidemic.”

“Readers might have a hard time with it,” she said. “So I try to think of seductive ways to get people through the material, using comedy, lyricism and sometimes plainspoken reportage.”

In Living Downstream, Steingraber wrote that a conservative estimate of environmentally linked cancers equates to the deaths of 10,940 people in the United States annually. Many estimates are much higher. “It is the annual equivalent of wiping out a small city,” Steingraber writes. “It is 30 funerals a day. None … will die quick painless deaths. They will be amputated, irradiated, and dosed with chemotherapy. They will expire privately in hospitals and hospices and be buried quietly. Photographs of their bodies will not appear in newspapers.”

Steingraber said she’s been criticized for not offering crisp, optimistic solutions in her works.

“There are no 50 simple ways to save the environment,” she said. “I don’t know if we can do it. It will require massive social change … We can’t shop our way out of this.”