Scientist, Writer, Environmental Activist: b. 1959
Sandra Steingraber spent most of her childhood in Tazewell County, Illinois, an area dominated by industrial agriculture and manufacturing. Her mother, a microbiologist and her father, a community college professor was influenced by Rachel Carson. He stimulated his daughter´s interest in sustainability and organic agriculture. When Steingraber was diagnosed with bladder cancer in college, she suspected that there was a cancer cluster in her hometown and her family. Once in remission, she began her life-long exploration of the environmental links to cancer and human health.
During her search, Steingraber began to study Rachel Carson. “For my father, who served as a teenage soldier in Naples where the pesticide DDT was first deployed, Silent Spring was an antidote to wartime thinking....For me...Silent Spring was the reason I left the laboratory and became a science writer. Silent Spring was my father’s armistice. It was my call to arms.”
Steingraber calls Carson her “guiding spirit” and portrays herself as “laboring away in the vineyards that Rachel Carson planted, trying on a daily basis to find a language to talk with the public about various technical subjects.”
Steingraber’s highly acclaimed book, Living Downstream: An Ecologist’s Personal Investigation of Cancer and the Environment, presents cancer as a human rights issue. Originally published in 1997, it was the first comprehensive effort to bring together data on toxic releases from US cancer registries. It won praise from the national and international media.
A 2010 documentary by The People’s Picture Company of Toronto, Living Downstream, is based on the book and follows Steingraber’s travels across North America, as she works to break the silence about cancer and its links to the environment.
Steingraber’s next book, Having Faith: An Ecologist’s Journey to Motherhood, explores the intimate ecology of motherhood. Both a memoir of her own pregnancy and an investigation of fetal toxicology, Having Faith reveals the extent to which environmental hazards now threaten each stage of infant development. In the eyes of an ecologist, the mother’s body is the first environment for life. The Library Journal selected Having Faith as a best book of 2001, and it was featured in a PBS documentary by Bill Moyers.
In her most recent book, Raising Elijah: Protecting Our Children in an Age of Environmental Crisis, published in 2011, Steingraber identifies a safe environment as a human rights issue and explores the challenges and solutions to the ongoing chemical contamination of our children and our biosphere. Through individual stories, she relates how family routines are inextricably connected to public health issues: “Sunburn at the beach is linked to the stability of the ozone layer, which, in turn, is threatened by particular pesticides used in the production of tomatoes and strawberries.” Through her explorations, Steingraber suggests that we must realign our environmental policies to protect our children’s healthy development and free ourselves from dependence on fossil fuels in all their toxic forms.
Called “a poet with a knife” by Sojourners magazine, Steingraber was named a Ms. Magazine “Woman of the Year” and later received the Jennifer Altman Foundation’s first annual Altman Award for “the inspiring and poetic use of science to elucidate the causes of cancer.” The Sierra Club has called Steingraber “the new Rachel Carson,” and Carson’s own alma mater, Chatham College, awarded her its biennial Rachel Carson Leadership Award. In 2006, Steingraber received a Hero Award from the Breast Cancer Fund, and in 2009, the Environmental Health Champion Award from Physicians for Social Responsibility, Los Angeles. Steingraber was the 2011 recipient of the Heinz Award for extraordinary service to the environment.
Steingraber has delivered the keynote addresses at conferences on human health and the environment throughout the United States and Canada and has lectured at many universities, medical schools, and hospitals—including Harvard, Yale, Cornell, Columbia, and the Woods Hole Research Center. She is recognized for her ability to serve as a translator between scientists and activists. She has testified in the European Parliament, before the President’s Cancer Panel, and has participated in briefings to Congress and before United Nations delegates in Geneva, Switzerland. She is currently a regular columnist for Orion Magazine.
For a number of years Sandra Steingraber and her family lived just east of Ithaca in a log cabin in the woods, adjacent to wetlands where the “frogs kept them awake at night.” They drew their water from a well and belonged to a community organic farm and a cooperative grocery store. Although they loved the rural nursery school that their daughter Faith attended, Sandra and her husband Jeff felt compelled to withdraw her when they learned that the play structures were impregnated with dangerous amounts of arsenic.
When they discovered during a move that their television set had been stolen out of the back of their truck, they decided not to replace it. The result is that their children don´t experience television advertising. As a result, their food preferences have been shaped by their direct experience with the food itself and the farmers who grow it. No television commercials attract them with pictures of sweetened cereals and bubbly colas. Currently the family lives in a 1000 square foot house with a push mower, a clothesline, and a vegetable garden.
Sandra Steingraber has devoted her life to advocating for the human right to a toxic free environment. In an essay entitled “Mind Games” (Orion Magazine, March/April 2011), she wrote:
“So don’t give me any more shopping tips or lists of products to avoid. Don’t put neurotoxicants in my furniture and food and then instruct me to keep my children from breathing or eating them. Instead give me federal regulations that assess chemicals for their ability to alter brain development and function before they are allowed access to the marketplace...Give me chemical reform based on precautionary principles. Give me an architectural system that doesn't impair our children’s learning ability or their future.”