Eugene Weekly : News : 4.14.11

Toxic World
From cancer to kids to fossil fuels
By Camilla Mortensen

A cancer survivor, a mother, a biologist and a poet, Sandra Steingraber BRING’s her unique perspective on the environment, toxics, fossil fuels and children to Eugene April 28 in an event, “Human Rights and The Environment: An Evening with Dr. Sandra Steingraber,” hosted by Oregon Toxics Alliance.

Steingraber is the author of Living Downstream: An Ecologist’s Personal Investigation of Cancer and the Environment. She says at age 20, as a high achieving pre-med undergrad, she was diagnosed with bladder cancer. “I changed my career plan,” she says, “I no longer wanted the hospital to be my workplace.”

But her scientific urge to investigate was not changed. She was not the only family member to be diagnosed with cancer, she says. Her aunt died of the same bladder cancer and her mother had breast cancer. But Steingraber herself was not biologically related to either woman; she was adopted. “I became really interested in the presumption that cancer must be hereditary.” She began to research environmental exposures and write Living Downstream.

Her later-in-life pregnancies also become fodder for books. “I loved being pregnant and I was really good at it,” she says. And as someone who had lived through cancer, she says it was eye-opening to lie on the same ultrasound table at the same hospital where she had been scanned for signs of tumor and to have her baby scanned, and see “signs of growth as a good thing, not a bad thing.”

In her books Having Faith and most recently Raising Elijah: Protecting Our Children in an Age of Environmental Crisis, Steingraber explores issues such as the effects of exposure to chemicals early in life, chemicals that interfere with cell growth and “can enter the placenta of a developing baby and alter signaling pathways of the way the body gets itself assembled.”

Of concern to Oregonians, as the proposed ban on Bisphenol-A (BPA) from baby bottles and sippy cups is debated in the Legislature, is Steingraber’s research on “a number of chemicals that at very low levels have the ability to alter hormonal signals.” She compares them to a very tiny baton directing a huge orchestra in their “really disproportionate effects on our body.”

In the case of BPA she says, there are “really troubling animal studies. In early life BPA can alter the development of a mammary gland so that an animal is more sensitive and vulnerable to cancer.”

In her books Steingraber investigates raising children in a toxic, unstable world. Raising Elijah, which is due to be released on Earth Day, ranges in topics from pesticides, which Steingraber points out are “poisons by design,” to hydraulic fracking.

Fracking, she says, is a process that injects toxic chemicals into the ground, potentially mixing with groundwater. As industries drill for natural gas, fracking uses many of the chemicals she is concerned about. “I am a fracking abolitionist,” Steingraber says, “I am not interested in helping the gas industry to do this in a better way.”

Oregon is not a hotbed of fracking, but there are current fights to block natural gas pipelines and liquefied natural gas terminals connected to the natural gas mining industry.

Fracking, she says, is like “an abusive drunk who lives in a family and who is almost about to go to Alcoholics Anonymous,” but discovers a cache of alcohol in the basement. The drunk plans to blow up the basement to get to it. “What is the right response of the family?” she asks. “To help regulate the detonation of the basement?” or to get the drunk to AA?

“Obviously I’m for rehab,” she says.

When it comes to the toxics in the environment that groups like OTA seek to prevent, she says, “Parents have the most at stake as it’s our children that are being poisoned.”

One of Oregon Toxics Alliance’s strengths, she says, is in “making people understand that behind every data point is a human life. Issues of toxics affect our communities and affect our health.”

Families, Steingraber says, can’t be “little bubbles in toxic world. You can’t protect your children that way; you have to transform your whole community.”

Sandra Steingraber, who has been lauded by the Sierra Club as a new Rachel Carson, speaks at 7 pm Thursday, April 28, at the UO’s Robinson Theatre, $11, $9 students or free to the first 20 people who join or renew their OTA membership. Leading up to the talk, the Bijou will be showing the movie Living Downstream based on Steingraber’s book of the same name on April 17, 22, 23 and 24.

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