A biologist and expert on the environmental causes of cancer and reproductive problems, Sandra Steingraber was diagnosed at the age of twenty with bladder cancer, a disease that has been linked to chemical pollutants. Now fifty, she is a leading environmental-justice advocate and speaks and writes candidly about her personal health. Steingraber’s ability to meld literary prose with complex scientific information has made her a best-selling author. Like her hero Rachel Carson, whose 1962 book Silent Spring led to the ban on the pesticide DDT and kick-started the grass-roots environmental movement, Steingraber somehow finds language beautiful and compelling enough to seduce readers to sit through a science lesson.
When she was diagnosed with cancer, Steingraber was a student at Illinois Wesleyan University. She promptly reviewed the epidemiological literature and learned that scientists had known since the nineteenth century that certain textile dyes caused bladder cancer in humans. Those dyes were still used by industries. Other suspected bladder carcinogens were produced in Steingraber’s own hometown in Tazewell County, Illinois. She discovered that the suspect chemicals were found in the groundwater there. Still, her doctors called her cancer a “fluke.”
Years later, when cancer research began to focus on genetic causes, she submitted to doctors’ questions about her family history. She would recount her mother’s breast cancer, her uncles’ prostate and colon cancers, and her aunt’s bladder cancer. The doctors would nod knowingly. Then she would reveal that she was adopted. “There is no evidence for a hereditary link to bladder cancer,” she writes, “and there never has been.”
Steingraber earned a doctorate in biology from the University of Michigan and a master’s degree in English from Illinois State University. She authored a book of poetry, Post-Diagnosis (Firebrand Books), and coauthored The Spoils of Famine (Cultural Survival), a book about ecology and human rights in Africa. Her next book, Living Downstream: A Scientist’s Personal Investigation of Cancer and the Environment (Vintage), was the first comprehensive effort to connect data on toxic pollutants with newly released U.S. cancer registries. In it Steingraber confirms Rachel Carson’s early predictions and defines cancer as a human-rights issue. In 1997, the year the book came out, Steingraber was named Ms. magazine’s Woman of the Year, and the Sierra Club dubbed her “the new Rachel Carson.” Living Downstream is now widely used as a college textbook, and the People’s Picture Company has made a documentary film based on it, which will be released in the spring to coincide with the publication of the second edition.
Steingraber’s most recent book, Having Faith: An Ecologist’s Journey to Motherhood (Da Capo Press), is both a memoir of her pregnancy with her daughter, Faith, and an investigation of the environmental hazards that threaten fetal development. She details how poisons like solvents, plasticizers, and pesticides can be found in amniotic fluid, umbilical-cord blood, and human breast milk. Adult humans are not at the top of the food chain, she writes: breast-feeding infants are.
Today Steingraber is a columnist and contributing editor for Orion magazine. She has taught biology at Columbia College in Chicago and held visiting fellowships at the University of Illinois, Harvard, and Northeastern University. She has participated in U.S. Congressional committees and testified before the parliament of the European Union. She once briefed United Nations delegates on breast-milk contamination, passing around a jar of her own breast milk to make a point. She says her next book, due out in the spring of 2011, will be about the “ecology of childhood.” She is married to sculptor Jeff de Castro, and they are the parents of eleven-year-old Faith and eight-year-old Elijah.
When I met Steingraber for breakfast at a restaurant on New York City’s Upper West Side, she had just returned from a four-mile run in Central Park and appeared refreshed and poised. In person she conveyed a serious intensity — strong, practical, and no-nonsense. Behind her carefully chosen words I heard an anger at the industries, lobbyists, and politicians who perpetuate the discharge of harmful chemicals into our environment. After she ate, we caught a cab uptown to Columbia University, where she was a featured speaker at a conference on children’s environmental health.
Kupfer: How did your own experience with cancer lead you to this work?
Steingraber: I had cancer at a young age, and not just any cancer, but bladder cancer, the quintessential environmental cancer. There was no lifestyle explanation. I was thin, I was healthy, and I was only twenty years old. Yet in my thirty years as a cancer patient, the words environment and carcinogen have seldom come up in conversations with doctors, and those words almost never appear in cancer pamphlets. It became evident early on that there was a disconnect between what I was reading in the scientific literature and what I was being told as a patient. I didn’t really understand why.
My aunt had died of the same type of bladder cancer that I had, and when cancer runs in a family, we are quick to presume the existence of inherited predispositions. But I’m adopted. So I began to look at what else family members have in common besides genetics. Maybe they live in the same community. Maybe they breathe the same air. Maybe they drink from the same wells.
I think of cancer risk factors as a triangle: inherited predispositions are one side of the triangle; lifestyle is another; the environment is the third. But that third side exists mostly in the back of people’s minds. They think about their genes, they think about their diet and exercise habits, but they don’t often think about the environment in which they live. My life’s work is to look at the role that involuntary environmental exposures play in causing cancer.
Kupfer: If you hadn’t been diagnosed with cancer in college, do you think you’d be doing this work today?
Steingraber: I don’t want to give cancer credit for anything good that’s happened to me. I’m not someone who would say cancer is “a gift.” Cancer is a big waste of time. It screwed me up in ways that I still have to work to overcome. At twenty I didn’t need a lesson in how to live life to its fullest; I was already doing that. I lost a lot of years to being a cancer patient: hours logged in hospital parking garages and waiting rooms. I got way too much practice at learning to disappear from my body. Colonoscopies hurt; cystoscopes hurt. Strangers were touching me, and the inside of my body was being shown on an ultrasound screen. In any other context besides a medical one, what they did to me in the hospital would be abuse. Don’t get me wrong here: colonoscopies and cystoscopies probably saved my life. I’ll be getting them until the day I die. I’m a compliant patient and a grateful one. But medical procedures are still traumatic. I spent a lot of years trying to regain my sexuality. I think going through natural childbirth and having two great kids helped heal me from the trauma of cancer.
After my diagnosis I knew I was going to spend the rest of my life in and out of hospitals, and I did not want to make the hospital my workplace too. So I switched my major from pre-med to ecology. I discovered that I could do scientific research in beautiful places.
Kupfer: Rachel Carson has been an inspiration to you, hasn’t she?
Steingraber: She is my guiding light. I still go back to her work to examine it with a writer’s eye and figure out how she did something. I’m impressed that she relied completely on scientific description and didn’t take the autobiographical route. There are private letters in which she talks about her experiences with breast cancer, but they don’t appear in her published writings. The only thing Carson used to hold people’s interest was the beauty of the natural world she was describing. Her task was to find language as lovely as what she was seeing. I try to do that too.
She was a very slow writer; she would rewrite and rewrite. I’m that way too. I find it miserable to write, actually. For some writers, writing is like breathing; they can’t go a day without it. I am not one of them. I have to almost trick myself to sit down to write. All the stars have to be in alignment: I need to have a good human story; I need to have a lot of science under my feet; I have to have an organizing principle that is compelling. And still I have to play this big chess game in my head before I figure out how to go forward.
Kupfer: Do we know how much of a role pollution plays in the development of cancer?
Steingraber: We know that cancer rates started rising in tandem with industrialization in the West. And now that other nations like China are rapidly industrializing, we see cancer rates going up there as well. But cancer is such a complicated disease. It’s clear that it takes more than one assault on the genome of a cell to put it on the path to becoming a tumor. We used to think that a mutation is required for cancer to develop, but the new thinking is that a change in the activity of certain genes, or a change in their regulation, might cause cancer. In other words, it may be the result of a change in gene function, not a physically damaged gene.
There’s a new school of thought that focuses on how different tissue types communicate with each other. In some lab experiments cancer has been formed by altering communications between tissue types — for example, the epithelial lining of the breast ducts and the stromal tissue in which the ducts are embedded. The question is: Could pollutants come in and garble this cross talk among cells in real-life settings, thereby raising the cancer risk? There is still much to be learned.
As a biologist I’m humbled by how little we know about cancer and the environment. Meanwhile, as a cancer survivor with two kids I don’t want exposed to carcinogens, I am interested in acting on what we already do know. I’m sad we are not moving faster in terms of possible environmental policies. There are chemicals we’ve known for a hundred years cause bladder cancer that are still used in manufacturing.
Kupfer: How geographically random is the distribution of cancer in the United States?
Steingraber: Cancer is definitely not a random tragedy. If you look at a map of the U.S. and plot out the incidence of different sorts of cancers, you see patterns. Some cancers are more common in the Midwest and the Great Plains. Other cancers tend to cluster around certain industries. Those cancer maps are not proof, but they present a compelling hypothesis. If we see, over and over again, that bladder-cancer rates are higher in counties with leaking toxic-waste dumps — which is indeed the case — then that’s a clue. If we see leukemias and lymphomas are highest in areas of the Great Plains and the Midwest where herbicide use is highest, that’s a clue. It means “Dig here. Further inquiry required.”
People hear the word hormone and think of something hidden away inside their bodies. They don’t realize it’s affected by our policies on agriculture and building materials and by the chemicals we use in nail polish and perfumes and shower curtains and car interiors.
Kupfer: What is endocrine disruption, and how big a danger is it?
Steingraber: Endocrine disruption is a huge problem that affects us all. The endocrine system produces the hormones that regulate our body’s functions, such as growth, reproduction, and so on. An endocrine disrupter is any chemical that interferes with the hormonal signals in the body. Researchers have discovered that we are routinely inhaling these disrupters. They are in our food and even in household dust. All of us have traces of endocrine disrupters in our urine. Some common ones are PCBs, bisphenol A, and phthalates [THAL-ates]. DDT is also an endocrine disrupter.
Our hormonal system interacts with our environment. People hear the word hormone and think of something hidden away inside their bodies. They don’t realize it’s affected by our policies on agriculture and building materials and by the chemicals we use in nail polish and perfumes and shower curtains and car interiors. Our hormones are like tuning forks, keeping our systems in tune. They respond to signals streaming into us from the outside world. Endocrine disrupters can alter or sabotage those messages. For you and me as middle-aged adults, these exposures may have only transient, negligible effects. But in an embryo or a fetus or a child whose body is still unfolding under the direction of hormones, it can alter the path of human development. It’s a problem, and we’re not having enough public conversation about it.
Kupfer: Why not?
Steingraber: We have a kind of cultural blindness. People don’t think of themselves as vulnerable or permeable somehow. Sometimes the most obvious biological facts bear repeating. When I speak to the general public, I’ll remind the audience that, other than the forty-six chromosomes bequeathed to us by our parents, we are simply rearranged molecules of air, food, and water. That’s all. You breathe in so many gallons of air every day; you drink so many quarts of water; and you eat so many molecules of food. These are all knitted together to make your brain, your muscles, your hair, and your blood.
Kupfer: What do we know about the public-health impact of PVC as a building material?
Steingraber: PVC, or polyvinyl chloride, is a plastic that was invented as a way to use up leftover chlorine, which is a volatile, explosive gas and an unwanted byproduct of certain industries. It turns out that if you combine chlorine with carbon in a fairly complicated process involving vinyl acetate, you can make plastic out of it. PVC is 57 percent chlorine by weight. It’s used as a substitute for things like leather, linoleum, and copper pipes. The interior of cars used to be made out of a plant-based carbohydrate; now PVC is the dashboard material of choice. Your credit card is made out of PVC, but you will not get cancer by handling it, because PVC is fairly inert. In order to keep it from cracking or breaking, however, manufacturers have to coat it with phthalates, which are respiratory irritants and reproductive toxicants for men. Phthalates are linked to cancer, they shorten human gestation, and they trigger attacks in asthmatics. The phthalates aren’t tightly bound to the PVC, and over the course of the product’s life they come out. That’s why you get that new-car smell.
Kupfer: You’ve said that hospitals need to remodel their buildings to create a healthier environment. What’s wrong with them?
Steingraber: Hospital buildings and equipment are also made from materials that shed toxic chemicals, such as phthalates or formaldehyde. People who are recovering from surgery or receiving chemotherapy are being exposed to these substances at a time when they are struggling to heal. Breast-cancer patients are getting a dose of estrogenic chemicals just from breathing the air in the hospital or from the IV bags that deliver their chemotherapy drugs.
Linoleum used to be made of linseed oil and jute. It was ideal for hospitals because bacteria can’t live on it. Today what is sold as linoleum is actually vinyl flooring made of PVC. Vinyl is cheaper up front than linoleum, but linoleum is actually cheaper in the long run because it lasts longer. The problem is that we don’t manufacture it anymore in the U.S. We have to bring it in from Europe, and that raises the price even more. But we would make it here if there were enough demand. I think hospitals are in a great position to create that demand, because they make large purchases. Not just hospitals but churches, public schools, and office buildings have an obligation to embrace the least-toxic alternative and create a market for safe, sustainable materials.
Kupfer: You’ve researched the decline of the sparrow population in the United States. What have you learned?
Steingraber: A few years ago I had the great privilege of meeting Ted Anderson, the world’s foremost authority on the house sparrow, and I wrote about his research for the public. The house sparrow is a biblical species. It originated in the Middle East and is now ubiquitous all over the world. When Jesus talked about sparrows, he was talking about the same little brown bird with the black bib that lives near human structures today. There are fossilized house sparrows on Mount Ararat and Mount Carmel. It is the most widely distributed bird in the world — from Iceland to Africa to the Arctic — but it can live only within four hundred feet of a human dwelling. It’s totally dependent upon our roofs, our rafters, and our grain. Now house-sparrow populations are declining markedly, particularly in big cities. Is it climate change? A new virus? Pesticides? We don’t really know the answer yet. But the house sparrow is our avian partner. If it’s in trouble, we are probably in trouble, too.
I’m not interested in trying to put my family inside a bubble. For one thing it isn’t possible. You can drink as much bottled water from Fiji or Iceland as you want, for example, but every time you step into the shower, it’s the equivalent of drinking half a gallon of tap water.
Kupfer: You recently did a yearlong study on the decreasing age of puberty in girls in the U.S. [“The Falling Age of Puberty in U.S. Girls,” available from www.breastcancerfund.org.] What were your findings?
Steingraber: The falling age of puberty is being driven by multiple causes. For example, the growing rate of obesity among children almost certainly plays a role. Children eat about two hundred more calories per day than they did thirty years ago, and they are more sedentary. Chubbier girls enter puberty sooner than their leaner peers.
But the age of puberty is also falling among lean girls. And among African American girls there is no correlation between body-mass index and the start of puberty. Yet, over the past century, the median age of puberty among black girls has fallen farther and faster than among white girls. At the beginning of the twentieth century black girls actually had an older age of puberty than white girls. Now it is a year younger.
There is some evidence that girls who live in families without biological fathers have a higher risk for early puberty. Girls who are living with intact families, especially if they have a lot of siblings in the house and share a bedroom, are at lower risk. So household crowding is actually a protection against early puberty. Maybe there’s some sort of hormonal signal generated by how many kids are already in a household and whether the girl feels protected. Those girls who are in broken homes or have been victims of sexual violence or abuse seem to go into puberty earlier, as though their bodies were saying that it’s time to grow up; it’s not safe to be a kid anymore.
When we look at data from other cultures, however, the father’s absence does not seem to play a role. In South Africa girls go through puberty much later, and black South African fathers often don’t live with the family, because they are migrant workers and must leave the home to earn money. In many cultures the demands of war and fishing and mining have taken fathers from households for centuries. Yet the age of puberty in girls used to be much higher. I’m not persuaded that the absence of a biological father is the cause. It may simply be correlative.
Then there are the environmental culprits, which I find more persuasive. We can actually detect in the urine of young girls the presence of endocrine-disrupting chemicals that we know accelerate sexual maturation in female lab rats. We also know that girls in the U.S. have faster breast development than they used to. We have yet to find out if the girls who have the highest levels of those chemicals in their umbilical-cord blood at birth go on to be early bloomers. The National Children’s Study should give us answers to this question and others, but not for many years. While we are waiting for those data, we can look closely at accidents in which children were inadvertently exposed to hormonally active agents. In one case a father who was disabled was using testosterone creams on his thighs to maintain his sexuality. When his prepubescent daughter sat on his lap, it would go right through her clothing, and she started developing pubic hair. So there is plenty of circumstantial evidence that exposure to endocrine-disrupting chemicals is in part the cause of early puberty.
Kupfer: You’ve said that early puberty in girls raises their risk factor for cancer later in their lives. What can we do to address the problem?
Steingraber: An overhaul of the Toxic Substances Control Act would be a start. We don’t do a good job of screening for hormonally active agents in the environment. We could also identify synthetic chemicals that mimic human hormones and target those chemicals for phaseout. It should be a national priority to find nontoxic substitutes for each and every toxic chemical that we detect in the bodies of our children.
The solution isn’t just about chemicals, though. Anything that helps families stay together would be good. Intense exercise seems to protect against early puberty onset, so keeping girls active in sports, getting them outside, and resurrecting daily recess and gym class would be useful. These would also promote leanness. Urban planning that allows for sidewalks would encourage children to walk to school, as would attacking poverty and crime so kids could play outside. We need to rethink the way we build our communities and increase the number of calories kids burn during the course of the day.
Kupfer: Lifestyle choices can go only so far to protect us. How do you protect your family against environmental toxins?
Steingraber: I’m not interested in trying to put my family inside a bubble. For one thing it isn’t possible. You can drink as much bottled water from Fiji or Iceland as you want, for example, but every time you step into the shower, it’s the equivalent of drinking half a gallon of tap water, due to dermal transmission and inhalation. Unless you want to do reverse-osmosis filtration for every single drop of water coming into your house, we are all exposed.
I’m not promoting a survivalist mentality. Most of my efforts are focused upstream, on big public-health-policy changes that would protect all children. I want to protect my children’s friends and their future spouses, because that generation is going to be taking care of us. They are going to be our bankers and our surgeons. We have to make an investment in the brains and bodies of a whole generation, not just my two kids.
I also travel more than a hundred days a year: when I’m home with my kids, I don’t have time to be a regulatory agency. I want the burden to be taken off the shoulders of the parents and put back onto the shoulders of the government, where it should be. It’s the government’s job to protect us from danger, whether it be enemies abroad or chemicals within.
One thing I did do: When my kids were infants and toddlers, I needed to do my shopping as fast as possible. I didn’t have time to decipher labels and locate safe alternatives. So I quit going to my local supermarket and let my food co-op serve as a regulatory agency. I could just throw items in the cart and trust that the board of directors was not selling dangerous products.
Kupfer: Do you think those of us who grew up in the 1960s and ’70s had higher exposures to pesticide residues than kids today?
Steingraber: Yes, DDT reached its peak usage in 1959 and its peak concentration in foods in 1963 or ’64. For organochlorine pesticides, the baby-boom generation received the highest pediatric doses. But a lot more toys are now made out of plastic, so exposure to bisphenol A and phthalates is probably higher in kids now than when I was young. It’s an ever-changing chemical kaleidoscope. I’m not sure that the total body burden of chemicals is less now than it was in the 1950s and ’60s. It has definitely shifted to a different family of chemicals, which makes untangling the evidence that much trickier. Science moves slowly. We figured out that DDT is linked to breast cancer and preterm labor fifty years after it reached its peak usage in the U.S. I worry that the scientific evidence for harm from this current generation of chemicals is going to emerge when my kids are in their fifties. We need to make environmental-policy decisions now, with the best evidence we have available.
Kupfer: In the 1950s DuPont promised us “better living through chemistry.”
Steingraber: Synthetic chemistry came of age during World War II. Because of all the blockades during the war, we lost access to things like Japanese silk and Chilean potash, so the chemical industry went to work inventing substitutes such as nylon stockings and synthetic fertilizers. These inventions were never intended to fill a peacetime need. It wasn’t as if farmers were clamoring for chemical pest control.
After the war we had this stockpile of chemicals, because we’d thought the conflict was going to last longer. GIs who came home and bought houses were encouraged by clever advertising campaigns to “continue the war on the home front” by spraying their suburban lawns and gardens with pesticides that had been developed as weapons of war. The whole U.S. population was sold a bill of goods with that slogan “better living through chemistry.” It was about keeping production going and keeping our economy strong now that the war was over.
I’m not an opponent of chemical engineering or chemicals per se. There is a lot of promise, for example, in “green chemistry.” There are chemists doing some very interesting and valuable work to get us off carbon-based fuels. Identifying endocrine disrupters is tricky, though. What screening protocol should be used to determine if a chemical is an endocrine disrupter? We haven’t come up with those tests yet. I’m optimistic that the next generation of scientists and public-health advocates will develop the means. We need to make this field of research attractive to students and get labs competing with each other to solve some of these problems.
Kupfer: You’ve described cancer as a human-rights issue. Has that helped you get your point across?
Steingraber: Yes and no. It’s tricky. With other human-rights issues, such as women’s right to vote or civil rights, there were people who could stand up and testify. With cancer the victims are mostly anonymous. We know, for example, that certain dioxins increase the risk of cancer. We know that when an incinerator is built, dioxins will be released. We can conduct cost-benefit analyses to figure out how many additional deaths there will be from cancer if we build a new incinerator. And there’s a number that’s considered acceptable. But I believe it’s acceptable only because we don’t know who the victims will be. We know more people will die of cancer after the incinerator goes on line, but we won’t know which of them will have died just so we could burn our garbage. When a man dies of liver cancer, we don’t know whether it was because of the incinerator or because he drank too much. But in my mind, just because the victims are anonymous doesn’t mean it isn’t a form of homicide.
I attend a Quaker meeting in Ithaca, New York. Quakers have a long history of supporting civil rights and women’s rights. During the abolition movement, slaves mailed themselves in boxes to the home of a Quaker family in Philadelphia, where they were freed. It was very risky for the Quakers to allow their address to be used. One of the slaves who became free this way was named Henry Box Brown. (He took his middle name afterward.) He developed a career in Philadelphia as a public speaker and went around talking about his life as a slave. Henry Box Brown spoke as an individual about the wretchedness of slavery and the violation of his human rights. I cannot do this, even as a former cancer patient who had a cancer that’s almost always related to certain environmental exposures. I know that there were bladder carcinogens in the drinking water where I grew up, but I still cannot say, in the way that Henry Box Brown could, “This is what happened to me.” I cannot make a direct connection between exposure and my cancer, because cancer has multiple causes.
We can conduct cost-benefit analyses to figure out how many additional deaths there will be from cancer if we build a new incinerator. And there’s a number that’s considered acceptable. But I believe it’s acceptable only because we don’t know who the victims will be.
Kupfer: Your father was an organic-gardening enthusiast long before organic became a buzzword. What impact did that have on you as a child?
Steingraber: My dad had served in Italy as a teenager during World War II, and he came back with some psychological demons; we would call it “post-traumatic stress disorder” now. He couldn’t go out for a walk at dusk, because it triggered memories of guard duty.
Gardening was my dad’s therapy. He wanted no part of chemical pesticides. For him the garden was an antidote to all that death and gassing and poisoning. So he became an organic gardener. When Silent Spring was published in 1962, it became his bible. He was a dyed-in-the-wool Republican, and, as far as he was concerned, Silent Spring was in keeping with his conservative values.
His gardening had a deep influence on me. I remember boxes of ladybugs and praying mantises arriving in the mail. That’s how he controlled insects in the garden. By the time I was seven, his garden was so prolific that he put my sister and me to work at the end of the driveway, selling produce to passersby. We had signs that said, Organic Tomatoes, and nobody knew what that meant. I couldn’t believe it, because organic was a common word in our household. My sister and I had to explain to adults about compost and not using pesticides.
Kupfer: Your own family is a member of a community-supported-agriculture farm, or CSA. What have been the benefits, beyond the weekly boxes of delicious produce?
Steingraber: The CSA we belong to is called Sweetland Farm, and it’s only half a mile from our house, so we use our bicycles to get there. There are a lot of “u-pick” crops. When you pick your own food, you’re more invested in eating it. Both my kids are great vegetable eaters. They ask for sweet potatoes for bedtime snacks. We just pulled out of the freezer some Italian flat beans that we picked last July, and my son cried, “I remember this bean. I picked it!” “No,” my daughter said, “I picked that bean!” My kids also don’t complain about the rain anymore. If there’s a thunderstorm, they say, “Our carrots are drinking now.” They don’t take for granted where their food comes from. They realize that food is work, and that if we didn’t do the work, some migrant laborer who is paid very badly would be doing it. And it connects them to the seasons. Food isn’t just magic for them, the way there’s always broccoli in the supermarket, whether it is January or July. My kids know peaches and green beans ripen right around my son’s birthday, and plums and apples ripen around my daughter’s birthday. We always pick strawberries on summer solstice.
The CSA is also an investment in maintaining green space and preventing urban sprawl. By being a shareholder in this farm, we are helping to preserve it. There are a lot of developers — at least, there were before the economic collapse — eager to build on the edges of our town in ways that would make the community more car dependent. Farmers practicing conventional agriculture are vulnerable to offers from developers, because the farms are so often going broke. I don’t want big-box stores or rural housing developments that mean more commuters driving up and down Main Street. That kind of growth makes it dangerous for my kids to walk and ride their bikes. They would breathe more car exhaust.
I did increase our carbon footprint by getting a chest freezer, which you almost have to do if you want to live on your CSA produce year-round. So when the men delivered the freezer, I had them take away our clothes dryer, to cancel out the energy expenditure. Now we have to hang our clothes to dry even in the winter, but it’s worth it to have fresh produce. Our food becomes us; it becomes the bodies of my children: their muscles, blood, and brain tissue. I put a high premium on that.
Kupfer: You’ve said that organic food is a bargain, even when it costs more than conventional produce. How so?
Steingraber: Because the price represents what the food really cost to grow. Chemical-intensive-agriculture products cost a lot more than the dollars you hand over in the checkout lane. When I pay less for food produced on industrial farms, I am really passing along to society the expense of higher insurance premiums, increased healthcare expenditures, and more environmental cleanups. Other hidden costs of chemical-intensive agriculture include the death of pollinators, polluted waterways, poisoned farmworkers, eroded topsoil, and a dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico from runoff into the Mississippi River. We are just handing these problems over to future generations to deal with.
The old idea that you can’t feed the world with organic farming is no longer true. New evidence shows that organic-farming yields are on par with those of conventional farming. Today’s organic farming is not like farming before the advent of chemical fertilizers and pesticides. It’s not just letting the pests have their way with the crops. It’s much more sophisticated. Organic agriculture substitutes biological control mechanisms for the chemical control mechanisms that emerged out of World War II and the cold war.
Now, I don’t have a problem with food being a bigger part of my household budget. But some people are in a situation, because of healthcare costs and mortgages and commuting expenses, in which the only thing they can cut back on is their weekly grocery bill. In an ideal world we would spend a bigger chunk of our income on food and a much smaller chunk on higher education and healthcare and housing. In the meantime I’m happy to raise my family in an 1,100-square-foot house filled with furniture from yard sales if it means I can serve my kids locally sourced, healthy food. I’m teaching them food habits that will hopefully last a lifetime. That’s more important than cathedral ceilings and walk-in closets.
Kupfer: Organic produce used to be stereotyped as ugly or full of worms.
Steingraber: That notion is going by the wayside as people discover that organic produce actually looks and tastes better. In a lot of cases it’s fresher, so it also lasts longer in a fruit bowl or in the refrigerator. We know that kids who eat organic diets have lower pesticide levels in their urine. The data are very preliminary, but it does look as if some organic fruits and vegetables have higher nutritional value. That makes organic food another kind of bargain, because a little kid who is trying broccoli for the first time isn’t going to eat a lot. As mother of that child, I want to make sure the broccoli he or she does eat contains the highest possible concentration of vitamins. In general the more colorful and flavorful a food is, the better it is for you, and locally produced organic foods have deeper colors and stronger flavors.
I think what will really win the day with organics isn’t so much the pesticide issue but the local issue. The amount of fossil fuel expended just to get a fifty-calorie piece of lettuce on your plate is irrational. The need for local food security also will drive the U.S. toward organic local agriculture.
Kupfer: Are you concerned that the mainstreaming of organic food is watering down the original intent of the movement?
Steingraber: Yes, especially since part of the original impulse for organic was that it should be local. The corporatization of organic agriculture has created an unfortunate battle between those who advocate buying local, even if it’s not necessarily organic, and those who advocate buying certified-organic produce, even if it was grown on another continent. One argument for putting organic first is that the earth’s soil and water are being degraded — on an almost permanent basis when it comes to groundwater — by the ongoing use of pesticides. For large-scale agriculture to use fewer pesticides is a huge victory and could be a stepping stone to something greater. I’ve seen that happen in my own life with food. When I first discovered store-bought organics, I didn’t think about where the food came from; I was just happy it didn’t have synthetic chemicals in it. I later opened my eyes to how much fossil fuel was used to transport this lettuce to me. Then I thought maybe none of us should be eating lettuce in January. I began to look around to see what grows here, and I learned how to can tomatoes. This year I am going to learn how to make sauerkraut.
There is a developing awareness that we can’t just continue on this path of resource extraction. Even my mom, who is my bellwether for conservative thinking, said to me, “You know, I think it’s time to get off oil.” For her, energy independence means not being dependent on foreign oil any longer. She’s willing to consider solar and wind power.
Kupfer: Your most recent book is about childbirth. Why did you choose that subject?
Steingraber: I wanted to find the language to talk about the mysteries of fetal life. Pregnancy is one of the most complicated biological processes there is. I liked the intellectual challenge of writing about embryology, with the orchestra of hormones and pheromonal messages flying around and the rapidly differentiating tissue. It’s like an opera. Embryology is a story about migrations. The testicles actually migrate from outside the embryo into the body of the male baby, and the fetal brain neurons are moving around like spiders spinning webs. When I was a young biologist doing lab work, we’d have a chick embryo that was incubating, and we would cut a little window in the shell and look in and watch the tissue differentiate. So much of biology is about the mystery of being alive.
Kupfer: What’s it been like seeing nature through your children’s eyes?
Steingraber: With kids everything is new. When they see a crocus blooming, it’s as if they were seeing it for the first time. They have this kind of joyful, curious, observational quality. Too often when I’m out in nature, I’m writing or rewriting a chapter in my head, so that I’m not paying attention to the world around me. It’s nice just to sit and listen to birds with my kids. The other day Faith, Elijah, and I went for a walk, and we decided to close our eyes and count how many bird species we could hear singing. We heard six.
Kupfer: You’ve received much adulation for your research and writing, but you said recently that you don’t feel like a hero.
Steingraber: The real heroes are the people on the front lines in communities trying to make a change, testifying in front of their city council, knowing that their kids’ school principal is on the other side of the issue and some people at their church may not talk to them if they speak out against an incinerator that would provide jobs. I’ve met people who had to stand up against members of their own family and pay a terrible price for speaking the truth.
One man is fighting solvent contamination near Binghamton, New York, where there is a cluster of both childhood cancers and cardiac birth defects. This guy is a clearinghouse of information. He’s compiled all the data. He has quit his job and is living on his wife’s income. All he does is local activism. He gets harassed and has lost many friends, because if you say that there are contaminants in the drinking water, property values go down.
In contrast I sit at home and read the research and assemble data. I feel as if I put together jigsaw puzzles every day. I’m pretty conservative with claims to have found a pattern somewhere. I have to convince myself first, and I am hard to convince. But once I am convinced, I write about it. I take little risk in my work compared to the people who are out there on the barricades of environmental justice. I am just providing the real heroes with ammunition.