What relationship does environmental contamination have to human cancer?
To address that question, Calivn Colleges January Series turned to author and biologist Sandra Steingraber. Steingraber is a cancer survivor and it was her contracting of cancer that led her to investigate the causes of that cancer. Her investigation has led her to write several books on cancer and its links to environmental contamination. She has also become an outspoken critic of policies that destroy ecosystems.
Steingraber began her talk by sharing her personal story of being diagnosed with cancer while she was an undergraduate student in college. Over the past 30 years she has lived with a sense of uncertainty, since she undergoes constant testing to see if her cancer has resurfaced or mutated in another form. The former of cancer that Steingraber contracted was bladder cancer, one of the most common forms.
Cancer and the Environment
In her early interactions with the medical community, she discovered that there was little to no interest in environmental issues as it relates to cancer. She noticed that none of the literature in her doctor’s office addressed environmental issues related to cancer. The medical establishment was only interested in her “medical history.”
In her research for her first book, Living Downstream: A Scientist’s Personal Investigation of Cancer and the Environment, she discovered that the watershed and river near to wear she grew up in Illinois had high levels of toxins.
She also addressed the relationship between the crumbling economy and destruction of the environment. She gives the example of how pollination by bees has been impacted because of environmental contamination, a contamination that has resulted in less pollination, which leads to less food crop production.
She then presented the audience the idea of what would happen if the same urgency that the US now seems to be devoting to the economic collapse–was applied to the ecological catastrophe we now face. She cites mammal extinction increases, ocean pollution, air pollution, and climate change as proof of this catastrophe. What if politicians were presented with this information and they devoted a great deal of energy and money to reversing negative environmental trends? This Steingraber says, is not likely to happen.
Chemicals in Children
Once Steingraber became a mother, this awareness of the delicacy has increased and she now sees environmental justice as a human rights issue. Steingraber believes that an environmental human rights movement must come together and must confront the current human suffering that is directly tied to the destruction of the environment. How this happens is no easy task.
Steingraber mentioned that even with all the knowledge we have of the negative consequences of chemical contamination, only 5 of the 80,000 chemicals that are licensed in the US have ever been banned. She said that research now shows that there are typically over 200 chemicals that can be detected in the umbilical cord of pregnant women. Steingraber says this reality should force us to rethink what “pro-life” really means.
After birth, Steingraber says that some pollutants impact the respiratory systems of children and even cause early pubescence with US girls, the consequence of which lead to an increase of breast cancer when those girls grow up.
Building an Environmental Human Rights Movement
Steingraber believes that chemical reform will be a large part of this new environmental human rights movement. She says that because of feminism, she has had the opportunity to link her personal cancer to environmental destruction, unlike Rachel Carson, who wrote the groundbreaking book Silent Spring. Carson also had cancer, but was not able to publicly link her cancer to chemical contamination since her body was not an acceptable source in the academic world in the late 1950s.
She gave other historical examples of how social movements have made significant progress to radically change the world. Steingraber focused on the US abolition movement as an example and asked the audience if they could image what it was like to have legal slavery and how the US economy benefited from that. She hopes that an environmental human rights movement will make such a change wherein future generations could never imagine how companies can profit off contamination of the planet.