Living Downstream: An Ecologist’s Personal Investigation of Cancer and the Environment by Sandra Steingraber, combines science and the author’s own story.
I heard Steingraber talk about fracking during the 2012 Bioneers conference and found her a compelling speaker. I decided to look for her books and came across Living Downstream. The title and cover photo gave me pause, it looked depressing and scary, but I thought Steingraber probably had something important to share. So I bought the book.
When I opened Living Downstream, I expected to read about Steingraber’s own odyssey with cancer and I was shocked to learn it began in college when she was diagnosed with bladder cancer. In the foreword to the 2nd edition, she writes, “Thirty years ago I had cancer.”
Readers of Living Downstream will visit Steingraber’s home county of Tazewell, Illinois, both past, and present. The stories illustrate the intersection of farming and industry. Tazewell is in America’s heartland and acts as a stand-in for any county U.S.A.
Collecting pamphlets about cancer as Steingraber did, may seem a weird habit, but it gives us a glimpse into the message the government, health organizations, and cancer treatment centers are delivering to people in waiting rooms across the U.S. Here is an excerpt from the book.
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services brochure:
“You can control many of the factors that cause cancer. This means you can help protect yourself from the possibility of getting cancer. You can decide how you’re going to live your life—which habits you will keep and which ones you will change.”
Human Genetics: A Modern Synthesis book:
“Because exposure to these environmental factors can, in principle, be controlled, most cancer could be prevented….Reducing or eliminating exposures to environmental carcinogens would dramatically reduce the prevalence of cancer in the United States.”
Steingraber estimates 33,600 people die in the United States each year from cancers caused by involuntary exposure to toxic chemicals. To put that figure in perspective, “33,660 is greater than the total annual number of homicides in the United States—a figure that is considered a matter of national shame.”
The Bottom Line
Sandra Steingraber, Ph.D. holds a doctorate in biology and a master’s degree in creative writing. Her science background and experience give her street cred, and her writing ability makes the information accessible to non-scientists.
Some of the stories are sad, heart-rending, tragic. Steingraber tells them in words that evoke empathy and even hope rather than crushing the reader with feelings of horror or hopelessness. This is a gift.
I walked away with the knowledge that synthetic and toxic chemicals are everywhere and in everyone. Cancer is linked to the environment, they are not separate fights.
I recommend Living Downstream to people interested in learning about how what we put in the environment affects all life, including our own.
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