Monday, April 19, 2010

Living Downstream

Sandra Steingraber, ecologist, cancer survivor, and fellow Illinois Wesleyan (and U of M) alum, made the University's news page today because a documentary has just been made about her book, Living Downstream. I took a May Term class with Steingraber back in 1997, right after her book had been published. The ecology class focused heavily on her area of research, which linked environmental contamination (toxins that include chemicals, heavy metals, and industrial and agricultural wastes, to name a few) to cancer. And, quite frankly, it was fascinating.

Steingraber first became interested in the environmental causes of cancer when, as an IWU student, she was diagnosed with a rare bladder cancer at age 20. Casual onlookers could attribute her disease to bad genes, because her mom developed breast cancer in her 40s, and an aunt had died of the same type of bladder cancer with which Steingraber was diagnosed. But she was adopted; genetics had nothing to do with it.

When Steingraber began researching this book, she collected a great deal of already-recorded data, which had just been made available to the public under the newly passed Right-To-Know Act, and started connecting the dots. She grew up in central Illinois, just like I did, but she lived in a rural town along the Illinois River. With her home town being as small as it was, it seemed like a disproportionate number of its citizens had some form of cancer. So she made her way "upstream", so to speak, and identified industrial waste dumps, agricultural run-off sites, chemical incinerators, and coal-burning facilities as the sources of the toxins that wound up in the water of her town downstream. Because none of these things are unusual to find in the Midwest, further research revealed just what she suspected: her town was not unique.

Yes, her book is full of the names of various chemicals and contaminants that have found their ways into our food, water, air, and soil. But by intertwining this scientific data with her personal story of cancer and survival (as well as a clear and concise writing style), she makes years of intense research (or scientific gobbledy-gook, to us non-brainiacs) not only palatable, but relatively easy to understand. Critics, doctors, and environmentalists alike have hailed her book as "the Silent Spring of our generation", but let me assure you... having read both, Steingraber's novel is a much more enjoyable read.

On the first day of class, Sandra Steingraber used a parable to depict the backwards way in which we are going about treating cancer patients. She told the story of residents in a small town who noticed more and more people getting caught in the current of a nearby river and drowning. The townspeople invented all of these pricey and elaborate ways to rescue and resuscitate the drowning victims, but no one thought to venture upstream to stop whoever was pushing these victims into the river in the first place. And so it is with environmental contamination.

More than a decade later, the specifics of this class are a bit fuzzy in my head, but I know for certain that Steingraber's passion and enthusiasm for her work is what first got me interested in matters of nature and the environment. I also remember learning about Maximum Contaminant Levels (MCLs), or the amount of each chemical that is allowed to remain in our drinking water. Anything at or under these levels is considered to be safe... more or less. There was an MCL Cafeteria in my hometown at the time, which I thought was a surprisingly inappropriate name for a restaurant. If any of those stores still exist, do yourself a favor and eat somewhere else... unless you know for a fact that MCL stands for something else. Yikes!

My take-away from this one-month course, which involved more reading, studying and research than any other class I had taken before (or have taken since), was that we can greatly reduce the number of "suspected carcinogens" (cigarettes were "suspected carcinogens" for decades before the Supreme Court passed their definitive ruling on the matter, which has upgraded them to plain old carcinogens) in our environment if-- and only if-- we make a fundamental shift in the way in which we dispose of our waste and operate our businesses, both in the industrial and agricultural fields. Regardless of what the news tells us, we can't avoid these environmental contaminants just by individual lifestyle changes; change has to come from upstream.

Here is the schedule of upcoming screenings of her film. If it comes to your area, I strongly encourage you to go see it. You can thank me later!

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