Sandra Steingraber Living Downstream and Fighting Back

Biologist Sandra Steingraber, Ms. magazine’s 1997 “Woman of the Year,” has been called “a poet with a knife,” cutting through the dry data of environmental contamination with a sharp wit reminiscent of Rachel Carson. Though she doesn’t intentionally mimic Carson’s style, Steingraber, the author of the well-received personal history Living Downstream, admits that the pioneering environmental writer certainly influenced her work. “She gave me the sense that Nature is so incredibly beautiful, you have to find a language equal to the subject,” Steingraber says.

Steingraber holds a Ph.D. in biology, and has taught the subject at several colleges, including Radcliffe and Northeastern. She also serves on the Clinton administration’s National Action Plan for Breast Cancer. Her writing, painstakingly researched, helps readers understand the strong links between the integrity of our planet and the health of our own bodies. And she writes from personal experience, having grown up in a heavily polluted, agro-industrial area of Illinois and survived bladder cancer in her early 20s. From DDT in human breast milk to cancers found in the beluga whales of the St. Lawrence Seaway, Steingraber clearly shows that pollution knows no bounds.

E spoke to Sandra Steingraber in California last spring, shortly after her keynote address at the Beyond Pesticides Conference.

E: From your research, what role does air pollution play in the onset of cancer?

Sandra Steingraber: Air pollution is the most elusive of all routes of chemical exposure. The major way we are exposed is by breathing, of course. But we are also exposed by eating food. When industries put pollutants in the air, when automobiles emit exhaust, or when farmers put pesticides on our crops, these contaminants become airborne. But sometimes our main route of exposure is not through inhalation. Instead, these contaminants fall to the ground and land on plants, and we eat those plants directly from our garden or from the farmers’ fields. We also get exposed indirectly, when cows eat plants in a pasture and the contaminants bioaccumulate in the meat and in the milk, which we then eat or drink. In the case of fish, air pollution rains down into the rivers and lakes and then becomes part of the food chain. The contaminants bioaccumulate so that by the time we eat the larger fish, we are exposed to a concentrated accumulation of air pollutants that are in their flesh.

So how, then, do you analyze what percentage of cancer is from air pollution? Because it’s not just caused by the pollutants we are inhaling. Another example is dioxin, which is an air pollutant that we’re exposed to through our diet. And then you also have water pollution that actually becomes air pollution when the carcinogens evaporate from the water and get into our indoor air space. So a continuum exists between air, water and food. That’s the lesson of ecology, that all aspects are interwoven.

It’s impossible to tease apart the specific effects of so-called air pollutants on cancer. It’s an impossible question to answer. A better question would be, “How many lives can we save if we remove chemical carcinogens from the air?” And the answer would have to be: a lot. Because by removing chemicals from the air, we also remove them from the food chain and from water.

Can you elaborate on the evaporation of pollutants found in water that become part of indoor air pollution?

This happens every time we take a shower, flush the toilet, run the dishwater, or put a kettle on the stove. The exposure for contaminated drinking water comes through inhalation or across the skin barrier, not from drinking the water. In terms of indoor air pollution, the main route is breathing in the contaminants found in drinking water after they evaporate into the air. The turbulence or the heating of the water causes the contaminants to vaporize and enter our air space.

For example, there’s the case of the children in Woburn, Massachusetts whose leukemia deaths were the subject of the book and movie A Civil Action. It turns out that some of those children didn’t even drink the contaminated tap water. It tasted so bad that their parents gave them bottled water. They were exposed and contracted cancer simply by breathing the air in the house, which was filled with the vaporized contaminants from the water. Exposure studies show that people have more contamination in their bodies from breathing the air from a shower than from drinking the tap water or actually taking a shower.

What can people do to protect themselves from indoor and outdoor air pollution?

You can’t buy air. But you can take action to ensure that it’s cleaner. For example, buying organic food actually improves air quality because you are supporting farmers who are not spraying pesticides on their fields. We know that the majority of those pesticides never reach the pest. They either run off into drinking water or they evaporate into the air. They get projected around the globe into the jet stream, where we all get exposed to them. Eventually, those pesticides come back down to earth and become part of the food chain.

People also need to know what they are breathing in that comes from local industrial sources. They can find this information by exercising their right-to-know. One quick way to do this is to go to a website maintained by the Environmental Defense Fund at This nonprofit website will actually tell you, once you enter your zip code into the computer, everything that is your legal right-to-know about what industry is putting into the air and water of your community. Before we can even know how to take action we need knowledge, and this is one way people can get knowledge about air pollutants.

Are there good state and federal laws that protect people from air pollution?

A lot of people living in urban areas in the U.S. are living in “non-attainment” areas in terms of pollutants, which means that the air they are breathing is essentially illegal because it doesn’t meet the minimum standards of the Environmental Protection Agency. So then what do you do? The enforcement is not always there. I think the only way we are going to turn this around is the same way that we turn around all human problems, whether it be slavery or the right to vote or winning the 40-hour work week with weekends. It all happens through civic action.

As a new mother, I am interested in galvanizing pregnant women and new mothers. The fierce protectiveness mothers have both for their unborn and their newly-born baby is a powerful force that becomes a catalyst for social change.

We know that prenatal and infant exposure are far more important than exposure when you’re an adult. Pregnant women need to know that when they’re walking down a city street in July, as I was a year ago, there is nothing she can do as an individual to protect her unborn child. It’s going to require all pregnant women to unite together and demand that air quality remain safe for their embryos, and for their newborns. I don’t think it will happen until parents start insisting on it to protect their children.

We have

a lot of lessons to learn from the civil rights movement of the 1950s and ‘60s. At that time, we had discrimination and segregation happening, human rights violations happening, and sometimes there wasn’t legal recourse through the usual channels—the courts and the Congress—that was adequate to win human and social justice. And so Martin Luther King, Jr. and other civil rights activists had to find alternate means to win rights with non-violent methods. That’s the sort of action we now need to protect our children and human health. If legal means are ineffective in providing us the right to live in a safe environment, the long history of social change in the United States, from abolition to suffrage to the civil rights movement, gives us a model with which to demand it.

What was your reaction to the recent federal court decision invalidating the EPA’s clean air regulations? The implication seems to be that Congress should set air pollution standards.

One of the legacies that Rachel Carson left us was the Environmental Protection Agency. It was her vision, which she described at the end of her life, that there should be an environmental agency of the highest authority based in the executive office. Such an agency, she felt, wouldn’t be subject to the kinds of industry influences that had corrupted other agencies, including the Food and Drug Administration and the Fish and Wildlife Service. So this is certainly a step backwards from the vision Carson had, and it undermines the EPA’s authority to protect us from cancer-causing chemicals in the air.

In California, smoking is banned in all public places, even bars and restaurants. You reported in your book that 25 percent of all cancers come from smoking. How do you view the current trend to get smoking out of public places? Do you think we will eventually have a national smoking prohibition, as we did with alcohol, or will a public backlash and political pressure from the tobacco lobby prevent that from happening?

I’m hopeful. The difference between what’s going on with smoking and what happened with alcohol is profound and really important. Unlike drinking alcohol, it is a public act when you blow smoke out into the space that we all share. If you get drunk, you just get drunk—you’re not also getting someone else drunk from the alcohol on your exhaled breath.

I don’t want to downplay the social consequences of alcohol. But just the biological act of drinking liquor does remain within the boundaries of your own human self, whereas the act of smoking actually causes people to involuntarily smoke. If anybody in this room lit up right now we’d all be smoking and the benzo[a]pyrene in that cigarette would get into my tissues. That is why anti-smoking laws were passed. They honor the fact that we all share air; and air more than any other medium respects no boundaries in how it diffuses.

Separating people into smoking and nonsmoking sections doesn’t work. For a while we tried to do that in airplanes. You didn’t have to have a Ph.D. in physics to know that the smoke in the front of the plane will eventually diffuse to the back of the plane. Thanks to anti-smoking activists, we are now moving towards smoke-free public air space.

I think it’s a great lesson for those of us who are focused on non-tobacco carcinogens. It’s a great model. You can use the same argument to go to a corporation or to a farmer and say, “What you are doing here is invading the bodies of other people!” and we can prove it because we can go into their chromosomes or into their fat tissues or into their urine and see that they have been exposed to the carcinogen. So if that chemical doesn’t stop at the bathroom door, or at the edge of the field, and it is getting into the bodies of people, then it is the same argument that was used about smokers. They have to go somewhere where they’re not going to hurt other people, not in a common space.

I think the other lessons that the tobacco story has to offer us, now that we’ve finally cracked it wide-open, is we see that those who stood to profit by selling tobacco lied about scientific data and willingly misled people about the dangers of smoking. I think now that we know what tobacco companies did for decades to distract people from the dangers of their products, it gives us a good hypothesis of what other non-tobacco companies are probably doing with their products.