The Myth of Living Safely In a Toxic World

Sandra Steingraber

In the spring of 1997, after four years of research and writ­ing, I pub­lished Liv­ing Down­stream, a book that explored the rela­tion­ship between human can­cer and envi­ron­men­tal con­t­a­m­i­na­tion. Soon after, I was sent by my pub­lish­er on a two-week book tour that last­ed a year and a half. It final­ly end­ed in Sep­tem­ber 1998 when I gave my last phone inter­view while sit­ting on a tow­el: I was in labor with my first child, and my water had just bro­ken. I can­celed an appear­ance in Boston that was sched­uled for lat­er that evening and head­ed to the hos­pi­tal to give birth. Then I went on a self-declared mater­ni­ty leave. 

The 18 months I spent on the road with Liv­ing Down­stream formed an amaz­ing jour­ney. It was an odyssey that took me not only to book­stores, radio stu­dios and the sets of Hol­ly­wood talk shows, but to med­ical schools, col­lege cam­pus­es, pub­lic libraries, church base­ments, union meet­ing halls, the floors of var­i­ous state leg­is­la­tures and the head­quar­ters of the Envi­ron­men­tal Pro­tec­tion Agency. I met with uni­ver­si­ty pres­i­dents, min­is­ters, rab­bis, pedi­atric oncol­o­gists, breast can­cer activists, gov­ern­ment sci­en­tists, busi­ness lead­ers and elect­ed offi­cials – but most­ly I talked with a lot of plain, ordi­nary folks. I spoke with moth­ers of chil­dren with brain tumors who lived near Super­fund sites; Mon­tana wheat farm­ers wor­ried that her­bi­cides had some­thing to do with their high rates of lym­phoma; stu­dent ath­letes curi­ous about the pes­ti­cides used on the fields where they prac­ticed; wealthy retirees won­der­ing about the chem­i­cals sprayed on their beloved golf cours­es; native women in Alas­ka who live near old mil­i­tary instal­la­tions that leak PCBs; and sheep farm­ers in Ire­land who sus­pect­ed that insec­ti­cides were poi­son­ing their drink­ing water. 

In all these con­ver­sa­tions, pub­lic and pri­vate, I became impressed with how deeply cit­i­zens are con­cerned with the ques­tion of how human health is con­nect­ed to the health of our plan­et. The sub­ject of my book was clear­ly a top­ic on a lot of people’s minds. On the oth­er hand, I became equal­ly impressed at the inabil­i­ty of many of my read­ers to imag­ine them­selves tak­ing action to redress their sit­u­a­tion. Even among those whol­ly con­vinced that tox­ic chem­i­cals were con­tribut­ing to the grow­ing bur­den of can­cer and birth defects in their com­mu­ni­ties, few seemed to believe it was pos­si­ble to bring about an end to their pro­duc­tion, use and dis­pos­al. Among the few who did, few­er still could imag­ine what they them­selves could do to bring about such a change. It was as though the pres­ence of harm­ful chem­i­cals in our air, food, water and bod­ies was an immutable fact of the human con­di­tion and not the result of short-sight­ed human deci­sions that could be mod­i­fied or rad­i­cal­ly altered. It’s just all so depress­ing,” many would sigh as I signed their books. 

I didn’t know how to res­cue my audi­ences from their own fatal­is­tic think­ing, and its man­i­fes­ta­tion dur­ing our dis­cus­sions frus­trat­ed me. Per­haps because I’m a can­cer sur­vivor myself – I was diag­nosed with blad­der can­cer at the age of 20 – I view despair as a waste of time. Can­cer patients learn to have hope in des­per­ate cir­cum­stances, and we don’t tend to sur­ren­der when the odds are stacked against us. If we could just bring this same damn-the-tor­pe­does atti­tude to our polit­i­cal lives, I thought, we would be a pow­er­ful force to reck­on with. In this, I tend to side with my Cana­di­an friend, the children’s singer Raf­fi, who argues that pes­simism – with its smug pre­sump­tion that solu­tions to our cur­rent predica­ment do not exist and can­not pos­si­bly lie just ahead of us – is a form of arro­gance. No new par­a­digm has ever sprung from the cyn­i­cism of arrest­ed imag­i­na­tion,” writes Raf­fi in his auto­bi­og­ra­phy. But I also began to see that anoth­er obsta­cle was pre­vent­ing my read­ers from find­ing the courage to act on their con­vic­tions. I call it the myth of liv­ing safe­ly in a tox­ic world. 

It works like this. Envi­ron­men­tal edu­ca­tion in this coun­try tends to focus on indi­vid­ual actions. From Earth Day pam­phlets to col­lege envi­ron­men­tal sci­ence text­books, we are exhort­ed to recy­cle, com­post our food scraps, turn off the tap while brush­ing our teeth, and insu­late our attics. If we are inter­est­ed in pro­tect­ing our own health against a tox­ic onslaught, we might be advised, say, to air out our fresh­ly dry-cleaned suits before hang­ing them in the clos­et, or give up dry-clean­ing alto­geth­er. We are not told how we might col­lec­tive­ly per­suade the dry-clean­ing indus­try to switch over to non-tox­ic, wet-clean­ing tech­nol­o­gy. (The dry-clean­ing sol­vent per­chloroeth­yl­ene is a sus­pect­ed car­cino­gen and a com­mon con­t­a­m­i­nant of drink­ing water. In Itha­ca, New York, where I live, the head­lines this morn­ing announce a final plan for reme­di­at­ing the con­t­a­m­i­nat­ed soil and ground­wa­ter at one local dry-clean­ing shop; the prob­lem was first dis­cov­ered 10 years ear­li­er. Such sto­ries are repli­cat­ed across the Unit­ed States.) 

Or con­sid­er the wide­spread con­t­a­m­i­na­tion of ocean fish with mer­cury, which is now wide­ly acknowl­edged as a threat to pub­lic health. The offi­cial response of our state and fed­er­al gov­ern­ments has been to warn the most vul­ner­a­ble among us – preg­nant and nurs­ing moth­ers – to restrict their con­sump­tion of fish. Mean­while, the indus­tries respon­si­ble for cre­at­ing the prob­lem – coal-burn­ing pow­er plants, for exam­ple – are not warned to restrict their emis­sions of mer­cury. (OK, as of Jan­u­ary 2001 they have been so warned, but elec­tric util­i­ties will not be forced to do any­thing about it until 2007, which leaves all of us hav­ing babies now with no oth­er choice than to for­go tuna sand­wich­es in order to pro­tect the brains of our unborn children.) 

This relent­less atten­tion to indi­vid­ual sac­ri­fices seems almost unique to envi­ron­men­tal issues. Oth­er human trou­bles – shoot­ings in schools, intox­i­cat­ed dri­vers on the high­way, cig­a­rette addic­tion among teen-agers – are wide­ly under­stood as polit­i­cal prob­lems requir­ing polit­i­cal solu­tions. Thus, a mil­lion moms march on Wash­ing­ton to demand changes in hand­gun reg­u­la­tions, Moth­ers Against Drunk Dri­vers push­es for low­er legal lim­its on blood alco­hol lev­els, and tobac­co adver­tis­ing is restrict­ed. We some­how under­stand that invit­ing indi­vid­ual cit­i­zens to just say no to firearms, liquor and cig­a­rettes isn’t the total solution. 

In con­trast, we pre­tend as if we can all live safe­ly in a tox­ic world if we as indi­vid­ual con­sumers just give up enough stuff: stop eat­ing meat, stop eat­ing fish, stop drink­ing tap water, stop swim­ming in chlo­ri­nat­ed pools, stop microwav­ing in plas­tic, swear off dairy prod­ucts, remove shoes at the door so as not to track lawn chem­i­cals into the liv­ing room, hand­wash silk blous­es rather than drop them off at the dry-clean­ers. Or worse yet, we pre­tend we can shop our way out of the envi­ron­men­tal cri­sis: buy air fil­ters, buy water fil­ters, buy bot­tled water, buy pes­ti­cide-remov­ing soaps for our veg­eta­bles, buy vit­a­min pills loaded with anti-oxi­dants to undo what­ev­er dam­age we can’t avoid. It’s as though we all aspire to become the eco­log­i­cal equiv­a­lent of the boy in the bub­ble. No won­der peo­ple feel depressed. 

For­tu­nate­ly – and I do think it is for­tu­nate – few of these lifestyle sac­ri­fices actu­al­ly offer much real pro­tec­tion for pub­lic health. The rea­son I think this is good news is that the soon­er we quit try­ing to turn our bod­ies and homes into fortress­es against tox­ic inva­sions, the soon­er we’ll real­ize that we have no choice but to rise up and demand an end to the inva­sion. The hard fact is that we can­not opt out of the water cycle or the food chain. 

Con­sid­er drink­ing water. You might think you can save your­self from expo­sures to car­cino­gens in tap water by pur­chas­ing bot­tled water. But the sense of safe­ty offered by bot­tled water is a mirage. Because the indus­try is unreg­u­lat­ed, there is no telling what’s actu­al­ly in the bot­tle. It fre­quent­ly con­tains trace con­t­a­m­i­nants. In some cas­es, it even is tap water. More­over, it turns out that breath­ing, not drink­ing, con­sti­tutes our main route of expo­sure to volatile pol­lu­tants in tap water. This is because most of them – sol­vents, pes­ti­cides, by-prod­ucts of water chlo­ri­na­tion – eas­i­ly evap­o­rate. As soon as the toi­let is flushed or the faucet turned on, these con­t­a­m­i­nants leave the water and enter the air. A recent study shows that the most effi­cient way of expos­ing your­self to chem­i­cal con­t­a­m­i­nants in tap water is to turn on a dish­wash­er. (This sur­pris­es you?) Drink a bot­tle of French water and then step into the show­er for 10 min­utes, and you’ve just received the expo­sure equiv­a­lent of a half-gal­lon of tap water. In short, we are all oblig­at­ed to pro­tect pub­lic drink­ing water, with which we enjoy the most inti­mate of rela­tion­ships whether we want to or not. 

Well, then, I’ll just fil­ter all the tap water com­ing into my house, you might be think­ing here. Think again. Even if these gad­gets worked per­fect­ly – and they don’t – you are faced with chang­ing them every three to six months. You’re left with a spent water fil­ter laden with all the chem­i­cal tox­i­cs you’re deter­mined to keep out of your own body. Now what are you going to do? Throw it in the trash so it can end up leach­ing in a land­fill and con­t­a­m­i­nat­ing some­one else’s well? Or become a source of diox­in when it’s shov­eled into an incin­er­a­tor and lit on fire? Fil­ters for tap water are noth­ing more than a way of play­ing an elab­o­rate shell game with harm­ful chemicals. 

Or con­sid­er breast milk, that most per­fect form of infant nutri­tion, with its unsur­passed pow­ers to boost IQ, fend off infec­tious dis­eases, encour­age the devel­op­ment of the immune sys­tem, and pre­vent dia­betes, aller­gies and obe­si­ty. Because it exists at the top of the human food chain, moth­ers’ milk has become the most chem­i­cal­ly con­t­a­m­i­nat­ed of all human foods. It car­ries con­cen­tra­tions of organochlo­rine pol­lu­tants that are 10 to 20 times high­er than cows’ milk. Indeed, pre­vail­ing lev­els of chem­i­cal con­t­a­m­i­nants in human milk often exceed legal­ly allow­able lim­its in com­mer­cial food­stuffs. Thus, on aver­age, in indus­tri­al­ized coun­tries, breast-fed infants ingest each day 50 times more PCBs, per pound of body weight, than do their par­ents. The same is true for dioxins. 

We can­not ask new­borns to become veg­e­tar­i­ans. (Soy-based for­mu­la is far infe­ri­or to human milk. Even as chem­i­cal­ly com­pro­mised as human breast milk is, breast-fed babies still end up smarter, health­i­er, less prone to leukemia and exhibit­ing supe­ri­or motor skills when com­pared to their for­mu­la-fed coun­ter­parts.) We could encour­age their moth­ers to make such changes in their diet, but it turns out that the lifestyle approach to clean­ing up breast milk is not very effec­tive. Unless they are strict veg­ans, veg­e­tar­i­ans have just as much diox­in in their fat tis­sues – from which breast milk is man­u­fac­tured – as meat-eaters. And even among those who for­swear all ani­mal prod­ucts, veg­an­ism must be long stand­ing – com­menc­ing a decade or more before a woman becomes preg­nant – to result in mean­ing­ful declines in breast milk con­t­a­m­i­na­tion. A Dutch study has com­pared mac­ro­bi­ot­ic moth­ers – whose pro­tein sources come pri­mar­i­ly from grains and legumes – with omniv­o­rous moth­ers. The milk of mac­ro­bi­ot­ic moth­ers con­tained less PCBs, but their DDT lev­els were no dif­fer­ent. More­over, the nurs­ing infants of mac­ro­bi­ot­ic moth­ers were still ingest­ing lev­els of con­t­a­m­i­nants that were two to eight times high­er than the allow­able” dai­ly intake. 

On the oth­er hand, polit­i­cal action works great to puri­fy breast milk. I am pleased to report that aver­age con­cen­tra­tions of cer­tain key breast milk con­t­a­m­i­nants – DDT, PCBs and diox­ins – have declined dra­mat­i­cal­ly since 70s. This improve­ment is a direct con­se­quence of bans, tighter reg­u­la­tions, incin­er­a­tor clos­ings, emis­sion reduc­tions, per­mit denials, right-to-know laws and tougher envi­ron­men­tal enforce­ment. We nurs­ing moth­ers owe a great debt to thou­sands of anony­mous cit­i­zens from all around the world who worked to stop tox­ic pol­lu­tion at its source. 

The way we repay this debt – and con­tin­ue the process of detox­i­fi­ca­tion – is to stop dis­tract­ing our­selves with indi­vid­ual sac­ri­fices and get involved with the polit­i­cal strug­gle. Start by find­ing out what tox­ic chem­i­cals are being released into your home com­mu­ni­ty by vis­it­ing www​.score​card​.org and enter­ing your zip code in the emp­ty box. Then take a look at some of the 35,000 pages of inter­nal chem­i­cal indus­try doc­u­ments that formed the basis of Bill Moyer’s expose, Trade Secrets, which was recent­ly broad­cast on PBS. These are avail­able in the Chem­i­cal Indus­try Archives at www​.ewg​.org.

Sit for awhile with the new knowl­edge you gain from these two Web sites and notice what emo­tions and ideas come up for you. Ask your­self if we have a human rights prob­lem here. Ask your­self how oth­er human rights activists you admire once pre­vailed against for­mi­da­ble oppo­nents – how women won the right to vote, how abo­li­tion­ists suc­ceed­ed in divorc­ing our econ­o­my from slave labor, how work­ers won the right to a week­end. I think you will find depres­sion and cyn­i­cism soon yield­ing to inspi­ra­tion and courage.

Biol­o­gist San­dra Ste­in­graber is a vis­it­ing dis­tin­guished schol­ar at Itha­ca Col­lege in Itha­ca, New York. Her most recent book is Hav­ing Faith: An Ecologist’s Jour­ney to Moth­er­hood.
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