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Breaking the silence: taking action on cancer and the environment

abracad, · Categories: environment, externally authored, in the news, spiritual politics

In an interview, internationally recognized authority Dr. Sandra Steingraber discusses the mounting evidence linking cancer and pollution, and asks how much evidence is needed before action is taken.

Ecologist, author and activist Sandra Steingraber PhD, is an internationally recognized authority on the environmental links to cancer and human health. She is the author of four books, including Raising Elijah: Protecting Children in an Age of Environmental Crisis (2013) and Living Downstream: An Ecologist's Personal Investigation of Cancer and the Environment (1997, revised 2010). Dr Steingraber holds a doctorate in biology and is a scholar in residence at Ithaca College in Ithaca, New York. Jason Francis interviewed her for Share International.

Sandra Steingraber
Sandra Steingraber

Share International: What sparked your interest in researching the possible connection between cancer and environmental factors?

Sandra Steingraber: My own cancer diagnosis sparked my interest. I was 20 years old when I was diagnosed with bladder cancer. I was not the first member of my family to be so diagnosed. My mom was already struggling with metastatic breast cancer and we were actually co-cancer patients together. My aunt would go on to die of the same kind of bladder cancer that I had. The punch line to my family story is that I am adopted. So I knew what ran in my family did not necessarily run in my genes.     

Furthermore, prompted by questions by my own diagnosing physician about what my possible environmental exposures as a child might have been, I made a decision to not go to medical school, but instead go into the field of environmental public health. After my PhD and post-doctorate at Harvard many years later I returned to my hometown and began to investigate not only my cancer but also the cluster of cancers that I was a part of. Those findings became the book Living Downstream.

SI: Do we know the current rates of cancer in the US and how they compare to past statistics?

SS: We do. Because of an act of law [the National Cancer Act of 1971] passed by President Nixon we now have cancer registries in every state. We can age adjust the data, so if we see an increase in incidents it is not because the population is getting older. We can also compare different age groups to each other over time. We know, for example, that people now in their 30s and 40s have a higher rate of nonsmoking cancers than people in their 30s and 40s did 30 or 40 years ago. We also know that children have higher rates of cancer than they used to. In fact, pediatric cancers are growing rapidly.    

Although cancer registry rates don't give us absolute proof about causal connections, they certainly give us clues for further inquiry. Some of those clues involve rising rates of cancer among those malignancies for which there is no genetic link and for which smoking is not known to play a role. Some of the most rapidly rising cancers include testicular cancer among young men, liver, ovarian and brain cancers, leukemia among children, ovarian cancer among adolescent girls and so on.

SI: Why is there such an increase?

SS: For some cancers we know more than others. In relation to fossil fuels, we know absolutely without a doubt, for example, that radon [a radioactive, colorless and odorless gas] is the number one cause of lung cancer among nonsmokers. Radon is a naturally occurring gas found in deep geological strata, but it can be released through non-natural actions. For example, during drilling in fracking [hydraulic fracturing] operations when natural gas is blasted out of bedrock, radon can be mixed with the natural gas when it is extracted from shale. So we may be piping gas into our homes that contains radon.    

In addition, we know that benzene [a flammable liquid hydrocarbon present in petroleum] without a doubt causes leukemia. Again I have concerns about drilling and fracking operations for oil and gas, onshore drilling, because benzene is released from wellheads, along with natural gas, into the air. We have some emerging data in Colorado to suggest that people who live within three-quarters of a mile of drilling and fracking operations are being exposed to ambient levels of benzene that are known to raise the risk of leukemia. Other things we have suspicions about but not absolute proof they cause cancer.    

The question becomes, "How much evidence do you want before you begin to do something different" - for example, deciding to run our energy on renewables instead of cancer-causing fossil fuels?

Living Downstream

Testing chemicals

SI: How many chemicals are adequately tested before they are made available to the public in one form or another?

SS: There is no legal requirement [in the US] to test chemicals, before they are marketed, for their ability to cause cancer. There are about 100,000 chemicals currently on the market and about 2 per cent of those have gone through rigorous testing where we can say, "Here is some good data showing that these chemicals are either known carcinogens, possible carcinogens, or not carcinogens at all." The vast majority of chemicals have never been tested.     

One of the messages of Living Downstream and my more recent book, Raising Elijah, is that the burden of proof to demonstrate the safety of these chemicals belongs on the shoulders of those who seek to market them. Before chemicals can be brought to market they should be tested and screened so that by the time they are sold, used and released into our common environment, they have been shown they are not going to hurt anyone. Right now that is not how our system works. There is a back inventory of chemicals that came on the market before even our present weak laws existed. Those chemicals are basically given a free pass.   

The situation is a little bit different legally in Europe. They have taken a different approach and are now requiring all chemicals that are on the market, no matter how long they have been sold, imported and manufactured, to be screened for their ability to cause cancer and other health problems. That is going to be a big and expensive process. But the thinking in Europe is that cancer is a big and expensive process. And the lives and money saved by lowering cancer rates and needing to spend less money on healthcare will help fund the transformation to green chemistry.

SI: Why do such differences exist between the way the US government and the governments in Europe test chemicals?

SS: Lawmakers [in the US] are basically bought and sold. Their votes are owned by the chemical industry, which plays a powerful role in campaign financing and lobbying. We have chemical companies that actually write the regulations and hand them over to a lawmaker to sponsor. When I have gone to Europe and testified at the European Union, for example, or watched international treaties being negotiated in Geneva as part of the UN, I have seen my nation's lobbyists from the chemical industry hard at work in the halls of power trying to influence votes in a way I find shameful. When I talk to my counterparts in Europe, my sense is that the grip that industry has over governing bodies like parliaments is much less there.

SI: Considering how long society has been using fossil fuels, is it possible to draw a direct connection between the beginning of our use of petroleum and petrochemicals and increasing rates of cancer?

SS: Cancer registries came into being in the 1970s. The Industrial Revolution, as well as the discovery of oil and gas reserves, both of which are petroleum, far preceded that. Petroleum began in the 19th century and really took off in earnest after World War II. In particular, with the rise of the petrochemical industry, meaning our materials economy - stuff that we use to build our houses, shower curtains inside our homes, the clothes we wear, and so on - used to be sourced essentially from carbohydrates and other natural materials like silk or wood. They became replaced by materials like nylon and PCB [polychlorinated biphenyl] (plastic). With that came new routes of exposure. Unfortunately, the cancer registry lagged behind that and is always playing catch up.    

That being said, we know with certainty, for example, that traffic exhaust is linked to lung cancer and heart disease in nonsmokers, and raises stroke risk. Among the numbers, we can actually calculate the morbidity and mortality from our fossil fuel dependency. Of course, coal is also part of that picture.    

As an example, Mark Jacobson [professor of civil and environmental engineering and director of the Atmosphere and Energy Program] and his colleagues at Stanford University have taken a look in New York state at illness and death caused by exposure to air pollution from the combustion of fossil fuels of all kinds. They concluded that it is about 4,000 deaths per year in New York state. Of course, most of those people don't just drop dead; they suffer from strokes, cancer, heart disease, asthma and so on.     

A lot of healthcare dollars are spent in rehabilitation, recovery and chemotherapy as part of our spiraling healthcare costs. If we have the ability, which I am convinced we do, to switch to renewable energy, and power ourselves by energy derived from wind, water and sunlight, we save lives. We also solve the climate problem. In addition, we also encourage our materials economy to be based on substances that are not derived from petrochemicals.

Sometimes David wins

SI: Could you tell us about the group called New Yorkers Against Fracking?

SS: I am a founder of New Yorkers Against Fracking. Five years ago when we first started our anti-fracking work we were basically told there was no hope that we could actually stop fracking in the state of New York. The best we could do was to sit at the table and be a part of how it all turned out. We could express our opinions on how we wanted fracking to happen, what regulations and rules we wanted to govern it. But we rejected those assumptions completely. We said it was like putting filters on cigarettes. We don't want to regulate fracking. We want to stop it. It is an abomination. Five years later, so far we have stopped it here in New York.   

We are trying to turn what is now a temporary and fragile moratorium into a permanent ban. We have a lot of momentum behind us. Every time a poll is done on fracking, it is clear that public opinion is turning against it. We have been able to change public opinion by organizing, by going to church basements on Friday nights, talking before town boards, chambers of commerce and schools. I spent two years of my life traveling through the state talking to citizen groups and bringing the science to people.   

When you do that, you find that people really care about the environment for their children's and their own health. The concern cuts across political lines. When you bring good science together with a 'can do' optimistic spirit, it's a powerful combination and it makes people feel heroic. People feel like they want to be a part of something big, just like my dad's generation had to go off and fight Hitler, and the way the Civil Rights movement took on huge obstacles and prevailed. There is a reason why we like David and Goliath struggles - sometimes David wins.

Walking upstream

SI: Is there really anything that parents can do to protect their children since we are all susceptible to cancer-causing agents from our environment?

SS: Even if you have money you can't buy clean air. We are all dependent on the water we drink. Even if we don't drink it we are still exposed through bathing and showering. A half an hour in the shower is the exposure equivalent to two gallons of tap water. There isn't much as individuals we can do to protect our kids. Our kids grow up and go out into the toxic world anyway. What we need to do as parents is to be part of a powerful political force. We need to insist that it's just wrong to expose our children to inherently toxic chemicals we haven't tested, and to run our energy system on fossil fuels, which are killing the planet and ourselves as well as raising cancer risks, raising the risks for learning disabilities, pre-term births and so on. We need a complete redesign and that means getting off fossil fuels. That's the kind of social movement we have to build.

SI: If confronting this problem requires a peoples' movement, is there already a foundation for activism to be based upon?

SS: There are all kinds of organizations already working on these issues. There are good groups fighting for toxic substances reform, working to stop drilling and fracking operations, the Keystone Pipeline, mountaintop removal mining. There are also many groups working to encourage incentives for solar and wind power and power derived from tidal waves. In the back of my books I have long appendices of organizations that I find particularly effective. People feel more powerful once they start joining together. 

SI: Could you tell us about the movement known as Walking Upstream?

SS: "Walking upstream" is a phrase used in the book and the film Living Downstream to talk about political action. We all live downstream. In my case, my cancer was most likely caused by decisions made by people before I was even born who dumped chemicals in the back of a factory. Like a fine curtain, they slowly descended through the soil and entered into ground water, and I grew up drinking solvent or chloroethylene (dry cleaning fluid). So I paid the price for a reckless decision from a previous generation. And so did many others in my hometown.

How can we close our eyes to the signs of damage that we are doing to generations that follow us, but instead do things differently? In other words, we do not just treat cancer as its own tragedy when we see all of these victims downstream. We walk upstream to the source of the problem and have the courage to confront it.

For further information: |

Sandra Steingraber, Living Downstream: An Ecologist's Personal Investigation of Cancer and the Environment. Da Capo Press, Cambridge, Mass., 1997, rev. 2010.

Sandra Steingraber, Raising Elijah: Protecting Children in an Age of Environmental Crisis. Da Capo Press, Cambridge, Mass., 2013. 

© Share International, September 2013


Filed in: environment, externally authored, in the news, spiritual politics

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