Review: Living Downstream by Sandra Steingraber

Living Downstream: An Ecologist’s Personal Investigation of Cancer and the Environment
(Second Edition)
Sandra Steingraber
Da Capo

In the original 1997 edition of Living Downstream, Sandra Steingraber was the first to compare data on toxic releases with data from U.S. cancer registries. In the last ten years since this edition was published, there has been rapid growth in the understanding of environmental links to human cancer and new published findings that corroborate the evidence Steingraber compiled in 1997. With a Ph.D. in biology and a Master`s degree in creative writing, Steingraber has been the recipient of many awards, including Chatham College`s Rachel Carson Leadership Award in 2001 and a Hero Award from the Breast Cancer Fund in 2006. Living Downstream is both a personal story of  Steingraber`s battle with cancer and her investigation into the potential sources of carcinogens released into the air, land and water in and around her hometown of Normandale in West-Central Illinois, as well as in other areas of the United States.

Thirty years ago when Steingraber was a 20-year-old college student, she learned that she had bladder cancer and was surprised when her urologist asked her whether she had ever been exposed to textile dyes or worked in a tire factory or the aluminum industry. The author later learned that bladder cancer was considered a quintessential environmental cancer. In other words, there was more evidence linking it to toxic chemical exposure than to any other type of cancer. However, although bladder carcinogens had been identified, they continue to be used by industry even today. The obvious question, of course, is why have these chemicals not been banned. The reader quickly discovers that cancer causation is complex, as is proving the source responsible for this disease.

The author reminds her readers that of the 80,000 synthetic chemicals currently in use in the U.S., only about 2% have been tested for carcinogenicity, and only five have been banned under the U.S. Toxics Substances Control Act since 1976. We also learn that the U.S. environmental regulatory system does not require exhaustive toxicological testing of chemicals before they are marketed. Legal limits are set on chemical releases, but, as we recently learned with bisphenol A (BPA), trace amounts can be more harmful to humans than higher doses. Moreover, we are often exposed to many contaminants simultaneously in the air we breathe, the water we drink, the food we ingest and the land we inhabit.

Often compared with Rachel Carson, Steingraber makes some compelling arguments in favor of the precautionary principle, or the better-safe-than-sorry approach to chemicals. She also advocates the principle of reverse onus, which holds producers responsible for proving that their products will not harm the public, as is the case for pharmaceutical companies.

Sandra Steingraber has the expertise in science to give her the necessary authority to present an investigation of this scope and the impeccable writing to make it accessible to a wide audience. Although some environmental texts can be dry, Steingraber`s writing and personal story make for a compelling read. Her drive and commitment to finding the missing pieces of the cancer jigsaw puzzle are humbling. I only wish that she had included a map of Tazewell County, Illinois, which we repeatedly visit throughout the book. A few diagrams of some of the molecules she describes would have also been nice.

In short, if you have ever thought that the environment may have played a role in the death of a loved one and would like to know more, then this is the book for you.

This review has been cross-posted at Feminist Review.

Are there any products (food, health and beauty products, cleaners, plastics, drinks, etc.) that you suspect cause cancer and avoid at all costs?

For instance, my husband does not trust artificial sweetners because they are synthetic. He believes if you cannot cook with them, then they are not good for you.

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Rina S. | June 10, 2010 at 10:47 AM

We sort of touched on this while you were out here. There is compelling evidence that the tar sands activity has caused terminal cancers in our aboriginal population that live adjacent yet the medical community has been exceptionally slow about following through to the point of even denying there is a correlation. This is rapidly becoming a topic of intense interest to me as I have always believed the majority of packaged foods have also been slowly poisoning us.

Good work giving this important topic exposure!!

Heather | June 10, 2010 at 12:05 PM

The tar sands are definitely poisoning the Aboriginal communities, and through the air, water and land, they will eventually poison everyone. Thanks for your comment Rina.

Anonymous | June 10, 2010 at 3:03 PM

I am not sure about whether not artifical sweeteners are dangerous or not. Would have to read more. I would like to read this book because I have been diagnosed with MGUS (Monogammonapthy of an Uncertain Origin) which is sometimes a precursor to Multiple Myeloma (a rare bone marrow cancer). It is thought that pesticides figure into MM.

Heather | June 10, 2010 at 3:56 PM

You would enjoy this book. It addresses pesticides at length. I suspect that both sythetic fertilizers and pesticides cause cancer. In the book, Steingraber also addresses the stage at which a toxin is exposed. Apparently, the most vulnerable is the fetus, young children and adolescents.
I'll put your name in for the draw. H

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