Sandra Steingraber: There’s a taboo about telling industry and agriculture that practices must change to prevent cancer

Published on December 18, 2010   ·   No Comments

by Matilda Lee

Having survived cancer, biologist Sandra Steingraber wrote a book to expose its link to the environment. As the film version premieres in Europe, she tells the Ecologist why we must all take a stand on air, food and water pollution

The environment and cancer seems like an overwhelming and depressing problem, but its root causes are the same as those that are killing the planet

Matilda Lee: Can you briefly explain the idea behind your book and film Living Downstream?

Sandra Steingraber: It represents my best attempts as a biologist to summarise the state of the evidence for the link between cancer and the environment. At the same time, as a cancer patient myself, it tells my own story of my diagnosis, aged 20, with bladder cancer, which has known links to the environment.

It’s a personal memoir, and interwoven between the scientific analysis is a story about my return home as a woman in my 30s, a biologist investigating the environmental toxins in her home town. You see the story of my family, who still farm in Illinois and still use some toxic pesticides; the story of the industrial chemicals that leaked into the drinking water wells there. I really went in search of my own ecological roots and became an environmental detective.

I discover that there is a cancer cluster where I grew up and I’m one data point in that cluster. But I also care for the other people who live there, and I care for the river and the farm fields. It’s a kind of love story between me and this place, but at the same time it’s a scientific analysis.

ML: How strong are the links between chemicals and cancer?

SS: The evidence is quite compelling. It’s my impression as a cancer patient that there is a disconnect between what we in the scientific community know about the evidence for the link, which is quite a lot, and what cancer patients are told when they talk to their doctors about it, which is very little. This discontinuity was my motivating force for writing the book. I decided that I wanted to bring the evidence that I knew as a biologist to other cancer patients and have my own life serve as a kind of bridge.

ML: Why aren’t we told about all the evidence for the link between cancer and the environment?


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