Almost two years ago, I was hired to implement the Safer Chemicals in Children’s Products program in the state agency where I had already worked on air quality regulations. The program, then in its infancy, was one of a handful of efforts by states to fill a void in U.S. consumer product safety law. After a dozen years in the environmental regulatory field, I had gone from being a young, childless idealist to a middle-aged, cynical mother of three. But I went into my new job with renewed idealism and the belief that I would have a more direct impact on human health and the environment. My passion for the nexus of environment and health had been fueled in part by Sandra Steingraber’s books, Living Downstream (1997) and Having Faith (2001).
Both of these books are meticulously researched, lyrically written, and deeply personal accounts of how our assault on the environment affects human health down to the cellular level. In Living Downstream, Steingraber explores the environmental causes of cancer from her perspective as a bladder cancer survivor. In Having Faith, she investigates the array of chemicals that pollute the fetal environment and breast milk, weaving the science with her personal experience as a pregnant woman and new mother.
Ten years after the publication of Having Faith, Steingraber’s most recent book, Raising Elijah: Protecting Our Children in an Age of Environmental Crisis, revisits chemical assaults on growing children’s bodies. In Raising Elijah, however, Steingraber expands her focus to include other elements of the environmental crisis, which she likens to a tree: The trunk is our dependency on fossil fuels; its two branches are global climate change and the build-up of toxic chemicals in our bodies.
Steingraber is a biologist and a poet. Her facility with language and ability to distill scientific information into an easily understandable format makes her book, despite the unnerving topic, a pleasure to read. She is precise in her description of biochemical processes and doesn’t shy away from technical terms, yet her writing flows seamlessly between science and personal memoir. For example, after discussing the biomechanics of birth and labor (and how pollutants may affect those processes), Steingraber offers this poetic account of her own labor:
Labor was a room with a ticking clock, a tiled wall, and swirls of light. Labor was the shale floor of a briny sea. Magma. Pressure. I descended by Braille. I rose through the squeezing passageway of my own breathing. Labor was a sparkling lake. I could swim a long way. And nobody even knows I’m here.
One of the most appealing aspects of Raising Elijah is the window Steingraber provides into her own experience of motherhood. In each chapter, she uses an anecdote from her family’s life to illustrate an element of the environmental crisis. The arsenic-treated play structure at her daughter’s nursery school emphasizes how federal chemical policy has failed. Her son’s asthma brings the issue of air pollution uncomfortably close to home. The family’s course of rabies shots after a bat is discovered in the children’s bedroom demonstrates how the precautionary principle can and should work. Readers not immediately interested in science or environmental issues will be drawn in, and possibly converted, by Steingraber’s honest and intimate stories.
Steingraber inherits the legacy of Rachel Carson and other scientists who crossed the line from generating data to using their information and literary skill to influence policy change. Steingraber’s tone in Raising Elijah is persuasive, and at times blossoms into rage. She is angry, for example, that parents are forced to regulate children’s access to toxic chemicals simply because the government has failed to do so:
This sort of public health approach — surround kids with brain poisons and enlist mothers and fathers to serve as security detail — is surely as failure prone with pesticides as it is with lead paint. Following all the popular advice, I do feed my children organic food. . . . But my children do not live solely within the bubble of my kitchen and property lines. . . . I am a conscientious parent. I am not a HEPA filter.
Steingraber demands to know why the environmental crisis is not part of the parenting conversation: “[W]hy are we not reading about the dangers of ozone and diesel exhaust — and traffic and coal-burning power plants and phthalate-laden flooring — in parenting magazines? . . . Why is the only person interested in talking with me about our local coal-burning power plant a childless college student out canvassing for an environmental group?”
Yet I can understand why parents might want to avoid these issues. Having Faith came out the summer my first son was a nursling, and I could not bring myself to read it. As a new mother I felt compelled to delude myself that all was right in the world (a challenging illusion to maintain in 2001). It was not until my son was almost two, and after I heard Steingraber read an excerpt from Having Faith, that I finally read the book.
Several years and two more children later, I researched chemicals in consumer products and received daily environmental news bulletins that only added to my growing anxiety. I lay awake at night, listening to my children’s breathing and visualizing the brominated flame retardants, perfluorinated chemicals and formaldehyde creeping from their mattresses into their bodies. The information became overwhelming and I found it almost impossible to enjoy a meal out, a birthday party or a vacation without feeling incapacitated by the environmental and health consequences of the food, the balloons, the miles traveled.
Steingraber terms this sense of overwhelm in the face of staggering amounts of unpleasant information well-informed futility: “We avoid information that elicits in us feelings of intolerable fear or intolerable guilt,” she writes. Steingraber admits to her own inner conflict and desire to avoid scary issues when talking to her kids about climate change. In public, she says, she spoke boldly, while at home she maintained a neutral silence on the topic, believing that her children should be spared such frightening information. But when it became apparent that her kids already had some knowledge in this department, Steingraber changed tactics. She had the Big Talk with her kids — not about sex, but about global warming — and she came to realize:
The way we protect our kids from terrible knowledge is not to hide the terrible knowledge, or change the subject, or even create an age-appropriate story about the terrible knowledge, but to let them watch us rise up in the face of terrible knowledge and do something.
Paralyzing despair is its own refuge from responsibility. So is cynicism. So is denial. Whatever the odds, we have to shake off the stupor, appreciate the severity of our situation, and get to work, heroically, ardently, and in concert.
Steingraber’s vision of shaking off our stupor and getting to work is two-pronged: forceful public involvement, like a modern civil rights movement, and very concrete personal changes. She does not go into great detail about what forceful public involvement might entail but envisions teach-ins, sit-ins, marches, and music, involving art and faith communities. Recent peaceful protests over the Keystone oil pipeline extension might offer a model. Steingraber is, however, very specific about personal changes. Her suggestions are threefold: Plant a garden, mow the grass without fossil fuels, and hang laundry to dry.
Steingraber uses “systems thinking” to support these three actions. For example, by planting a garden and starting a compost pile you reduce dependence on fossil-fuel-intensive agriculture, help to preserve genetic diversity, and divert lawn and food waste from landfills where they would otherwise generate greenhouse gases. For homeowners with suburban-sized lawns, cutting the grass with a reel mower not only reduces fuel consumption from gas or electric mowers, but also provides an eco-friendly form of exercise (Steingraber suggests it could even replace drives to the gym). And air-dried laundry can feed into an efficient sorting and shelving system that saves both time and work. In Steingraber’s house, laundry is sorted as it is placed on hangers to dry; it then goes straight into the closet.
Admittedly, my own air-dried laundry piles up until a sock or underwear shortage forces either me or my husband to give in and fold it all. Steingraber acknowledges that her suggestions entail work, some sacrifice, and a fundamental change of thinking. Perhaps not everyone can air-dry clothes 12 months a year, but what if, Steingraber asks, all new family homes and apartments were built with clothes-drying closets? What if suburban lawns did not exceed the size owners can comfortably cut with a reel mower? For families not able or willing to adopt Steingraber’s suggestions, other approaches such as riding public transit, solar cooking or thrift store shopping might be more appealing and equally effective.
Steingraber’s point is that personal actions can, when added together, make a significant impact, and they give us something tangible to do while waiting for and working toward political change:
Hanging laundry cannot stop global warming. The process that clotheslines — and reel mowers and compost piles — begin, however, is the denormalizing of fossil-fuel ways of living. They are daily reminders that we urgently need new choices within new systems. They are are harbingers. They signal our eagerness to embrace much bigger changes. They bear witness to our children that we are willing to exert agency, that we are not cynical, that we respect their right to inherit a habitable planet.
As Steingraber insists: “Another world is possible. Creating it requires courage.”
A year into my work on the Safer Chemicals program, the political climate in my state took a hard right turn, and the chemical and toy industries went on the attack against our modest little chemical policy. One of their lobbyists came to head my agency and I found myself “redeployed” to another section of the department. But efforts to dismantle the program failed in the legislature, largely thanks to informed parents.
Those moms and dads who stood up in the legislative hearings and insisted that changes to chemical policy be made by lawmakers at the state and federal levels, not by parents in the grocery aisle, met Steingraber’s charge to “shake off the stupor . . . and get to work.” And while that work remains far from finished, it was encouraging to see them there, jiggling babies and entertaining toddlers in the hearing room. They proved that parents can and should be active at the political as well as the personal level.
Raising Elijah should be read by legislators, policy makers, and health care providers. But most of all it should be read by parents. It is our collective voices — and votes — that may one day turn the tide toward protecting children’s health over profits and pollution.