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A Review of the Literature of the Works of Sandra Steingraber

By Jenkins Macedo

“Every woman who becomes pregnant brings to the experience her various identities.” 
Sandra Steingraber

“The cancer diagnostic is the beginning of an unplanned journey. There is a story behind each one and this is my story,” says Sandra Steingraber at the black tie event at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum in Springfield, Illinois. These were her opening remarks at the event where she deliberated her experience as a cancer victim and how that process has trapped us into a long ecological history of pollution, environmental degradation, ecosystem change, and the outbreak of diseases. These environmental threats, she noted, are largely a result of anthropogenic activities on the environment in which case environmental pollutions are ‘human-induced’ largely caused by multinational corporations and industrial plants that continue to exploit, abuse, and destroy the forest and environmental resources as well as human life.
The title and beginning quotations of this paper was extracted from the movie “Living Downstream” released in 2010 by the People’s Picture Company Inc., which is base on Dr. Steingraber’s book “Living Downstream: An Ecologist Looks at Cancer and The Environment.” This literature review explores the works of Dr. Sandra Steingraber, which include Living Downstream, Having Faith, and the movie "Living Downstream," which tell the story of a feminist political ecologist, scientist, and writer who is a cancer survival and seeks to create awareness and education about the environmental pollution, environmental injustice, and the ecological and human effects of carcinogenic substances that are released in the environment by industrial plants in the name of modernity, civilization, progress, and globalization, or as you may term it.

Having Faith by Dr. Sandra Steingraber

Living Downstream by Dr. Sandra Steingraber
Dr. Steingraber’s works followed  in the same direction of Rachel Carson, who died from breast cancer on April 14, 1964. Both women’s works are at the epicenter of the environmental and social justice movements, which aim at educating, exposing, and eliminating the disastrous effects of industrial pollutions on the environment, which have adverse health and environmental outcomes. In the rest of the paper, I will present some of the significant themes and issues that were addressed by Dr. Steingraber in her books "Having Faith" and "Living Dreams" and discuss how these themes are parallel with and relate to what Rachel Carson wrote in her book “Silent Spring.” Building on the works of Steingraber and Carson, I also seek to elaborate how the themes and issues identified in their works interconnects with other feminist political ecologists within the environmental and social justice movements such as the works of Dr. Dianne Rocheleau at el (1996) in discussing that there are “real, not imagined, gendered differences in experiences of, responsibilities for, and interests in “nature” and the environments, but that these differences are not solely rooted in biological development of the human species, but are direct results from the interpretation and the social construction of gender, which differs geographically, by class, race, culture, and place and are subjective to individual and social change” (Rocheleau at el 1996, p. 1).
The works of Dr. Steingraber along with others feminist political ecologists paved the way for massive local, national, and international environmental movements that are seeking to put an end to environmental degradation. In her book “Having Faith” Dr. Steingraber navigated throughout the text with entertaining yet thoughtful and provoking views of trying to overcome her fears before lecture at about the age of 38 years. She tries to operationalize as well as frame the unprecedented complexities and challenges of the conception process in her mind, while at the same time presenting the scientific processes of pregnancy, birth, and breastfeeding within the context of a our pollution-induced environment caused mainly by exponential increase in anthropogenic processes and activities that are leading to self-destruction. Building on her first experience as a pregnant wife and the visionary, inspiring, and yet thoughts provoking works of Rachel Carson, she allows the reader to reflect, conceptualize, and navigate on this process in their own lives and the complications and complexities pose by the polluted environment in which we all live, work, raise our children, and have them play. As a father myself it wonders me our at risk are little ones are born into an environment so pollutant engulfed from the very process of conception until their death. A process they never created in the first place. These thoughts Steingraber argued should motivate us to take action in eliminating environmental contaminants.
In “Having Faith”, Steingraber reverted the attention of the impacts of environmental degradation to the scientific process of conception and how that process is impacted by environmental hazards, pollutions and degradations (Steingraber 2001). She explores and investigates the environment threats to the structures and bodies of a pregnant woman and also during the process of breastfeeding by asking ethical questions that would not have been asked by the typical scientific research community. These questions and related answers presented in her books outlined the significance for actions and inform environmental movements, which seek to create social change, environmental protection, sustainability and environmental justice. She presents the various waves of her personal identity as an ecologist, poet, biologist, feminist political ecologist, a writer and subsequently a prospective mother.
In the first chapter of her book “Having Faith”, Steingraber talks about her experiences as a pregnant woman base on each month of her pregnancy detailing specific developmental processes of the fetus to the delivery phase and how these processes would be impacted by toxicity and pollutants that are concentrated within the environment within various communities and in different quants and concentrations. After realizing that she was pregnant and that the thoughts of the growth and development of the fetus was in the making, she redirected her focus to the period during her own childhood and development and how those processes were negatively influenced by environmental hazards, which led to the discovery that she had cancer. With these thoughts running throughout her mind, her focus was about the safety of the fetus developing in her body in retrospect to her own development. She makes the argument that with the immense negative influences cause on the environment by multinational corporations and industrial plants, those same environmental threats, which led to her development and subsequent treatment of cancer, would in fact affect the developing fetus in her body. These thoughts were influenced by her personal experience growing up as a child in rural settings in Illinois where extensive use of agro-chemicals, such as pesticides, insecticides, herbicides and fertilizers were used on commercialized and mechanized farms to promote trade, mass production of food, extensive use of water resources and exploitation of land (Carson 1962; Steingraber 2001).
Detailing the exquisite and delicate development of the human embryo, she cited relevant scientific, historical accounts and noted specific changes during the process in her life. She poetically portrays the new development and evolution of new delicate organs of the developing embryo and how significant changes structured her body to cope with these changes also detailing the potential exposures and impacts of environmental determinants and hazards to the developing embryo. She also narrated the significant changes women who are pregnant have to make, which include, but not limited to choices about what they can do, what kind of food they can eat, and options of medical interventions they need to consider during and after pregnancy. In the last chapter of her book, Steingraber narrated the potential environmental challenges that we encounter even after childbirth building on the increase prevalence of children cancel, asthma, autism and other learning disabilities, which are directly linked and consequences of the release toxins and other chemicals into the environment and are now having negative health effects on the most vulnerable individuals among us, which is our children. She also argues that considering the amount of environmental toxins that are release in the environment on daily basis, breast milk is the most toxic human food available (Steingraber 2001).
From the above analysis of Steingraber’s book “Having Faith”, her main argument is that environmental degradation caused by the release of toxic chemicals in the environment not only affects our health and the environment, but also to protect future generations from environmental contaminants and toxins and this can be done by creating active activism against multinational corporations and industries to establish sound technologies and practices to reduce these contaminants.
In the movie “Living Downstream” Steingraber seeks to establish the case that environmental degradation with toxins are leading environmental contaminants, which lead to the development of cancer among the baby boomers in the US and Canada. In the movie, Steingraber portrayed as the protagonist takes us through an interesting yet compelling moment into her professional and personal life experiences. Some of the moments in the movie include discussions, public and congressional speech at the Lincoln Museum in D.C. and her argument of “divorcing the economy” from the reliance on petrochemicals and talks about the appearance of carcinogens that surface in the water of wells in her hometown. Some of the issues discussed in the movie goes in line with what we discussed in class about gene slicing and the mistreatment of animals as experimental elements during cancer research.
As a cancer survival, she argues that the prevention of cancer is a fundamental human rights since we are all vulnerable to environmental contaminants. She also recommends that the healthcare systems in the US especially in the Bay State must be more vocal on the environmental links to cancer. One important theme that explicitly presents itself throughout her books and the movie is the idea of “green living.” Personally, she encourages her children to demonstrate a green lifestyle by either walking or biking to after-school programs. This she suggested is one way of reducing our toxic impacts on the environment and through that process ensuring a healthy and sound environment for our children and the next generations. While she acknowledge that these micro-steps in her personal lifestyle choices and that of her family would have lesser greenhouse gas emissions, it would allow her to spend enough meaningful time to her family and things she loves.
In many ways, Steingraber’s works, activism and desire to create change not only in our lives, but also in our environment parallels with similar issues especially environmental degradation from agrochemicals and other carcinogens. Both Sandra and Rachel having been victimized by cancer, which they contracted through environmental pollutants and carcinogenic substances released in the environment seek to create change. They argued that protecting the environmental from pollutants and chemical substance would have it protected for future generations to come. Humans’ interactions with the local environment have both short and long-term implications that could potentially impact our health and the sustainability of the environment for future generations. The works of both women have been cited in numerous scientific, ecological and environmental studies about the immense environmental and health hazards that are related to humans’ interactions with their environment. In her book “Having Faith”, Steingraber’s outlined the environmental challenges and potential threats to our children before and after birth. Steingraber’s works continue on some of the environmental degradations that Rachel Carson covered in her book “Silent Spring”, in which she discussed and argued that environmental threats created by the use of biocides and other forms of agro-chemicals such as DDT, fertilizers and pesticides. Carson and Steingraber both discuss the nature of chemical poisonings and how these chemicals and processes impact the world by basing their work on personal stories and experiences.
Steingraber’s works in both her books and movie evoke a critical, analytical and paradigm shift on some of the daily issues that we take for common within our daily lives, yet have substantial and unprecedented impacts. She challenges us to think critical before raising our children in this polluted world and that we should think carefully where we are and how our actions impact our lives and the environment we live in. Our children and their children’s children deserve to live in a safe and pollutants free environment. It is our responsibility to make our environment safe to ensure their safety, sustenance and the sustainability of the environment in which they would grow up and become the next generation.

 Works Cited

Carson, Rachel 1962. “Silence Spring.” A Mariner Book, Houghton Mifflin Company, NY.
Rocheleau, D., Thomas-Slayter, B., Wangari, E. 1996. “Feminist Political Ecology.” Routledge: London, UK.
Steingraber, Sandra 1997. “Living Downstream: An Ecologist Looks at Cancer and the Environment.” Addison-Wesley Publishing Company, Inc. NY
_______________. 2001. “Having Faith: An Ecologist’s Journey to Motherhood.” A Meryloyd Lawrence Book: Perseus Publishing, Cambridge, MA.


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