Living Downstream: An Ecologist Looks At Cancer and the Environment

Living Downstream: An Ecologist Looks At  Cancer and the Environment

Living Downstream An Ecologist Looks At Cancer And The Environment by Sandra Steingraber (New York: Addison-Wesley, 1997, $24)

This very well written scientific book by Sandra Steingraber, in my opinion,  is the “Silent Spring” of this decade.  It is an update of what Rachel Carson warned us about in 1962:  That cancer and other diseases are part of our food chain and they are factored into all parts of the economy and the environment.

Comparing Rachel Carson’s era to today, Steingraber wrote: “At mid century(1950) 25 percent of adults in the U.S. could expect to get cancer during their lifetimes; today about 40 percent of us (38.3 percent of women, 48.2 percent of men) can expect to get cancer.  Omitting lung cancer from the statistics, the incidence (occurrence) of cancer increased 35% in the U.S. between 1950 and 1991. If we include lung cancers, then cancer incidence increased 49.3% between 1950 and 1991.”

The following quotes from the book help to explain her basic premise:

In 1964, two senior scientists at the National Cancer Institute, Wilhelm Hueper and W.C. Conway, wrote, ‘Cancers of all types and all causes display even under already existing conditions, all the characteristics of an epidemic in slow motion.”  The unfolding epidemic was being fueled, they said in 1964, by “increasing contamination of the human environment with chemical and physical carcinogens and with chemicals supporting and potentiating their action.’ And yet the possible relationship between cancer and what Hueper and Conway called ‘the growing chemicalization of the human economy’ has not been pursued in any systematic, exhaustive way…. Industrialized countries have far more cancers than countries with little industry (after adjusting for age and population size). One-half of all the world’s cancers occur among people living in industrialized countries, even though such people are only one-fifth of the world’s population.  From these data, WHO (the World Health Organization) has concluded that at least 80 percent of all cancer is attributable to environmental influences.

Sandra Steingraber writes from a very personable point of view.  She was a victim of bladder cancer.  The book is interplay between her scientific knowledge and her personal quest to establish the cause of her cancer.  This aspect makes the book interesting to read.

This aspect also gives real meaning to the journey that we travel with Steingraber.  She describes the development of toxic substances through warfare.  We learn about the hazards of pesticides and how they effect the food chain, the water we drink, the air we breathe, the hazards of the workplace, and how some off the fish are gone from the waters and the birds are gone from the sky.

In the course of the journey, she explains scientifically how the different chemicals react to cause cancer.  (I have had to travel the same journey, and this book has taught me to better understand my own cancer.  Sandra Steingraber is also a vary good teacher!)

We learn about her hometown in Central Illinois.  We discover what she was exposed to from conception to the present.  That DDT is still present in the land and in the food chain.  She describes the need to understand the interplay between the polluting factories and mode of agriculture.  She mentions that “according to the most recent tally, forty possible carcinogens appear in drinking water, sixty are released by industry into ambient air, and sixty-six are routinely sprayed on food crops as pesticides.” (Prior to the introduction of pesticides, one-third of the crops were lost to insects, weeds, and disease.  Today those figures still hold as insects, weeds, and disease become resistant to pesticides.  Humans do not reproduce quickly enough to become resistant.)

In the conclusion of the book, we see the transformation from a scientist discovering the causes of her own cancer, to a social activist opposing  and stopping a hazardous waste incineration plant from being built in her hometown.

She concludes that it is necessary to spend more effort to prevent cancer.  To try to study for and replace substances that are carcinogens. She asserts that chemicals should be proven to be safe before they are used, just like pharmaceuticals.  To stop waiting for the body counts to determine if a product is dangerous.  Lastly she advocates that the prevention of preventable diseases, like cancer, and their elimination are a human rights issue. (This has recently been dramatically proven by the revelations that, in the 50’s, the government had a high priority to tell Kodak that nuclear fallout was dangerous to film and to lie to the public and state that the radioactivity from the fallout was safe! So much for the government’s concern for our rights!)

She has therefore transformed herself into a social scientist.  (Steingraber applies the science initiated by Rachel Carson to developing social solutions to the problems posed.)

Below is a quote made by the Chemical Manufacturers Association in 1990:

. . . There is no doubt these patients are ill…and deserving of compensation, understanding and expert medical care (…) The primary impact on society would be the huge cost associated with the legitimization of environmental illness. . . .

The conclusion in the above statement is absolutely correct.  There is currently a huge cost in human life and the pursuit of happiness.  The ‘cost’ they talk about are the costs to capitalists if environmental illness is recognized.  In fact, environmental illness is so intertwined within our society that it requires all of humanity to act, in their overall interests for survival as a species, to correct the problem.  It requires a society where humanity has social control over the entire environment, social, economic, and political. This is why Socialist Action advocates a socialist society.

This book is well worth reading.