Biologist, mother and activist Sandra Steingraber joins Bill to talk about the need to build awareness about toxins that contaminate our air, water and food — and threaten our children’s health. With government captured by the very industries it’s supposed to regulate, Steingraber says she’s lost patience with politicians and corporations, and the time for direct action is now.
Steingraber also talks to Bill about her arrest for illegally blocking the driveway of a natural gas company as part of a protest against the controversial energy extraction process known as fracking. Steingraber went to jail on April 17, the day after this conversation was taped. She is currently serving a 15-day sentence.
“I believe, as do many of my colleagues in the sciences, that it’s not safe to compress explosive gases and store them underneath and beside a lake that serves as the drinking water for a hundred thousand people,” she tells Bill. “From my point of view as a biologist and a mother, this out-of-state company… is trespassing in our community.”
Steingraber returns often to the concept of “toxic trespass” — which “means that chemicals without our consent enter our body sometimes because we inhale them,” she explains to Bill. “You know, each of us breathes a pint of atmosphere with every breath. And so that’s one way in which toxic air pollutants then enter us, into our bloodstream.”
BILL MOYERS: Welcome.This week in the streets of Boston, we were reminded once again that civilization is too often a thin veneer stretched across the passions of the human heart, with those who would commit acts of violence trying to disrupt and even destroy the fragile commons we call society. Fortunately, there are people who will not be deterred from the work of civilization, who will even from time to time go up against authority in peaceful disobedience, taking a nonviolent stand for a greater good. People like Sandra Steingraber, my guest.
SANDRA STEINGRABER: Fight! Fight! Fight!
BILL MOYERS: We met for this conversation the day before she was to be sentenced to jail. It’s quite a story. At the age of 20, Sandra Steingraber was diagnosed with bladder cancer. Several other family members also had the disease, but it couldn’t be genetic because she’s adopted. So Steingraber suspected something toxic in her Illinois hometown’s drinking water and that led to an unusual wager. She talked about it in this 2010 documentary:
SANDRA STEINGRABER in Living Downstream: As a college undergraduate, I made a bet. I bet that my cancer diagnosis had something to do with the environment in which I lived as a child. And I think I was right about this. Ten years ago, in the fall of 1998, I gave birth to a child. I became a cancer patient at twenty and a mother at the brink of forty, which I know isn’t how most people’s lives are ordered, but that’s how mine worked out.
I am betting that in between my children’s adult lives and my own, an environmental human rights movement will arise. It’s one whose seeds have already been sown. I am betting that my children, and the generation of children that they are a part, will by the time they are my age – they’ll consider it unthinkable to allow cancer-causing chemicals to freely circulate in our economy. They will find it unthinkable to assume an attitude of silence and willful ignorance about our ecology.
BILL MOYERS: Sandra Steingraber wouldn’t stay silent, today she is at the very heart of the environmental human rights movement that she prophesied. She’s fighting to identify and eliminate carcinogens in our air, water and food, and to stop fracking, that controversial extraction of natural gas from deep beneath the earth.
She is one of the Seneca Lake 12, a group of activists who last month blocked the gates of a natural gas storage facility in the beautiful Finger Lakes region of New York State. On a bitterly cold day in March they were arrested as they demonstrated against the environmental dangers of fracking and the storing of natural gas in nearby abandoned salt mines. For now, New York has declared a moratorium that prohibits fracking in the state while studies are completed, but there’s no guarantee that gas obtained by fracking elsewhere won’t be stored in those salt caverns.
As you can see, for Sandra Steingraber, there is no line between her life and her cause. When her cancer went into remission, she became a biologist and wrote the book “Living Downstream: An Ecologist’s Personal Investigation of Cancer and the Environment.” Her pregnancy and the birth of her daughter, Faith, led to this combination memoir and study of fetal toxicology, “Having Faith: An Ecologist’s Journey to Motherhood”. And her son’s childhood inspired her latest work, “Raising Elijah: Protecting Our Children in an Age of Environmental Crisis.”
Sandra Steingraber is a visiting scholar at Ithaca College. Welcome.
SANDRA STEINGRABER: Thanks for having me Bill.
BILL MOYERS: There were 12 of you arrested, five have already appeared in court and paid a fine of $375. Why don’t you pay a fine, go home, and call it a day?
SANDRA STEINGRABER: Well, my feeling about civil disobedience is that it works when not only you oppose something and peacefully object to it, but also if the law itself is unjust. And so in this case, I believe that the laws around trespassing are unjust. And so accepting a jail sentence seems to me, for me the way I can best bear witness to that.
BILL MOYERS: What will your children do while you’re in —
SANDRA STEINGRABER: Well, I have a great marriage. And so as my husband says, “There’s a reason, you know, that kids have two parents.”
BILL MOYERS: Yeah.
SANDRA STEINGRABER: And so as I’ve told my children in the days leading up to this that, “If it is ever the case that I can be a better parent to you in jail rather than out of jail, I’m ready to be that parent.”
BILL MOYERS: You were arrested, as you say, for trespassing. You broke the law. You knew you were breaking the law. What did you hope would happen?
SANDRA STEINGRABER: Well, the 12 of us blocked a driveway that a company called Inergy, is using to prepare abandoned salt caverns that are underneath the west bank of Seneca Lake. We’ve been salt mining in the Finger Lakes area of Upstate New York since the 1900s, 1800s, actually. It goes back a long way.
And so there are these abandoned underground chambers that are now being repurposed for the storage of compressed hydrocarbon gasses that are the byproducts of fracking for natural gas. These are things like propane and butane. And so I believe as do many of my colleagues in the sciences that it’s not safe to compress explosive gasses and store them underneath and beside a lake that serves as the drinking water for a hundred thousand people.
And so for me to come to this place and with my body block a truck that had a drill head in the back of it from doing its work was a statement that I was making about the nature of trespass. In fact, from my point of view as a biologist and a mother, this out-of-state company that has bought all these hundreds of acres along the west bank of this lake, near which I live, is trespassing in our community.
BILL MOYERS: What did you hope to accomplish by standing in the way of the trucks going into that property?
SANDRA STEINGRABER: Well, I have sort of internal and external goals, I think. First of all, my own son was born just down the road from where I committed this act of civil disobedience.
BILL MOYERS: Elijah?
SANDRA STEINGRABER: Elijah. And so returning to the same lakeshore to do something else with my body, to use it as a form of speech, to stand between — and it was a howling blizzard, you know, the day we did this, so it was also a physically extreme thing to do. I was very cold. But to place my body in between this truck and where this truck wanted to go, to prevent this company from engaging in what I believe is an act of toxic trespass into our community, was spiritually meaningful to me. And I was—
BILL MOYERS: It was also political, wasn’t it?
SANDRA STEINGRABER: And it was also intended to be a political statement.
BILL MOYERS: To say?
SANDRA STEINGRABER: I have worked very hard as a biologist and as a citizen to bring data forward. I have submitted petitions, I have written letters, I have testified about the dangers that this kind of storage of explosive gasses creates when you use salt caverns as the receptacle. And having overturned all stones for redress of grievance, I find that that regulatory system itself is unresponsive and deaf to the petitions of citizens and scientists.
For example, given that this company has already had accidents at this site, given that it is dumping chemicals into the lake, and that there has been no response, it’s troubling. It’s also troubling to me as a scientist that there’s some of the knowledge about the geology of this area is considered now by the company as proprietary business information, which means that citizens and scientists who wish to offer comment to our government about the plans of this company have no access to data and information that we really would help inform our thinking about whether or not we wish this company to be one of our neighbors.
BILL MOYERS: Presumably, the driver of that truck was a hardworking man, a father, perhaps a grandfather himself. Were you comfortable keeping him from doing his day’s labor?
SANDRA STEINGRABER: I think if you are preventing someone from getting to their work, your reasons better be good ones.
BILL MOYERS: Yeah.
SANDRA STEINGRABER: And the possibility that the work that he was doing would create a menacing situation leading to the possible catastrophic collapse of one of these salt chambers and the destruction of a lake that provides drinking water to 100,000 people rose to that level. And I feel obligated to protect water not just for me, but for those who come after.
And I’m animated in the feeling not only because I study ecology and I have a kind of long view as an ecologist, but also, I’m aware that I myself as a child drank contaminated water, which may indeed have led to my own cancer diagnosis. And in researching the history of my own hometown, discovered that —
BILL MOYERS: In Illinois.
SANDRA STEINGRABER: In Illinois, right. That decisions were made a hundred years ago, 80 years ago, before I was even born, that were careless, that allowed chemicals to, like a falling curtain, to seep into the drinking water aquifers there. I drank that. Other people drank it. And it raised risks to our health. I’m — having had bladder cancer at age 20, I’m now 53, I’ve lived for 33 years as a cancer patient. Of all human cancers, bladder cancer is the one most likely to recur.
So I’m forever in and out of the hospital. And so I’m always aware, as somebody who lives a highly medicalized life, first of all, that there is high economic cost to creating medical problems, chronic medical problems in people.
So we can talk about the economic benefits of fracking, but if we’re making people sick and we’re giving people cancer, if we’re giving people asthma, if we’re contributing to preterm birth and so forth, then are we not creating medical costs in addition?
BILL MOYERS: What response have you had from state officials? Because you’ve been something of a pain in the rear to them.
SANDRA STEINGRABER: Well, I hope I’ve also provided them some good science.
BILL MOYERS: I saw one exchange where you were very frustrated. You were trying to confront a representative of New York’s Department of Environmental Conservation.
SANDRA STEINGRABER: Sandra Steingraber with New Yorkers Against Fracking. We are here to – no, I’m not leaving, I’m standing right here, and I’m insisting to you that the people of New York are not going to let their health be held hostage by your review. All of us in the public health community —
MARC GERSTMAN: Ms. Steingraber –
SANDRA STEINGRABER: Yeah. All of us in the public health community –
MARC GERSTMAN: Listen –
SANDRA STEINGRABER: No, I’m not waiting anymore. All of us in the public health community are demanding that we stop this process now until and unless we have a comprehensive health impact assessment with full public participation –
MARC GERSTMAN: Let me speak if you want to have a conversation.
SANDRA STEINGRABER: I have written you so many letters that you have never responded to. The people of New York insist on a comprehensive health impact assessment. We will not settle for anything less. We are going to open this process up because secrecy cannot protect public health.
MARC GERSTMAN: If you want to have a conversation –
SANDRA STEINGRABER: I have tried to have a conversation with you, you don’t answer any letters. So I am using my voice in front of the people of New York to say we are not going to stand –
SECURITY GUARD: Please leave.
SANDRA STEINGRABER: We are not going to stand for a secret health study.
SECURITY GUARD: Please leave. I’m going to ask you again to please leave the hearing.
SANDRA STEINGRABER: It is my right as a New Yorker to be here.
SECURITY GUARD: It will also be your right to be arrested.
SANDRA STEINGRABER: I wasn’t – I didn’t start off angry. I had important questions that I wanted to ask. And the frustration that many of us do feel in the scientific community in New York, especially the public health community, is the many questions that we have raised about the public health risk of fracking have gone unanswered.
BILL MOYERS: But here’s what the industry says, the American Natural Gas Alliance. “Fracking wells have a smaller surface footprint, therefore requiring half as many wells as was needed 20 years ago. The process is far safer for the environment than other forms of fossil fuel extraction, such as strip mining. The chemicals used in fracking are highly diluted and natural gas is clean and abundant and fracking will provide many needed jobs.” That, in a capsule, is their response to you.
SANDRA STEINGRABER: Yeah. Well, that’s the promotional language that fracking has been unrolled across our nation. But the data tell a different story.
One of my biggest concerns is what fracking does to air quality. We have some new data coming out of Wyoming as well as some of our other Western states like Colorado showing that drilling and fracking operations are almost always accompanied by spikes in ground-level ozone — smog.
And this kind of air pollution kills. We know that. And so we could through a health impact assessment estimate how much ground-level ozone and air pollution would be created through drilling and fracking operations and all the attendant technology that goes along with it. Compressors, flare stacks, diesel engines and so forth, and run the numbers to see how many more children will have asthma, what will the heart attack and stroke risk be, how many more emergency room visits and so on. And we could even monetize those costs.
But so far, we in the scientific community have been unsuccessful in our petition that this kind of science should go forward as a precondition for making a decision about whether to lift the moratorium here in New York or not. So as a substitute for a comprehensive health impact assessment, instead, our department of conservation asked the Department of Health to review a document that we in the scientific community don’t have access to yet.
BILL MOYERS: You were talking about a secret study that they—
SANDRA STEINGRABER: A secret study, right. So I’ve never heard of this actually, in public health. How can you have a secret public health study? It seems almost a contradiction in terms. So those of us who actually live there, who are parents, who have children there and who are also members of the public health community, who have scientific questions, we feel very frustrated.
I have worked for 20 years on toxic chemicals and what we call toxic trespass. And over and over again, we have brought very good science into the public. We have brought it before presidents, we have brought it before Congress. And over and over again, the regulatory system has proved impervious to our petitions.
It is a broken system. It cannot respond to new science. It can’t respond to — it can’t sort of evolve to say, “All right, here’s new evidence that this chemical is linked to preterm puberty in girls or early preterm labor in women or to learning disabilities and so forth.”
There’s nothing in our laws take in that new information and say, “It’s time to redesign our economy so it does not have to depend on chemicals that inherently cause childhood developmental problems.” So that’s one source of frustration for me. At the same time we have climate change, right? And so the way I see this, we have two separate environmental crises.
BILL MOYERS: You call it climate change, I think we can appropriately call it climate chaos.
SANDRA STEINGRABER: Or climate instability, yes.
BILL MOYERS: Yeah.
SANDRA STEINGRABER: That’s right.
BILL MOYERS: Go ahead.
SANDRA STEINGRABER: The environmental crisis seems to me like a tree with two trunks. On one of these trunks is toxic trespass. So all of us are—
BILL MOYERS: Toxic trespass?
SANDRA STEINGRABER: Toxic trespass—
BILL MOYERS: You’ve used that several times. What is it?
SANDRA STEINGRABER: Well, it means that chemicals without our consent enter our body sometimes because we inhale them. You know, each of us breathes a pint of atmosphere with every breath. And so that is one way in which toxic air pollutants then enter us, into our bloodstream.
So the other trunk of this tree of crisis is climate instability in which is created of course by the combustion of fossil fuels and their buildup in our atmosphere such that we’re trapping heat and that heat is being absorbed by the ocean, warming the ocean, but also acidifying the ocean in ways that are now precipitating mass species’ extinctions. And the main actors in the story of climate instability are carbon dioxide and unburned methane. Which is—
BILL MOYERS: And fracking affects those?
SANDRA STEINGRABER: And fracking affects both of those, of course in— first of all, natural gas is methane. And to blast it out of the bedrock and extract it and put it into pipelines and process it and get it to market so that we can make our tea kettles whistle, much methane is lost to the atmosphere in that, during that time.
Methane is a much more powerful greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, more than twenty times more powerful over a 100-year period.
And so as far as I can see then this tree of crisis has a common root, which is a kind of ruinous dependency on fossil fuels.
BILL MOYERS: You are confronting here the current momentum of capitalism, and a hundred-year momentum of capitalism where creating commodities and wealth require the processes that are sometimes dangerous to us, or that provide economic benefits.
I read — in preparing for this conversation, I read the story of one fellow who’s been working at odd jobs, taking welfare when he must, who’s now expecting a windfall of up to $300,000 a year for the next decade from a lease he signed for fracking with Chevron. Now do you really expect him to turn that down?
SANDRA STEINGRABER: Well, once they get to the level of — to the end of the process, where we’re asking a desperate farmer to turn away from looking at the bedrock under his feet as a bank account, you know, as a piñata that could be shattered to make money so he could retire, so he can send his children to college — we’ve failed, right? We’ve failed.
And so I’m far more interested in going upstream and looking at this as a design problem. To say, “All right, so we’ve had our run of fossil fuels. And we’ve become incredibly dependent on them to make stuff for us, right?” So the vinyl siding on your house is made out of natural gas, right.
And hydrous ammonia, which is used as synthetic fertilizer in our wheat fields and our corn fields, also made out of natural gas. So we have created an agricultural system that rides a tandem bicycle with the fossil fuel industry. We have created a materials economy and surrounds ourselves with material that are essentially fossils that were exhuming from the earth at a way that is not sustainable. They’re called nonrenewable for a reason.
And so it’s time to engage human ingenuity to do something entirely different.
And that’s where I’m interested in working. Because it seems to me when I look back at history, we have, in the United States, faced other times where our economy was ruinously dependent on some kind of abomination. And of course, slavery would be the one I would use as my example here. Where people had to rise up and say that even though millions of dollars of personal wealth is bound up in slave labor, even though slave labor offered us the lower prices of goods, offered us ability to be competitive in the world market, it’s wrong to do that.
And instead of trying to regulate slavery, control slavery emission rates, have state-of-the-art slavery, we decided to take an abolitionist approach to that. So I named my son Elijah, you know, after an abolitionist from my home state of Illinois, Elijah Lovejoy, who—
BILL MOYERS: A great newspaper editor.
SANDRA STEINGRABER: That’s right.
BILL MOYERS: I learned his story when I was growing up.
SANDRA STEINGRABER: Every Illinois school child learns the story.
BILL MOYERS: And many in Texas did as well.
SANDRA STEINGRABER: Well, he’s he plays a role, of course, not only as an abolitionist but as a defender of our First Amendment rights.
BILL MOYERS: Ultimately killed by a mob.
SANDRA STEINGRABER: Ultimately pumped full of five bullets in the free state of Illinois, you know, just down the stream from where I grew up. For daring to write and speak out against slavery. But his— best friend who was then the President of Illinois College in response to the death of Elijah Lovejoy turned his home into a station in the underground railroad. And his best friend’s sister was Harriet Beecher Stowe, who went on to write Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and so—
BILL MOYERS: Unintended consequences of taking a stand.
SANDRA STEINGRABER: That’s right.
BILL MOYERS: Doing the right thing at the right moment.
SANDRA STEINGRABER: And you can’t always predict, right, of the power and inspiration that your words will have. Of course, his words affected John Brown, it affected the abolitionists in Boston and so forth. And so when — I had to pause for a long time, in fact, it took me three long days after Elijah’s birth before I actually named him Elijah, after Elijah Lovejoy.
It’s a hard thing to name your son after someone who was martyred. But I wanted to, when I say my son’s name, I wanted to remember that change is possible. That when you stand up and do the right thing and ask for something to be redesigned, that that’s a noble and right thing.
BILL MOYERS: But here’s what you’re up against. The energy industry very easily got a loophole placed in federal legislation just a few years ago which exempts fracking from many of the country’s major—
SANDRA STEINGRABER: Yes.
BILL MOYERS: —environmental protection laws, including the Safe Drinking Water Act. Is that correct?
SANDRA STEINGRABER: That’s right.
BILL MOYERS: So what does that tell you?
SANDRA STEINGRABER: Well, what it means is that it’s an outlaw enterprise. That it has succeeded in exempting itself from our nation’s foremost environmental laws so our federal government doesn’t have much control or power over this industry.
BILL MOYERS: Here’s what I take to be the startling point in your new book Raising Elijah. You say that our chemical regulator system has ground to a halt. “Only 200 of the more than 80,000 synthetic chemicals used in the United States have been tested under the Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976. And exactly none of them are regulated on the basis of their potential to affect infant or child development.”
SANDRA STEINGRABER: Right. So the science moves forward at a much more rapid rate than this law can respond to the science. And so when the Toxic Substances Control Act came into being, we didn’t understand, as we do now, that chemicals can enter the story of child development as starting with the embryo, right, as this kind of opera of development begins. And genes are turned on through the actions of hormones.
Our D.N.A. is we now understand more like the keyboard of a piano than it is the master molecule of a cell, right? We used to think that the D.N.A. was just sort of locked in the cell and with the command center that sent out messages for all our bodily functions, new science shows us that environmental signals from the outside world are like the keys to are like the hands of a pianist who depending on what the signals are, of course, you can play jazz or you can play a Bach cantata.
And so our genes are turned on and turned off, they’re made to sing more loudly, or the volume of their activity goes down, depending on the environmental signals they receive. So we come to see our genetics and the environment that we have it as partners. And so that’s our new scientific understanding. But we don’t regulate chemicals on the basis of whether or not they alter the way a brain cell migrates during early infancy which could lead to a learning disability, for example.
BILL MOYERS: One of the most harmful toxins is Atrazine. One of your peers at the University of California Berkeley, Dr. Tyrone Hayes, who is featured in your film Living Downstream, and he says, quote, “There’s almost no aquatic environment, including rain water, that’s Atrazine free.” Here he’s speaking about that toxin.
DR. TYRONE HAYES in Living Downstream: So, this is Darnell. Darnell is going to be famous. He’s the first genetic male frog that actually completely turned into a female upon exposure to Atrazine. So he’s been exposed to Atrazine at one part civilian since tadpole stage. And now he’s an adult male that mates with other males and that actually lays eggs. So he’s a functional female.
He may very well be a hermaphrodite if we dissect him. But he’s a functional female, anyway. And he has now lots of genetic male sons that have also turned into females after exposure to Atrazine. We’ve also worked in what I call ambient levels of Atrazine. So we’ve always worked with levels that you would find, you know, in your drinking water, for example.
Effects have been shown in fish, amphibians, reptiles, birds, and mammals. So every vertebrae class has been examined. Atrazine has these endocrine-disrupting effects that include impairment of reproduction or lowering reproductive success and performance […] All those pesticides that run off the crops are in that water destroying immune systems, destroying reproduction, lowering sperm count of frogs. But the first species exposed to those same pesticides are humans. And they’re exposed at much, much higher levels.
SANDRA STEINGRABER: Well, Atrazine is one of the weed killers that we use in the United States and it’s either the number one or number two weed killer. And interestingly it’s banned for use in the European Union. And that’s because even though we, of course, don’t photosynthesize the way plants do, the weed killer has the power in our bodies to be biologically active.
In a plant, what Atrazine does, it actually halts photosynthesis itself. In us, it has the ability to mimic hormones and alter gene expressions in ways that there is evidence from the laboratory can raise the risk for harm. So the question becomes with a chemical like Atrazine, how much harm and evidence for it do you want before you say, “We’re not going to allow this.”
So do chemicals, like people are they innocent until proven guilty? Are they allowed on the market first until we can prove by dying or by harmed children that the chemicals should not be on the market? Or are we going to create precondition to say that before a chemical can be marketed you have to demonstrate through careful testing that almost certainly no one is going to get hurt. Most people would agree that the second way of doing things is the ethical, rational way to go forward and a lot of people are surprised to learn that that’s not how we do things in the United States.
BILL MOYERS: There’s a scene in the film Living Downstream where you go back to your hometown in Illinois to speak to farmers and other town folks at a town hall meeting. Here it is.
SANDRA STEINGRABER in Living Downstream: This is breast milk […] In this jar of milk are all kinds of growth factors whose job it is to stimulate the development of the brain and to stimulate the development of the digestive tract and to stimulate the development of the immune system. Breast-fed infants grow into children who have lower risk for autoimmune problems such as diabetes, Crohn’s disease, juvenile arthritis, leukemia, allergies, and eczema.
So now I’m going to talk a little bit about breast milk from a chemical point of view. In this jar is the most highly chemically-contaminated human food on the planet. It has more dioxins, more toilet deodorizers, more mothproofing agents, dry cleaning fluid, pesticides, and P.C.B.’s than any other human food. And they didn’t get there on purpose. They were carried to us by ecological forces outside of our individual control. They represent a form of toxic trespass.
SANDRA STEINGRABER: Talking about children’s wellbeing I think is a good place to begin a conversation about these issues, especially in places that are animated by right to life issues, right? And so I’m not a member of the right to life community and yet having grown up in that community, I do respect those whose paramount concern is the sanctity of fetal life.
I look it as an issue of a woman’s reproductive rights. You know, a woman’s body is the incubator and the first environment for a child. And that surely the flipside of Planned Parenthood is to be able to plan a parenthood and carry it out without other people’s toxic chemicals interfering with it.
But whether like me you’re someone who sees this as an issue of women’s reproductive rights, or whether like members of my family you see it as an issue of fetal sanctity I think we can have a conversation about what it means for chemicals to cross the placenta and enter the opera of embryonic development in ways that can sabotage pregnancy — in some cases extinguishing pregnancy itself through miscarriage.
And some of our farm chemicals, some of the chemicals associated with drilling and fracking operations are linked in laboratory studies to those effects. And so I think what we can say is look, any chemical that has the power to extinguish a human pregnancy has no place in our economy. We need to identify these chemicals and phase them out. And so that, I think, a starting point that has the ability to unify a lot of people across political lines.
BILL MOYERS: So talk to me about what you mean with the term in here “the new morbidities of childhood.”
SANDRA STEINGRABER: So there have always been chronic illnesses that have affected children. But never as many as there are now. So we see increasing rises in the new morbidities, which include things like asthma. You know, we now have an increasing number of children who are affected by asthma.
BILL MOYERS: One in 11, I think I read—
SANDRA STEINGRABER: One in 11.
BILL MOYERS: —in your book.
SANDRA STEINGRABER: Yeah. One in eight children who are affected by preterm birth, preterm birth being the number one cause of infant mortality and the number one cause of disability in this nation. We have increasing numbers of children on the autism spectrum, now one in 110 children are autistic.
BILL MOYERS: Autism, right.
SANDRA STEINGRABER: Yes. And we have one in ten girls going — white girls going into puberty before age eight and an even higher number of black girls.
BILL MOYERS: So what does that mean?
SANDRA STEINGRABER: Well, what that means is that the pathway to sexual maturation is changing. And that has lifetime consequences. First of all, early puberty raises the risk for breast cancer in adulthood. But also when the body of course changes during puberty, but our brain also changes under the guidance of sexual hormones. In fact, you grow a whole new brain during puberty.
The childhood brain, the juvenile brain is actually much better than the adult brain at doing certain tasks. For example, learning a foreign language, learning an athletic skill, and learning music. When you go through puberty, the pattern of your gray matter and white matter actually changes. Old connections are pruned away, new brain connections are made, and that allows for other wonderful things. You learn calculus better after puberty, you know how to think philosophically and how do balance complex moral issues and think abstractly better after puberty.
So there are some things you gain in terms of intellectual prowess, but some things you lose. And so by speeding up the onset of puberty, we’re altering the way children learn not only whether or not they appear to be sexual adults or not, right? And so if girls now have one and a half fewer years before puberty, then that raises questions in my mind about what we’re robbing them of.
BILL MOYERS: Are you suggesting environmental factors are only causing these things?
SANDRA STEINGRABER: I’m saying environmental factors are contributing to the change. So the same chemicals that can cause a hastening of sexual maturation in lab animals are in the bodies of our children and we know that patterns of the timing and tempo of puberty in our children are changing.
And I think it’s a picture that raises ethical questions. I mean, I as a mother have a lot of control over what I feed my children, especially when they were young.
I’m the buyer of the groceries, I’m the family cook, and I get to say what’s on the plate. I also get to say whether or not you get to have dessert or whether or not my kitchen’s closed and so on, right? However, although I’m a conscientious parent, I’m not a HEPA filter, right?
I can’t stand between the bodies of my children and the 207 different brain poisons that are legally allowed to circulate in our economy and find their way into the air, into the water, and into the food. And so rather than trying to turn my own house into a kind of toxic-free bubble, I’m more interested in toxicity not being a consumer choice.
BILL MOYERS: Toxicity not being a consumer choice? What do you mean?
SANDRA STEINGRABER: Well, I mean that as things stand now, if I want to ensure that the objects inside my house don’t affect my children’s development, I can look up websites, I can do all the research, and so on. And I can buy the, you know, the organic crib mattress and on and on. But I don’t have practically have the time as a busy, working mother, to vet every single birthday party goodie bag that comes into my house.
And on a larger level, I think that if we have evidence for harm, then the right response is not, “Well, let’s create a website so that certain mothers who have certain educational levels and income can opt out of that.” But rather, it becomes our responsibility as a society to say, “Well, wait a minute. Here we have evidence that we are, you know, keeping dandelions out of soccer fields using a chemical that has a link to some problem in child development. Can we solve this problem in another way? And if we can, is it not our moral obligation to insist that this now become the way we do things?”
BILL MOYERS: I think I’m beginning to understand what you mean in here by a well-informed futility syndrome.
SANDRA STEINGRABER: Yeah. Well-informed futility is an idea that psychologists hit upon in the 1960s, specifically to explain why the people watching television news about the Vietnam War came to feel more and more futile about it. Whereas people who watched less television felt less futile. So it seemed like a paradox, right? The more informed you are, you think of knowledge as power.
But in fact, there is a way in which knowledge can be incapacitating. And so the psychologists went further and now have applied this to the environmental crisis and point out to us that whenever there’s a problem that seems big and overwhelming, climate change would be one, and at the same time, it’s not apparent that your own actions have any meaningful agency to solve that problem, you’re filled with such a sense of despair or guilt or rage that it becomes unbearable.
And so my response to that is basically what the book Raising Elijah is all about. So I try to take well-informed futility as my starting point and let people know that there is a way out of this. But because we can’t — I can’t honestly tell you that the problem is less bad than it is, the response has to be that we scale up our actions. So the problem is huge. And so our actions have to be huge as well.
BILL MOYERS: Is that why you’re going to jail?
SANDRA STEINGRABER: Yes. I mean, I think what’s required — I don’t think you have to go to jail. That’s an act of conscience that I chose to take. But I do think that what’s required at this moment is heroism. And I’m mindful that when I read books to my children, they love to hear the narrative of heroes.
And heroes that can overcome all kinds of odds when everyone is telling them they can’t possibly win, and they do. And I still believe in that very strongly. I was really moved by a conversation I had and I describe this in the book, with a third grade teacher who taught during the Cuban Missile Crisis in the early ’60s. Her class was so terrified that she had to suspend lessons and just talk to them about it.
And at one point in asking her class questions about the situation she realized how all of them fully expected to die. And so she asked, “Well, how many of you believe that there will be nuclear war within your lifetime?” And every single child’s hand went up except for one girl. And so she was wise enough to ask that one girl, “Well, what makes you think that you won’t die?”
And the answer was, “Because my parents are peace activists, they’re going to stop it.” So that made me realize in thinking through the story that my task as a parent is not to come up with the perfect climate change story to tell my children.
It is not to hide the data on my desk when they’re old enough to read it because I’m fearful that it will upset them. Instead, my job is to be a hero. My job is to go out there and stop it, to tell my children, “Look, climate change is a serious problem. It’s a threat to your future. But Mom is on the job.”
That’s why I’m up at 3:30 on the morning, pushing the button on the crock pot, “There’s your dinner, you’re going to have to do your own homework tonight. I’m off to Albany. I’m trying to stop fracking.” This is why. And my kids therefore, fully believe that I’m capable of doing this, right?
BILL MOYERS: But Joseph Campbell told me that the hero’s journey belongs to every man and woman.
SANDRA STEINGRABER: That’s right.
BILL MOYERS: Everyone has to take her own route into the hero’s journey. But every mother can’t be a biologist. Every mother can’t be going to jail to inform her children that she’s out there on duty to make the world better. Can you give me a few practical things that mothers listening to us right now, and fathers I may say, can do to protect their children in this — what you describe as a relatively hostile environment?
SANDRA STEINGRABER: Well, I see my job, Bill, as not helping people to feel that they can be safe, but rather showing and illuminating people where the paths for activism lie. Because this is how I could sort of conceptualize it, I think. Going back to the Cuban Missile Crisis, people who lived through that time could either build a bomb shelter or they could work on disarmament.
But if you work on building a bomb shelter, then you actually create a sense that this is less unthinkable than it should really be. And so sometimes you need to feel unsafe to feel vulnerable to say, “I’m not going to build a beautifully-appointed, toxic-free bubble for my family, because sooner or later my children have to grow up anyway and enter the world,” right?
They going to need some pollinators, they’re going to need some coral reefs, they need the ice caps frozen so that the climate remains stable. And so it’s my job to address myself to those issues. I can’t tell people what they should do because I don’t know what skill sets they have. But I can say that it is time now to play the save the world symphony.
I don’t know what instrument you hold, but you need to play it as best as you can and find your place in the score. You don’t have to play a solo here. But this is our task now. In the same way that my father at age 18 was shipped off to Italy to fight Hitler’s army, it was his task of his generation to defeat global fascism. And at the time he was sent it looked like an overwhelming job, right?
I mean, it looked – it was supposed to be the thousand-year reign and it looked — didn’t look good for our side. But nevertheless, that was the right thing to do. And my father, even though he suffered his whole life from what we would now call post-traumatic stress disorder was never prouder of the role that he played.
And so at this point in our history, it is the environmental crisis that is the great moral crisis of our age. And in that, I don’t want to be a good German. I don’t want to be so paralyzed by well-informed futility syndrome that I don’t look around me and see the signs of harm. I want to be one of the French resistance. One of the people who stand up and say, “This is not right. No matter how difficult this is to change, we’re going to have to change it.”
BILL MOYERS: Sandra Steingraber, thank you very much for being with me and good lucky to you.
SANDRA STEINGRABER: You’re welcome, Bill. Thanks for having me.
BILL MOYERS: On Wednesday, the day after our conversation, the judge sentenced Sandra Steingraber and two other activists to 15 days in jail after they pleaded guilty to trespassing.
SANDRA STEINGRABER: Go out and fight. Write letters to the editor.
BILL MOYERS: She’s doing her time as we speak.