Sunday, October 19, 2008

Bioneers: Chemicals = Cancer is a topic at Marin Conference

Scientist warns of cancer link
Paul Liberatore
Article Launched: 10/18/2008 10:46:15 PM PDT

Environmental scientist Sandra Steingraber, hailed by the Sierra Club as "the new Rachel Carson," spoke Saturday at the 19th Bioneers Conference in San Rafael on a subject of intense interest to Marin County women: the link between toxic chemicals in the environment and cancer.

Marin has one of the highest rates of breast cancer in the state, and organizations such as Zero Breast Cancer (formerly Marin Breast Cancer Watch) are calling for accelerated exploration into its possible causes, including environmental factors.

Steingraber's book, "Living Downstream: An Ecologist Looks at Cancer and the Environment," won the Jenifer Altman Foundation award for "the inspiring and poetic use of science to elucidate the causes of cancer."

A senior research associate at Commonweal, the health and environmental research institute in Bolinas, Altman established the foundation shortly before her death of cancer in 1991.

In introducing Steingraber, an internationally recognized expert on the environmental links to cancer and reproductive health, Charlotte Brody, executive director of Commonweal, praised her ability to communicate scientific research through her literary talent.

"You learn the concepts," she said, "but your heart sings at the same time."

In an impassioned half hour talk to an overflow audience in the 2,000-seat Marin Veterans Memorial Auditorium, Steingraber told of being diagnosed with bladder cancer 30 years ago when she was 20.

Now a mother of two elementary school age children, she obviously recovered from her cancer and realized that hope, but she learned some things about her illness that have nothing to do with the high cancer rates in the family that raised her.

"Here's the punchline," she told her audience, "I was adopted."

But, she went on, "It didn't take long for me to learn that bladder cancer is considered a quintessential environmental cancer. We have more evidence for a link between toxic chemicals and bladder cancer risk than almost any other cancer."

Although the medical community ignored the connection between carcinogens and cancer in those days, she suspected that her cancer had something to do with the environment in the Illinois small town where she grew up.

Years later, while researching "Living Downstream," she discovered that she was right. Her hometown and its riverside environs "have statistically elevated cancer rates, three dozen different industries line the river, farmers practice pesticide-intensive agriculture, hazardous waste is imported from as far away as New Jersey and the drinking water wells contain traces of both farm chemicals and industrial chemicals, including those with demonstrable links to bladder cancer."

While decrying the lack of regulation of government oversight and regulation of chemical products in this country, she got a huge ovation when she called for the same kind of crisis-driven rescue of the environment that Congress just gave to the economy by bailing out Wall Street.

"We need a $700 billion bailout to invest in alternative energy and reform our chemical regulatory policies," she insisted. "If we don't take action, we don't know what will happen, but it will be terrible. Our ecology will tank."

Steingraber is currently a distinguished visiting scholar at Ithaca College in Ithaca, N.Y., and a sought-after public speaker.

During her address on Saturday, she referred to the words of her mentor, Rachel Carson, in "Silent Spring," that we are all exposed to "a changing kaleidoscope of chemicals over our lifetimes."

These chemicals are particularly hazardous to pregnant women, an issue she writes about in her follow-up book about her pregnancy with her first child, her daughter, Faith, 10.

In "Having Faith: An Ecologist's Journey to Motherhood," she reveals the alarming evidence of chemicals causing what scientists call "spontaneous abortion."

Seeing this as a problem that crosses political lines, she said she's interested in engaging the pro-life and pro-choice movements in a dialogue on this common ground issue.

"Maybe we can all agree, pro-life and pro-choice, that any chemical with the power to extinguish a human pregnancy has no rightful place in our economy," she said to thunderous applause.

Paul Liberatore can be reached at

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