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Sandra Steingraber: The Fossil Fuel Body Burden

Acclaimed ecologist and author Sandra Steingraber discusses the need for meaningful reform of toxics regulation and why extreme energy extraction must end.

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So when I spent the four years or so working on  Living Downstream , which is my best attempt as a biologist to summarize what we know about cancer and the environment, I decided to write it as the story of my own cancer diagnosis and my return to my home town, living in my sister's basement, researching the toxic waste dumps and the dry cleaning fluid that got into the drinking water wells and so forth.

And I wrote it as a very serious book. I didn't try to be funny. I did try to use very beautiful language to describe my hometown, even though it's a highly toxic place. It's really a love story between me and this place where I grew up, which I love almost like a child would love an alcoholic parent, as a town that has this substance abuse problem, but I don't stop loving it anyway. And so, most of my big ideas are put forth in that book, about the environment being a human rights issue, and I call for carcinogen abolitionism.

Then I went on become a mother, and my very joyful experience of becoming a mother at 40, after becoming a cancer patient at 20, really lead me to look at these developmental toxicants. And so, as I went and as I developed as a writer, I decided to try more humor because there's a lot about parenting that's sort of inherently funny anyway. And also, I think I've learned to lighten up a little bit knowing that I can do the same amount of serious research and shove a lot of the results in the footnotes for people who really want to get into the weeds, rather than frontloading it all in the narrative. And so there's a lot more storytelling now in my writing. The same amount of research goes into it, but the balance between the personal and the science has changed. Anyhow, there's nothing worse than trying to be funny and failing, so I think comedy writing is actually some of the harder writing there is, so I kind of had to dare myself into it.

Kari: Well, you did a great job. It's a beautiful read, and I laughed out loud a bunch.

Sandra: Oh, I'm glad to hear that! That's music to my ears.

Kari: Is there anything else that you'd like to add?

Sandra: I've been a long admirer of Earthjustice, and I'm increasingly seeing the role that the law plays and the way in which science has to pass through the sort of legal eye of the needle, and so I see law and science really working together.

So the science shows us that the way we're doing things right now is killing ourselves and killing the planet. And I truly believe that the scientists have a duty to protect children, and they're required to take action, especially to prevent children from being exposed to developmental toxicants. But we as scientists can't do that without partnering with organizations like Earthjustice. So when we see, for example, the travesty that's unfolding now in Pennsylvania with fracking, I think there's a role for Earthjustice to play in bringing suits. And then those of us who are privileged to have knowledge because of our membership in the scientific community can then work with Earthjustice in providing that kind of data.

Kari: Sandra Steingraber is the author of  Raising Elijah: Protecting our Children in an Age of Environmental Crisis . Sandra has a great website a t steingraber.com. And, of course please visit  earthjustice.org for more information about our work on toxic chemicals and other pressing environmental issues.

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