Sandra Steingraber: The Fossil Fuel Body Burden

The following interview is from Earthjustice's Down to Earth audio program. You can listen to the show here.

This article was published in partnership with

Sandra Steingraber is an acclaimed ecologist and author of the new book, Raising Elijah, which takes a personal yet scientific look at the abundant human exposure to toxic chemicals. She believes that we can both reform toxics regulation and stop climate change by getting off of dirty fossil fuels.

Sandra spoke with Kari Birdseye, national press secretary at Earthjustice in November of 2012.

Kari Birdseye: Sandra Steingraber, welcome to Down to Earth. As a parent, I want to thank you for writing Raising Elijah.

Sandra Steingraber: Thanks for having me.

Kari: You've been called the new Rachel Carson and a poet with a knife. In 1962, Carson wrote Silent Spring, which has been credited for helping to spark the modern environmental movement with its warnings of the dangers of pesticides. Fifty years later, the dangers of toxic chemicals, and particularly their health effects on kids, is still an issue and one that you address in your book, Raising Elijah. Why are there dangerous chemicals still on the market? What is broken and how can we fix it?

Sandra: Well, of all of the transformational laws that came as a result ofSilent Spring, mostly in the '70s—Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, Safe Drinking Water Act, all of this sort of great legislation around the environment—the weakest one of all is the one governing the production and use of toxic chemicals, so-called TSCA—the Toxic Substances Control Act. And from the beginning this law was really set up to fail. It was structured very badly in that it represented the government's first attempt to get a handle on the tens of thousands of toxic chemicals that had come on the market since World War II without any requirement for advanced testing for safety as a pre-condition for marketing.

And instead of doing the right thing, which would have been to say that the burden of proof for demonstration of safety belongs to industry and that as a pre-condition for introducing these things safety was a required result of careful testing, instead, the law gave a pass to this inventory of 65,000 chemicals already on the marketplace and then required some very low bars for testing any new chemicals. So you can see right away that is a disincentive to innovation in chemistry because it's always going to be easier for the industry to fall back on that inventory of 65,000 old chemicals for which they don't need to show anything at all. And at the same time, it blinds those of us in the scientific community from even being able to know what the effects are for people's exposures because we don't have basic toxicology data. And so really, it's this law—the Toxic Substances Control Act—that is at the heart of our broken chemical regulatory system and is placing children in harm's way.

TSCA doesn't require chemical makers to prove the tens of thousands of chemicals made in the U.S. are safe before they end up in items like cleaning products and food packaging.

So [there's a] disconnect between what we know in the scientific community about the effects of these chemicals, and some of them actually now are classified as developmental toxicants, meaning that they have the ability to alter pathways of development, having life-long consequences for health. All that new science keeps piling up, and yet there's nothing in the regulatory system that is required to respond to that, so that the difference between our law and what we know in science grows greater and greater.

Kari: So what do you think would be more effective, tackling these toxic chemicals one by one, such as our legal work against styrene and household chemicals, or reforming TSCA itself?

Sandra: So what I see happening is both. So there are different groups often led by mothers who have become alarmed at one thing or another. In some cases it's flame retardants, which we now know act very similarly to PCBs—one of the few chemicals we did take off the market when we had an inkling of harm. And subsequent evidence shows that that decision was really a good one because now we know that PCBs are not only carcinogens, they're also neurotoxicants, so they act like lead in the developing brain, shaving off IQ points and leading to attention deficit disorders and difficulties with learning. We know that PCBs contribute to shortened pregnancies and therefore pre-term labor, which is the leading cause of disability in this nation because it can actually alter calcium flow through uterine muscle tissue.

So all these things we learn after we ban them, showing us that that decision was a good one. Brominated flame retardants act very similarly, and in addition they have impacts on the thyroid gland and yet, even though we have much more evidence for their harm than we did when we banned PCBs, they're still on the market. So there's a lot of focused activism around single issues, like styrene, like PCBs, like atrazine. And, at the same time then, there are other organizations taking a more systematic approach, who are going after TSCA itself, hoping to reform that law so that we set up a whole new system for testing chemicals both before they're allowed onto marketplace and hopefully also to drag chemicals into the lab finally and test them, so that they're not just innocent until proven guilty and floating around out there in our economy without any testing at all.

Now that more systematic approach is the decision taken by the European Union, so across the Atlantic Ocean more than ten years ago now the European Union, which had a law very similar to TSCA, decided to scrap that and start over, and put a far more precautionary law in place, which can really be summarized as saying "no data—no market." So until you can demonstrate safety, you can't sell it or market it and that includes all of these old chemicals that had been allowed to kind of freely circulate.

Map of the Marcellus Shale.
The geologic formation known as the Marcellus Shale stretches primarily from New York to Pennsylvania, Ohio, and West Virginia.

Where I'm positioning my work right now is actually at a place more upstream even than that. I am now convinced that meaningful toxic chemical reform runs straight through our energy system. Most of these toxic chemicals are petro-chemicals. They come to us because we are building our materials economy out of the building blocks of left-over junk from a carbon-based energy system.

So, for example, the bedrock above which I live here in New York is the Marcellus Shale. It turns out to be the motherload of methane in the United States. And so now we are targeted by the fracking industry that wants to tunnel into it, blow it apart, using water along with a lot of toxic chemicals to get these bubbles of methane out. But what comes up with the methane—which is what natural gas is—are also other volatile hydrocarbons like ethane. And to use up that waste product, we are now planning to build an ethylene cracker north of Pittsburg so that all the waste products from fracking operations can be turned into stuff, like more plastic. Not because we have a human need for more plastic, but because it solves this waste disposal problem. And of course, the oceans become the final depository for plastic. This gets into the fish that we eat and is a menace to the whole food chain.

And so, I'm really interested in solving our toxic chemical problem by decarbonizing our energy system, and I think that will do two things for us at once. It will deal with the problem of toxic trespass, which a lot of us mothers care so deeply about, but it will also be the action required to divert us from this calamitous path we're on as we approach irreversible tipping points with our climate. And of course our children need an abiding climate in which to grow up. They need the ice caps to be frozen, they need the plankton stocks in the ocean to continue to provide oxygen for us—plankton provides us with half of the oxygen we breathe. Those plankton stocks, because of ocean warming and because of growing acidification of the ocean thanks to climate change, those plankton stocks in trouble. So our ruinous dependency on fossil fuels is contributing to two major problems: climate change and toxic trespass. So I'm really interested in going right to the root of the problem, which as far as I can see is blasting carbon out of the ground in the first place.

Kari: So what are you doing and what would you recommend that others do about this? 

Sandra: I'm a big believer that we cannot shop our way out of this problem and that my job as a parent is not to race around and try to create a non-toxic bubble in an otherwise toxic world for my children to live in. First of all, sooner or later my children have to leave home and go out into the larger world. They are already doing that. They're already having sleep-overs; they go to school.

So I can struggle mightily to keep pesticides out of my own backyard and not put vinyl wallpaper in my own house, but I'm actually more interested as a biologist mother in this moment in history in changing the laws and in changing our way of thinking so that toxicity is not anymore a consumer choice. Making non-toxic choices isn't just something that you get to do because you have a computer and can check websites and have the money to go buy a more expensive option, but instead that we simply invest as a nation in green chemistry, green engineering, green energy to get us away from all of this. So I take a human rights approach to all of it.

Last year when I became the lucky recipient of a Heinz Award for my research and writing on environmental health, it came with a $100,000 cash prize, and that became the seed money for this coalition,New Yorkers Against Fracking, which is now a coalition of more than 180 different groups and 1,000 different businesses. So we seek to close the door on a form of extreme fossil fuel extraction here in New York. And, if we have luck and hard work and victory then we seek to transform New York State into a kind of incubator and a showcase for renewable energy and for sustainable forms of agriculture and new kinds of materials that we can use in our homes and in our economy.

Kari: In your book, you address what a forceful public involvement in the climate crisis might look like, and you describe as a civil rights movement. Do you think Hurricane Sandy has helped jump-start that discussion? 

The flooded South Ferry underpass in New York City in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. Climate scientists have been warning about superstorms like Sandy for decades. (DOT)

Sandra: I think it's too early to tell about what Sandy has done. My hope is that it will and in a way that even Hurricane Katrina didn't. And I think that might be true for a couple of reasons. Lower Manhattan is an iconic place that so many Americans have deep familiarity with. I mean, how many of us have stood in Battery City Park waiting for a ferry to go out to the Statue of Liberty; how many of us have walked down Wall Street and Chamber Street? I myself was just walking those streets a week before the flood, and it's hard to imagine now that they're underwater. And I'm not sure we had that kind of relationship with New Orleans.

We're also a state with a progressive history. This is where Harriet Tubman lived. And so we played a proud role in the abolitionist movement and in the Underground Railroad. This is where women's rights began. The national monument where the declaration of rights of women was signed by [Elizabeth] Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony is just thirty minutes from my house. This is the place where Lois Gibbs came from, and the story of Love Canal in 1979 brought us new national legislation in the form of right-to-know laws and Superfund laws. And so out of that cultural history, I think we are poised to take a look at what happened in Manhattan and we're realizing that we really need a radical redesign of our infrastructure. We really do need to stop seas from rising, not just build walls.

And I think it's possible that—Hurricane Sandy and what happened to lower Manhattan and New Jersey—could become the beginning of a transformation. But that is not going to happen all by itself. That's going to happen with forceful engagement of the citizenry creating that narrative. Already we've seen surprising things happen. We've seen our governor speak the words "climate change" very openly. We've seen a Republican governor from New Jersey, Governor Christie, throw his support behind Obama. Now we need as citizens to kind of create the narrative and invite our leaders to be champions of climate change and of green chemistry, green engineering, green energy. That remains a huge job because the world's most powerful industry, the oil and gas industry, I'm sure they're working right now trying to create counter-narratives of some kind.

I'm particularly inspired by the abolitionist movement as a model for how I see us moving forward in this fight for environmental human rights. The environment is the human rights challenge of my generation. Just in the way that my dad had to go out and fight Hitler when he was eighteen and defeating global fascism was the animating task of his generation. He felt it the great shining moment of his life to have participated in that project.

And I feel, as a mother, it's part of my responsibility as a parent that the environmental crisis is really a crisis of family life. It undermines my ability to be a mother. All the tasks of parenting kind of boil down into two categories: one is to protect your children from harm, and the other is to plan for their future. And as long as toxic chemicals are freely allowed to circulate in our environment, in our economy, I can't protect my kids from harm. As I say in Raising Elijah, I'm a conscientious parent but I'm not a HEPA filter. I can't stand between my child's body and the 200 or so different brain poisons that are allowed to freely circulate in our economy.And for me, I feel that we have so much evidence now that the energy pathway that we're on and the way we are creating materials that we use are degrading the actual conditions for a healthy life on the planet to the point where it's an emergency, and we're really required to take action. And there are actual enemies out there, there are things to resist, and that's in the form of an entrenched fossil fuel industry that has basically taken over our government through campaign donations, through lobbying and through writing its own legislation. And that's the task at hand—for us to urgently address these things.

So, I need better laws. And therefore, as a mother, I'm going to go out and work on that. And likewise, climate change is threatening my children's future, so I'm called upon as a parent to forcefully engage with that process. And I think that once you do that, it no longer seems so depressing. I guess that's the really hopeful message here. Because it's when you just sit back and worry about it and do nothing, you feel depressed. But there's something really ennobling and heroic about forceful engagement in it. And it also makes your children feel better. At least that's been my experience.

And I was really inspired by this—and I tell this story in Raising Elijah—about a retired third-grade teacher whom I met, who shared with me the story of teaching during the Cuban missile crisis in 1962, and all her children in her class were terrified that there was going to be nuclear annihilation and that they wouldn't live until adulthood. And when she asked how many of them thought there would be a nuclear attack, all of the kids in the class raised their hands, except for one girl. And so she asked that girl, "Why don't you believe it?" And the child said, "Because my parents are peace activists and they're working to stop it."

So, my kids have to share me with the world, and I'm gone 150 days of the year. And it's not easy. But nevertheless, when I come home after giving Senate testimony, or leading a rally somewhere, or participating in a scientific conference about the health effects of fracking, I'll walk in the door and my kids will look up and say, "Oh hey, mom. Did you ban fracking yet?" So a light bulb kind of went off above my head, and I realized that the way to deal with this issue is not to try to figure out how to tell the story of climate change in just the right way to your children so they're not too upset about it, but at least you're talking to them about it. The way to deal with it is just to take action, and let your children see that you are on the job. That's how they feel better.

They're so sure, in that way that kids are, that their parents are way more influential and powerful than we truly are, that it makes them feel better. It makes them feel safe. And so, I really want to live up to my kids' impressions that I have the power to change things. And I think that if we had more parents engaged in that way, we really coul

Sandra and her son Elijah: "You realize that you, as a parent, can't allow the world to be like this for your children to inherit." (Carrie Branovan for Organic Valley)

And so whenever I feel kind of exhausted or overwhelmed by it all, I'm reminded that my son's namesake—this abolitionist named Elijah Lovejoy from the 1830s—that he became an abolitionist because he became a father. He lived in Missouri around slaves and slave owners, and it really bothered him. But when it became completely unbearable, was when he had a two-year-old son and his wife was pregnant with a second child, their daughter, and he saw children of slaves being sold away from their parents. And he realized that he was putting his life in danger for standing up as an abolitionist. But as he said in a letter to his mother, even though he worried about his children growing up with no father, that as a father he couldn't abide this anymore.

So sometimes, it's that funny contradiction that you have no time to do this because you are a parent, and also your children are entirely reliant on you, so really their well-being depends on you not going to jail or not getting hurt, and yet you realize that you, as a parent, can't allow the world to be like this for your children to inherit; that your forceful engagement is required and that actually becomes the bigger concern.

And I guess that's where I'm at right now with extreme energy extraction, especially fracking. Because my children's homeland, and everything they hold dear about living here, to the oil and gas industry—the most powerful industry on earth—when they look at where I live, it's a target. They just want everybody to leave and they want to get at the carbon in the bedrock under our feet. And so, that's it. Are we going to build a sustainable community on top of this oil, or are we going to let the Earth be turned inside out to keep the addiction going. So it is to me a very epic and profound struggle, and it's one I'm very proud to be part of. And I hope my dad, who passed away now seven years ago, who also had a fight in an epic struggle, would be proud of what I'm doing.

And increasingly now since we've run through all the natural gas pockets that used to be under the ground is the form of giant bubbles of natural gas, you could stick a cocktail straw down into the ground and up came the gas. Now what we're left with are tiny bubbles that are scattered in the bedrock like a petrified fizz of champagne, and to get them out we have to blow up the bedrock. And when you do that you create inherently leaky systems, so that there are methane leaks at every point along the extraction and delivery system. With those methane leaks come really high emissions of greenhouse gases.

Kari: I'm sure he would be and you are an inspiration to us all. What would you say to those people that say, "Natural gas is going to get us to that clean energy future. It's just a bridge"?

Sandra: Natural gas is not a bridge. It's a wall to a clean energy future, and it's always been a wall. Those who claim otherwise are saying so on the basis of no data whatsoever.

Methane is a much more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. Its lifespan is shorter. It lasts on the order of decades rather than the centuries that carbon dioxide will persist in the atmosphere. So depending on whether you look at this over a 20 or 30-year period or a 100-year period, natural gas comes off as worse for the climate than coal, or maybe the same, or maybe a teensy bit better. But what's really clear, and all the authoritative agencies, including the International Energy Agency agree on this, is that natural gas is not better enough than coal to help us avoid catastrophic tipping points. So it's not going to save us.

On the other hand, an immediate effort to decarbonize and invest in real renewable energy will get us there. But we have to do that quickly. There's no time left. And I think the economic data are also clear on this, that the more we invest in shale gas, which is very capital intense, the more we dry up capital that could be going into wind and solar and things that we know for sure would really work.

And so I'm trying to work as a biologist in this moment to expose the metaphors that make no sense, right. And one of those is this idea of natural gas as a bridge. And as a writer too, I'm interested in the way that metaphors kind of shape our thinking about things. So, in a recent piece I said "It's not a bridge. It's a plank that we walk at the point of a sword, and the pirates are not our friends." And so, we just need to get rid of the bridge metaphor because it's absolutely not helpful and inaccurate.

Kari: Well your plank analogy reminds me of your book, because in your book you often use very funny stories, very personal stories, but you always deliver serious messages. Now, how is Raising Elijah different from your past books?

Sandra: Well, I think you just hit on it. I mean, it's my most comedic book. I mean, Living Downstream is still a book I'm most well-known for, no doubt because that was turned into a film. And Living Downstream takes a look at my early life as a cancer patient. I was diagnosed at age 20 with a cancer that my own diagnosing physician pretty much told me was an environmental cancer. So that really, for me, at that young age, as a biologist, redirected my interest away from going to medical school into looking at environmental health.

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 And, of course please visit for more information about our work on toxic chemicals and other pressing environmental issues.

Sandra: Thanks. And I certainly invite listeners to check out Raising Elijah's own Facebook page, which my readers have really turned into a forum on fracking.

Kari: Sandra Steingraber, it has been a true pleasure talking to you. Thank you so much for your time today.


Understand the importance of honest news ?

So do we.

The past year has been the most arduous of our lives. The Covid-19 pandemic continues to be catastrophic not only to our health - mental and physical - but also to the stability of millions of people. For all of us independent news organizations, it’s no exception.

We’ve covered everything thrown at us this past year and will continue to do so with your support. We’ve always understood the importance of calling out corruption, regardless of political affiliation.

We need your support in this difficult time. Every reader contribution, no matter the amount, makes a difference in allowing our newsroom to bring you the stories that matter, at a time when being informed is more important than ever. Invest with us.

Make a one-time contribution to Alternet All Access, or click here to become a subscriber. Thank you.

Click to donate by check.

DonateDonate by credit card
Donate by Paypal
{{ }}