Sandra Steingraber is a biologist who knows in her body what it means to be poisoned by chemicals. When she was just twenty, she was diagnosed with bladder cancer, which she says is “a quintessential environmental cancer.” In fact, 60% of cancers are environmentally based. Sixty percent.
I first discovered Steingraber’s book, Living Downstream: An Ecologist’s Personal Investigation of Cancer and the Environment, in the process of researching my own book-in-progress, One Canary Sings. I was thrilled to have found someone else who was using her bodily experience of illness to sound the alarms about the damage toxicants are doing to our environment and our bodies. When I learned that Steingraber would be teaching a 5-day workshop in environmental writing at a Vermont retreat sponsored by Orion magazine, of course I had to go.
You can read here and here if you’d like to see some samples of the writing that emerged from that workshop. But what I am more eager to share is my experience of Steingraber the activist. Because she inspired me. Steingraber is a woman on an urgent mission. Here is how she sees it: “We’re living in a time of ecological holocaust…. We can either be good Germans and ignore the signs of atrocity all around us, or we can be the members of the French Resistance and act on what we know.” And what we know, she says, is that one in every four mammals is headed for extinction. And the plankton—which we need for oxygen—is dying. And certain cancers are rampant. “So as a writer I feel a kinship with the 1930s writers who were writing about the horror that was beginning to happen. I feel called to heroism, and I want my writing to call others to heroism.”
So she puts on a johnny and allows a film crew to follow her as she places her feet in the stirrups for her annual bladder exam. And she passes her own breast milk around in a jar to make the point that breast milk is contaminated with over 100 chemicals, including pesticides. And she travels 100 days a year so that she can stand in front of audiences large and small, receptive and not so receptive, to tell them what she knows about how we are degrading the very environment we need to support life. She wants to move people to act. To resist. Because at this point, only large, brave, collective action will be enough. To save the plankton. To save the polar bears and the blue whales and the ocelots. And to save another mammal: Ourselves.
This is what Sandra Steingraber taught our small, intrepid band of writers. And then she told us to go forth and write.
 Verkasalo PK, et. al., “Genetic Predisposition, Environment and Cancer Incidence: A Nationwide Twin Study in Finland, 1976-1995,” International Journal of Cancer, 83: 743-49, 1999, and Lichtenstein P, et. al., “Environmental and Heritable Factors in the Causation of Cancer,” New England Journal of Medicine 343:78-85, 2000, as cited in Yvonne Marie Coyle, “The Effect of the Environment on Breast Cancer Risk,” Breast Cancer Research and Treatment 84: 273-288, April 2004.