At last year’s Common Ground Fair, internationally recognized ecologist, speaker, author and cancer survivor Sandra Steingraber told a story about her family’s medical history.

There is cancer on both sides of her family and a lot of it, she said, a fact many doctors say predisposes her for cancer. According to several sources, genetics often determine the likelihood of cancer in any one particular person. But, Steingraber ended her tale, consider this: She was adopted.

Considered by many to be an expert on the environmental links to cancer, Steingraber notes that there are more than 80,000 synthetic chemicals circulating in our environment. A mere 2 percent have been tested for their potential cancer-causing effects, she said.

Advocating for strong policy reform and regulation on those chemicals that may have harmful effects, Steingraber will present a free public lecture on Tuesday at the University of Southern Maine in Portland. Her lecture will focus on the links between everyday environmental toxins and human health, specifically children’s health and their readiness to learn.

Steingraber will also present a workshop with local educators at the Friends School in Falmouth prior to the lecture; the workshop is sponsored by the Friends School of Portland Parenting for Peace.

Weaving scientific data with personal narrative, Steingraber asserts that there is reason for hope. In the recently released second edition of her book “Living Downstream: An Ecologist’s Personal Investigation of Cancer and the Environment,” she writes, “The mounting evidence that our environment is playing a bigger role in the story of cancer than previously supposed is good news because we can do something about it.”

In a documentary film of the same name, Steingraber states that people can be “carcinogen abolitionists.” Instead of being preoccupied with remedying diseases caused by environmental pollutants, Steingraber asks that the focus be shifted to preventing pollutants from circulating at all.

In 1998, Steingraber was among an international gathering of scientists, farmers, attorneys, doctors and government officials who holed up in Frank Lloyd Wright’s Wingspread House in Wisconsin to address the ethics of then-current environmental decision making.

The group drafted what is known as “The Precautionary Principle,” a statement that urges precaution when an activity raises a threat of harm to human health. It asks that the burden of proof lie with the industry or organization responsible for the activity, not the public.

Since that time, Steingraber has become a leading proponent of the Precautionary Principle. Currently a scholar in residence at Ithaca College, she draws a specific link between synthetic chemicals derived from coal and oil and their harm to human and animal communities. It is from this connection that she advocates for renewable energy and reduced dependence on petrochemical herbicides and pesticides.

Steingraber writes, “Part of the solution lies in directing a spirit of urgency, inventiveness and ingenuity toward altogether new approaches” to processes often assumed to be harmless simply because of how common and habitual they are.


Holly Zadra is a freelance writer.


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.