Dr. Sandra Steingraber, Who? A local hero and a scientist that has something important to tell us. Hopefully, we can listen.

Not too long ago, The Zephyr published a piece detailing all of the famous people that have either visited or lived in Galesburg. Well, you can add another to that lengthy list. Speaking last Sunday at Knox College, Dr. Sandra Steingraber not only visited but also left her mark on our community with words of wisdom and counsel.

Born in Champaign, Steingraber was adopted as an infant by a family in Pekin. She spent her entire childhood in this nearby city, only 47 miles (76 km) as the crow flies from Galesburg. She spent her undergraduate days at an Illinois school and didn’t leave the state until her mid-20s seeking further education. Currently she is a research faculty member at Cornell University in New York. Given that she grew up less than 50 miles from our beloved town, we should consider her a local hero. This past Sunday night, she came to tell us what she has been doing for the past 16+ years, and based on her work over this time, it is clear why she deserves such heroic stature as well as our immediate ears.

According to Steingraber and a host of other scientific researchers, our civilization has literally dowsed ourselves and our complete surroundings (i.e., trees, soil, rivers, etc.) with thousands of chemicals. There are several aspects of this dowsing that should concern us. First, and foremost, many of these chemicals are suspected to have damaging health effects on humans, as well as, other life forms. Second, most of these chemicals have only recently been produced (say, the last 40-60 years), so the environment is clearly changing and being challenged by these newcomers. Third, almost all of these chemicals exist in the forms and amounts that they do because of human practices–including agricultural, industrial, and many domestic activities as well. Fourth, many of the chemicals that we produce don’t get used in a productive way–that is, they are wasted, disposed of, and/or left abandoned; consider that only a few percent (much less than 5 percent) of pesticides actually make contact with their host target. Fifth, most, if not all, of the chemicals used have replacements that are much less harmful or toxic. And sixth, and perhaps most discouragingly, many of us knowingly buy and use these chemicals without a moment’s hesitation.

Do you think you have been dowsed with chemicals (i.e., overly exposed to toxins found in our environment)? Well, how would you know if you were? If you have lived in Illinois for most of your life, you have certainly been dowsed, and the older you are the more exposure you have undergone. In fact, if you have lived anywhere in the world sometime during the past sixty years, you have been exposed to many toxic substances as well. And, while many of us realize that we have lots of foreign materials in our bodies, ones that are likely damaging to our innards, we don’t often give much thought to the matter. Steingraber tells us why this is a very disturbing state of affairs and something that we shouldn’t continue to ignore.

Steingraber has spent the bulk of her recent life doing scientific detective work to determine how widely people have been exposed to toxic chemicals, and, more importantly, what effects have these exposures have had on human lives. Her investigative research has uncovered the following key pieces of information that warrant our immediate attention; we are certainly indebted to her for bringing many of these findings to light:

Given all these reasons to avoid incinerators, why do they get built? Steingraber notes that small communities with financial difficulties often are targeted for the development of an incinerator. Unfortunately, many uninformed people in these communities are unsuspecting victims because they willing accept the promise of jobs and money for local infrastructure at the expense of their, and others, lives and health.

All of the above findings are well and good but why should you, someone who lives in Illinois, be particularly concerned. As it turns out, a very informative website concerning environmental pollutants (www.scorecard.org) gives us more vivid reasons. Illinois, in 1999, was among the 5 worst states in the country in the following categories: (a) air releases of recognized developmental toxicants; and, (b) air releases of recognized reproductive toxicants. So clearly, our state has a long way to go to clean up our act. A long road begins with a first step. On the bright side, our home, Knox County, receives a cancer risk score (considering air and water releases) among the lowest 20% in the U.S. However, on the negative side, Peoria County, our neighbor to the southeast, is among the worst 10% of all U.S. counties on measures of total environmental release of toxic chemicals and cancer risk score.

With all this information, it is understandable when one feels overwhelmed. But alas, there are many things that one can do to lessen the toxic exposure that all of us (ourselves, our kids, our grandparents, our cousins, our distant relatives, our pets, our birds, etc.) are currently subject to. According to Steingraber, there are three principles that need to begin to be incorporated into our current economic and political systems–precautionary principle, principle of reverse onus, and principle of the least toxic alternative–in order for us to move away from the invasion and dominance of toxic chemicals in our lives.

The precautionary principle asserts that action is warranted when "indications of harm" (S1, 270) are revealed rather than proof. Surprisingly, our country officially accepted the basis of this principle in 1992, when the U.S. signed the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development, an international guideline which states, "Where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainty shall not be used as a reason for postponing cost-effective measures to prevent environmental degradation" (Rio Declaration, 1992). While the precautionary principle is a concept that has received quite a bit of acclaim lately, it hasn’t yet been applied to the elimination of use of toxic chemicals in our environment. Having conducted many scientific studies herself and having examined hordes of research papers in the scientific literature, Steingraber concludes that scientific proof of the specific cause of a given cancer may be a long way off. However, she firmly believes, and so do many others, that there is sufficient evidence to indicate that many commonly used chemicals are cancer-causing. Furthermore, given the levels observed on a regular basis in our drinking water and our air, many chemicals deserve immediate phasing out.

The principle of reverse onus holds that companies that manufacture, sell, or dispose of potentially dangerous chemicals should be responsible for demonstrating their safety. Steingraber points out that we hold the pharmaceutical companies to this standard, but she is very concerned that for most industrial chemicals "no firm requirement for advance demonstration of safety exists" (S1, 270). In short, why do we, the citizens of our nation, allow companies to produce, disseminate, and dispose of toxins without knowing their impact and without making the producers, rather than public, deal with the long-term repercussions of their use?

The third principle, the principle of least toxic alternative, posits that we should always be looking for alternatives which are healthier and safer. Too often the primary consideration in deciding which chemical gets used resolves around production cost and effectiveness. Very rarely are the costs to humanity, in the form of increased cancer potential or increased risk to miscarriage or birth defects, included in the company’s or the agriculturalist’s figures; obviously the costs to other life forms aren’t included either. We all suffer from this short-term focus and long-term myopia (i.e., short-sightedness). We need to do better accounting and provide incentives for alternatives to be adopted. Steingraber is very hopeful and optimistic here, particular because "for every carcinogen," that she examined, "somebody somewhere has found a non-toxic substitute" (S3).

In conclusion, Steingraber tells us that we all need to inform each other of the toxic soup that we live in as a means for changing industry’s fixation on contaminants. We, ourselves, should also stop using known toxins to kill our weeds, deflea our dogs/cats, dry clean our clothes, and wash our homes. Known alternatives exist that are extremely safe, yet we and others are driven by convenience, ignorance and profiteering. The website www.scorecard.org also provides information about the toxicities of various chemicals (such as 2,4-D, Captan, Diazinon, Dursban, Dacthal, Dicamba, and Mecocrop; all of which you can find in local lawn care [a ridiculous euphemism, by the way] retailers). Please go to this site, which is very easy to navigate, before your next spraying or washing. Additionally, people can reduce our toxic burden by supporting organic farming, recycling rather than dumping, finding alternatives to "green" lawn landscapes, eating more vegetables and less animal products, and by using less energy. Every little step toward a cleaner world helps not only you but your neighbors, your fellow earthlings, and your great-great grandchildren too.

Despite the appearance of completeness, the knowledge and wisdom provided by our local hero, Dr. Sandra Steingraber, cannot be summarized in this relatively short article. Therefore, I implore everyone to read her books (noted below) or, better yet, pass one on to each of your loved ones–they will be grateful someday.

Dr. Steingraber had to confront the world of toxic contamination first-hand, when she was diagnosed with bladder cancer while an undergraduate. Let’s hope that more people don’t have to battle with this unfortunate (and avoidable, with proper changes in our industrial systems) disease for all of us to take notice.


Steingraber, Sandra. (S1) Living Downstream: A Scientist’s Personal Investigation of Cancer and the Environment. New York: Vintage Books, 1998.

Steingraber, Sandra. (S2) Having Faith: An Ecologist’s Journey to Motherhood. New York: Perseus Publishing, 2001.

Steingraber, Sandra. (S3) Living Downstream–Having Faith. Lecture. Knox College. April 21, 2002.