One of the surprising themes in the books we’re read this semester is human rights. Perhaps that shouldn’t be unexpected—or perhaps it’s indicative of thinking we are detached from our ecological environment that makes it surprising. Naomi Klein and Bill McKibben both pointed out that climate change is a social justice and human rights issue—the poorest and most vulnerable will be most immediately and most seriously impacted by the ramifications of climate change. Environmental contamination has always had a social justice component, since, likewise, the poor are more likely to live in areas where industrial activities can degrade the environment without much recourse given the limited resources of the population. In Living Downstream, Sandra Steingraber makes the point (one Rachel Carson made in 1962) that dealing with environmental contaminants “requires a human rights perspective. Such a view recognizes that the current system of regulating the use, release, and disposal of known and suspected carcinogens—rather than preventing their generation in the first place—is intolerable. So is the decision to allow untested chemicals free access to our bodies, until which time they are finally assessed for carcinogenic properties. Both practices show reckless disregard for human life” (p 280). We have a very limited ability to control our exposure to environmental contaminants given the pervasiveness of pesticides and industrial contaminants that move through the air, into our water, and in our food web. Should industry and pesticide applicators get to make the decision that results in our inevitable exposure??
Steingraber highlights that cancer pamphlets that you find in the doctor’s office often focus on individual behaviors that contribute to cancer, often giving little or no recognition that most cancers have a strong environmental component—that your fate is in some ways a lottery of where you were born, of the propinquity of your home to a factory releasing toxic compounds or a farm applying pesticides. I find this perplexing. Have my loved ones worried that it was something they’ve done—too much wine, too much food? Have they gone to their deaths thinking this was a bed they made for themselves and that they should have walked a narrower path? This is horrifying. She also points out that even if we take the outdated low estimate for environmentally related deaths from cancer—6%--that this is approximately 33,600 US people who die from “involuntary exposures to toxic chemicals.” This is significantly more who die from hereditary breast cancer and non-smokers who die from lung cancer from secondhand smoke. It illustrates our failure to adjust our fear to the proper targets, something humans are famous for. It may be our superpower.
Steingraber goes on to say that “In 2007, 834,499,071 pounds of known or suspected carcinogens were released into our air, water, and soil by reporting industries. In this light, the 33,600 deaths can be seen as homicides” (p 281). It sounds kind of extreme, but is it really? If our regulatory agencies fail to take the available data that suggest or even indicate the potential harm and continue to allow its release—despite the presence of alternative methods—then it doesn’t seem extreme at all. It sounds downright realistic (aside from the fact that the estimate is a gross underestimate). These are problems that we can solve, but the power that industry either has or is given by our government undermines the solutions, which is ridiculous. Steingraber notes that “…cancer organizations in other nations seem far less bewildered about how to prevent cancer” (p 274) and, therefore, they regulate sensibly. Something we should try a little more often here in the US.
Sandra Steingraber is our modern Rachel Carson and I am so glad to have discovered her. And I am grateful to the graduate students who read along with me this semester. We have read six non-fiction books and I would never have made it through all of them this quickly alone; and I could have never had such interesting conversations with myself as we’ve had together in our seminar.