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Living Downstream:
An Ecologist Looks At Cancer and the Environment

Book Review By Cathleen McGuire

Sandra Steingraber has written an important work about the massive damage caused by the synergistic effects of chemical pollution. One of her more useful contributions is the refusal to attribute genetics or lifestyle choices such as diet, smoking, or exercise as primary explanations for the cause of cancer. While she knows such factors do, of course, play a role, her message (delivered in measured language) ultimately comes down to: "It's the environment, stupid."

With a doctorate in biology, Steingraber is professionally versed in the scientific complexities of PCBs, dioxin, and the literally tons of other pollutants that are regularly—and legally!—released into the environment. She stops just short of overwhelming the layperson with information too technically detailed to absorb. As a balance, interwoven with the chemical recitations is Steingraber's lyrical account of growing up in rural Illinois, the toxification of her community, and her own eventual struggle with bladder cancer.

She pays ample homage to Rachel Carson and the environmentalist's pioneering cri de coeur, Silent Spring. In keeping with Carson's political imperative, Steingraber encourages citizens to take action at the local level. She charges that it is a human right not to be exposed to carcinogens, and that death from cancer is a form of homocide.

For such a meticulously researched book, I was disappointed that Steingraber did not highlight more prominently issues of environmental racism.

I was especially distressed by her clinical detachment of lab experiments on animals. Steingraber documents case upon case of animal research conducted to shed light on carcinogenic toxicity in humans. Ever the old school scientist, she never once questions the ethicalness of such experimentation. Steingraber is concerned that animals likewise are mutating and/or dying, but she is unable to connect the pain of animals in the wild with the pain of those tortured in laboratories.

While she points out that estrogenicity assays with mice are "complex, messy, and expensive," regarding animal assays in general she dryly states, "Without these tests, we can only guess at the number of chemical carcinogens in our midst." There was one sole reference to animal rights, yet it was actually to make a tangential point ("Now that animal testing has become associated with cruelty...").

In spite of what appears to be a lack of consciousness regarding nonhuman animals, Steingraber has written a very good book. When the subject is technical, be prepared to work. But when she goes into poetic mode, her turns of phrase are so compelling that you almost wish she had written Living Downstream as an equally potent novel.