The Allegheny Front Rewind: Prose of an Ecologist and Mother

For The Allegheny Front's 20th anniversary, we've been pulling shows from our archives that haven't been heard in years. But that doesn't mean they've been forgotten. This week for The Allegheny Front Rewind, Kara Holsopple revisits the tape from a well-known environmentalist.

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OPEN: For The Allegheny Front's 20th anniversary, we've been pulling shows from our archives that haven't been heard in years. But that doesnít mean they've been forgotten. This week for The Allegheny Front Rewind, Kara Holsopple revisits the tape from a well-known environmentalist.

HOLSOPPLE: Sandra Steingraber's a famous biologist and poet. In 2001, she was also speaking as a mother when she accepted the Rachel Carson Leadership Award from Chatham College in Pittsburgh.

STEINGRABER: When I became pregnant with Faith, late in my life, I had twenty years of a childless adult life, most of which was spent looking at the relationship between organisms and the environments they inhabit. Professionally I'm trained as an ecologist. And I realized with some astonishment that I myself was now a habitat. And I began to understand that my uterus was a kind of inland ocean, with a population of one.

HOLSOPPLE: Steingraber had just released "Having Faith", a book documenting her first pregnancy with her daughter Faith, and her research about the role of toxic chemicals in fetal development. She called the womb an open doorway. And the chemicals that show up at the door, a toxic time bomb. 

STEINGRABER: It's not so much the dose that makes the poison, it's the timing that makes the poison. So that when certain toxic chemicals are introduced at certain key moments of development, some kind of incredible sabotage can happen, whereas, much larger exposures earlier or even later in development wonít have that same effect.

HOLSOPPLE: For example, she says, childhood diseases may be influenced by contamination before conception, while some miscarriages are a result of toxic exposure in the first trimester.

Even the time of year can be a factor in some cases. Steingraber cites a study on farm children in Minnesota which links fetal development and spring pesticide use with increased risk for birth defects.

Like her popular book, "Living Downstream", which investigates the link between her own cancer and pollution in her hometown, "Having Faith" is both personal and scientific. Steingraber says she uses natural history writing and metaphor to make connections between the environment and personal experience. She continued her acceptance speech at Chatham College by reading a passage from the book about gazing at vials of amniotic fluid removed from her body for testing.

STEINGRABER: I drink water, and it becomes blood plasma, which suffuses through the amniotic sac, and surrounds the baby, who also drinks it. And what is it before that? Before it is drinking water, amniotic fluids is the creeks and rivers that fill reservoirs, it is the underground water that fills wells, and before it is creeks and rivers and groundwater, amniotic fluid is rain. When I hold in my hands a tube of my own amniotic fluid, I am holding a tube full of raindrops. Amniotic fluid is the juice of oranges I had for breakfast, the milk I poured over my cereal, the honey I stirred into my tea.

HOLSOPPLE: Steingraberís latest book, "Raising Elijah: Protecting Our Children in an Age of Environmental Crisis", was released earlier this year.  In it, she turns her microscope on parenting her two children--Faith, now 12, and Elijah, 9-- through the lens of environmental activism. For example, choosing the milk her kids drink turns into an exploration of how policy making affects a familyís health. 

Steingraber continues to speak on the links between environment and cancer. Her book "Living Downstream" has been turned into a documentary. Most recently she's been outspoken about her objections to the diesel exhaust and chemical-laden waste water from hydraulic fracking for natural gas.

You can listen to a longer excerpt of Steingraber's 2001 speech, rebroadcast in 2003, on our website www.alleghenyfront.org.

For The Allegheny Front Rewind, I'm Kara Holsopple.