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Since I take my kids to the library frequently, I too often check out books and DVDs. I love libraries. I love everything about them, from the oldest materials, to the newest, to the feel of book spines when I run my fingers down a row of books on a shelf, to the smell of paper and remnants of glue and ink.

I recently posted a diary about Silent Spring. I had only just read it, and quickly thereafter I found another 2nd book, that uses Silent spring as a jumping off point, about environmental toxins, with a focus on cancer clusters.

It's callled:

Living Downstream: An Ecologist's Personal Investigation of Cancer and the Environment by Sandra Steingraber.

Follow me through the orange portal if this interests you.

In some ways, I am an accidental environmentalist. I won't claim to be an expert in anything, just a very concerned citizen. After having spent my time in the military, I can name an impressive list of chemicals I have been exposed to, that would make the author of this book cringe. It wasn't until I dealt with environmental illness, or at least realized that some of my health issues had environmental roots, that I became as interested, as I should have been all along.

Blame it on the ignorance of youth mixed with a prevailing social attitude. Like many people, I always cared about the environment, but until recently [the last 20 years or so] I hadn't realized just how bad things are, nor how much worse they are going to get.

Rachel Carson died of breast cancer shortly after she wrote Silent Spring. She hid her illness, to the point that she instructed her closest friend not to mention this outside of private correspondence. Rachel was frightened that her illness would be used to discredit her work with regards to environmental contaminants and their health effects on living things, and that included human subjects (pp 28). What is amazing about this book is that Ms. Steingraber is also a cancer survivor. She is writing about her own illness, and the indignities of it all, while simultaneously weaving this account into her research regarding chemical contaminants that are linked to cancer, or associated as pollutants, with communities that have high rates of cancer, all sorts of cancer. She does just the opposite of Carson, by using her own cancer and treatment as a counterpoint to her research.

I agree with Steingraber. Cancer survivors have very valid opinions and observations to share. Ones that we ignore at our own peril. How can we put these people through such an incredible crash course on human physiology, medicine, chemistry, and bureaucracy, without listening to what they have to say? What hard won wisdom would these survivors bring back from this harrowing of hell? It's hard to tell, we only just finally passed a law so that they can now find affordable healthcare after having had the audacity to not die of their diagnosis.

As I made my way through this book, I was struck at how it appears that the author assumes most of the people reading her book will be in the midst of cancer treatment. She makes no bones about the belief, that nominally healthy people will be disinterested in this subject, because it doesn't affect them directly.

Maybe you are reading these words while receiving chemotherapy infusion. Maybe you are sitting in an oncology waiting room or at the bedside of someone recovering from cancer surgery. Maybe you recall that you flunked high school chemistry and have only the vaguest notion where carbon is positioned in the periodic chart of elements. (It's number 6.) No matter. You still have online access to the TRI. You can still show up at county board meetings when decisions are being made about toxic chemicals. You'll know what to say. [Steingraber pp 121-122]
Those are powerful words, especially at the end. "You will know what to say." She is giving the reader power. She is giving us permission to speak out.

And if you live in Illinois, this book will blow your mind. That is her home state. And she graphically describes the sources of various contaminants and known carcinogens in her state, along with staggering statistics of illness with regards to the communities around these sources. She discusses communities in other states as well. Mostly though she is showing the connection between these contaminants and human illness. She also presents ways for us, to check for releases in our home states, well if those industries choose to self report in the absence of a regulatory agency.

America needs to make stricter laws regarding the use and storage of chemicals and their waste products. We have needed to do this for a very long time, but haven't. Like our battle with tobacco companies, there has been much misleading information that generates misleading policy and mindsets that are a hazard to us all. 2 percent of the 80 thousand plus chemicals out there have been assessed for toxicity.

Here, then is a deeply underacknowledged truth: most chemicals in commerce have never been vetted. We know nothing about them. Too often, this unknowingness is paraphrased as "there is no evidence for harm." And this in turn is sometimes translated as "the chemical is harmless." Lack of knowledge about safety becomes an implicit endorsement of safety. [Ibid pp102]
This is yet another area in which America, lags woefully behind other developed nations. We can and should do better by this, if not for ourselves then for our children.

The book is thick. It's overflowing with information. But don't let that discourage you, Steingraber has taken great care to explain various concepts in her book so that a layman can contextualize this information. She also provides an long list of additional resources as well as sources cited so that you can read her sources for yourself.

What I particularly like about her style of communication is how she draws different sources together, showing things like rates of dog cancer in certain populations, and how those can be warning signals to their human counterparts.

In their ordinary life as our pets and companions, dogs are still providing cluse to the link between environment and cancer. A study of more than eight thousand dogs showed that bladder cancer in these animals is significantly associated with residence in industrialized countries, a pattern that mirrors geographic distribution of bladder cancer among humans. (Ibid pp131)
She also speaks of alarming rates of cancer in of other animals, such as Beluga whales in the St. Lawrence river. Ms. Steingraber is backtracking her own cancer diagnosis, to exposure to possible causes, but as she digs, she finds many other stories and illnesses worth relaying. She realizes she and her illness are in a web of silence with other humans and animals, all wrapped up with superfund sites, strip mining, manufacturing, pesticides, degreasing agents, herbicides, solvents, bi-products, petroleum products, particulate matter, etc., The roots of these illnesses, her illness are everywhere in reality, and yet nowhere socially, simultaneously.

Everywhere and Nowhere, just like cancer is supposed to be. Like this just happens out of the blue for no reason, your number is up! Boom you got cancer! There is increasing scientific evidence, some of it older than I, that say otherwise.

The most difficult part of the book so far  has been to accept that part of what drives this notion that the absence of proof of harm = safety, is that in these studies, regardless of sample size or location, that there are no control groups to be found who have not been exposed at one time or another,  forever affecting the validity of the results of any given research. It's pretty twisted when you think about it.

What makes this book very special is the inclusion of studies on exposure that look at epigenetic functions, and of course the notion of the toxic cocktail.

We don't know always, what happens when contaminants mix upon exposure or when they enter a body already exposed to other things. We know and we don't know.

Some produce even more toxicity upon becoming a mixture. Some are metabolized into more deadly chemicals. This is something that hasn't be adequately discussed or studied. Think about all the chemicals we come into contact with each day, on receipts, from plastics, gasoline, exhaust from planes and cars, the array of pesticide and herbicide and fungicide residues found on our food, the chemicals trapped in the fat of the meat we consume, the chemicals in our toiletry items, on our clothing, or in our meds, or in our drinking water. And it's all going into us, to be mixed and metabolized, some accumulating, some doing their damage as they are flushed out through waste excretion, some stuck in our own fatty deposits making xenoestrogens.

What then?

And now that we know that gene expression for disease can be turned on and off, how might these chemicals affect that function within our own bodies? New science is showing us just how volatile and responsive our bodies can be to environmental contaminants.

I have found links to sites that explain programs Steingraber describes in her book.

First one: Right To Know.
There is the worker's Right To Know and the Community's Right To Know, with regards to chemicals and contaminants that might cause illness. In the United States, Right To Know information is governed by OSHA, the EPA and specific State Agencies.

This is a link to the EPA, "Learn About Your Right To Know" page. This page contains a collection of links to various programs that support your Right To Know.

Every American has the right to know the chemicals to which they may be exposed in their daily living. Right-to-know laws provide information about possible chemical exposures. Below is a list of some of the information that EPA provides the public in the spirit of right to know. EPA-Right To Know
I highly recommend this book for anyone interested in the health effects of chemical contaminants or the environmental causes of cancer. I also recommend this book as a continuation of the subjects in Silent Spring by Rachel Carson. It provides a compelling followup to the important work that Ms. Carson started back in 1962.

I wrote earlier about reading Silent Spring for the first time. If you are interested in that account, here is the link to that diary.

Wed Dec 12, 2012 at 7:16 AM PT: FYI, this book has been used to make a Documentary by the same name, Living Down Stream. A couple of people have commented on the thread and say that's very well done.
Here is the link to the site for the documentary, it appears there is more information there too on the subject of environmental-cancer.

Originally posted to GreenMother on Tue Dec 11, 2012 at 08:48 AM PST.

Also republished by J Town, Progressive Friends of the Library Newsletter, Monday Night Cancer Club, and Community Spotlight.

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