Each Other — Where We Are SANDRA STEINGRABER
HouseHold Tips from Warrior mom!
On the desire to change light bulbs instead of paradigms
A DECADE AGO, I published a book about the links between chemi- cal exposures and cancer. The
research for it required four years, two
postdoctoral fellowships, and fluency with
Freedom of Information Act requests. I
attended workshops on cluster analysis
and taught myself molecular epidemiology.
I made field trips to cancer laboratories,
studied tumor patterns among wildlife
populations, and rode a cable down a three-hundred-foot shaft to look at groundwater.
When the writing was all done, I helped
prepare the publicity materials, which,
among other things, claimed that my book
was the first to bring together data on toxic
releases with data from U.S. cancer regis-tries. No one had attempted that before. It
was a big book.
One of my first stops on the author
tour was a television talk show that taped
in Hollywood. Dropping by for the requisite preinterview, I was greeted in the studio by a woman in a diminutive orange
dress who said her name was—I’m not
making this up—Tangerine. Tangerine
instructed me to fill out seven index cards
and bring them to the interview the next
day. On each one, I was to jot down a single
“cancer prevention tip.” These seven tips
would appear as bullet points below my
talking head. Tangerine encouraged me to
think hard about each tip.
Back at the hotel, I thought hard. Finally,
I came up with my first tip: IDENTIFY COR
PORATE POLLUTERS IN YOUR COMMUNITY.
My second tip was something like,
The next day, Tangerine freaked out.
These weren’t at all what she had in mind.
A frantic conversation ensued, and by the
end of it, CONFRONT CORPORATE POLLU
TERS had been transformed into AVOID
We’re going live in five . . . four . . . three . . .
two . . . and . . .
When my on-air host came to the first
tip, she turned her gaze, Oprah-like, into
the camera to ask, “You mean my clothes
cause cancer?” I blinked, leveled my own
gaze at the camera, and said that dry-
cleaning solvent, perchloroethylene, is a
common groundwater pollutant in many
an online project that would provide ex-
pectant mothers with tips synced to their
prenatal calendars. In other words, a sub-
scriber would receive, say, in month five (a
period of rapid brain growth) advice about
house paint (which can be neurotoxic). In
month eight, she’d receive advice about
choosing plastics free of plasticizers linked
to preterm birth. And so on. The presump-
tion was that, once invested in toxic-free
products, parents-to-be would “ramp up.”
After a few months of this, it was my
distinct impression that just the opposite
was happening: when people believed
they could avoid harm through acts of
individual self-protection, they felt less ur-
gency about eliminating those threats by
If the problem were truly huge, wouldn’t we be asked to respond
with actions of equivalent magnitude?
communities. It is indeed linked to bladder cancer, especially among workers in
the dry-cleaning industry.
By now, my host was breathing a sigh
of relief, and I knew we weren’t going to
make it to Tip #7: REQUIRE TESTING OF
CHEMICALS AS A PRECONDITION FOR MAR
WE STILL HAVEN’T made it there. But
now I’m clearer about why.
After writing a second book on envi-
ronmental health—this one focused on
pregnancy—I was asked to participate in
pushing for environmental reform. This
observation, as it turns out, is backed by
data. In his 2007 book, Shopping Our
Way to Safety, sociologist Andrew Szasz
demonstrates how the desire for personal
security actually undermines the goal of