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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Raising Kids in a Toxic World

Air Date: Week of

From pollution-induced asthma to arsenic embedded in playground equipment, the state of the environment is threatening the health of children. Author Sandra Steingraber talks with Living on Earth’s Steve Curwood about the challenges of parenting in a world with a changing climate. She calls on parents to get involved in environmental policy-making.


GELLERMAN: It’s Living on Earth, I'm Bruce Gellerman. Sandra Steingraber is an ecologist, an author, and a cancer survivor. In her new book “Raising Elijah, Protecting our Children in an Age of Environmental Crisis,” Steingraber combines her professional interests with her personal life.

STEINGRABER: My son Elijah is named after a 19th century abolitionist from my home state of Illinois, Elijah Lovejoy, who was assassinated by a pro-slavery mob in 1837, and yet, his writings that condemned slavery went on to inspire the abolitionist movement.

And so I, as an ecologist, feel as though every day I am confronting the moral crisis of our age, the environmental crisis. So I wanted to name my son after someone who, every time I said my son’s name I’d be reminded that big changes are possible.

GELLERMAN: Sandra Steingraber recently stopped by our studios and talked about her new book with Living On Earth's Steve Curwood.

CURWOOD: In your book, Sandra Steingraber, you write that our environmental policies pretend that children, who make up, what, 40 percent of the world’s population- don’t exist. What do you mean by that?

STEINGRABER: Our environmental policies historically have not taken kids into account. When we estimate and promulgate all these regulations on how much toxic exposure is acceptable, for example, until the 1990s, our idea about how much radiation exposure was acceptable, was based on this hypothetical reference man, who’s 150lb middle aged white guy.

So the special vulnerabilities of children to radiation exposure very early on, just as their brains are getting developed and so forth, wasn’t part of the calculation.

CURWOOD: There was one reviewer who said that your book brings to light that, quote, “the environmental crisis is a parenting crisis.” Why?

STEINGRABER: The environmental crisis is a crisis of family life because it takes away the ability of parents to keep their children safe from harm. For example, we know that air pollution not only can cause asthma but it also, in early life, can alter the development of the respiratory tract in ways that stunt the lung development of children. So that those children go on to become individuals who have smaller lung capacities and therefore are at higher risk for all kinds of respiratory disorders.

And so you know, the parents who are in the emergency room with a child with an asthma attack, or standing in line at the pharmacy to get the prescription for the inhaler filled - we’re the ones paying the price for an energy policy that does not protect children’s health.

CURWOOD: I have to say, the story in your book that I find most troubling was the one about pressure treated wood or chromated copper arsenate, at your daughter’s nursery school. Please tell me the story.

STEINGRABER: Well, when my daughter was three, we enrolled her in a nursery school, and out back was a wooden play structure shaped like a castle with turrets and drawbridges and things like that and the children would run up and down and run their hands up and down on it and make slush balls in the winter and so forth. And during that year the EPA made a decision about arsenic as a preservative in pressure-treated wood.

It decided that the risk to children was too great to allow that use to continue, and so new wood was not allowed to contain arsenic. However, all the old equipment that was already out there, all these backyard decks off of people’s kitchens, all these picnic tables and play structures, well there was no attempt to even help communities like ours figure out what to do.

And so another biologist mom and I tested the arsenic on the play structure, and the results that came back were really troubling. The arsenic was many times higher than the state of New York would allow for a cleanup at a superfund site. Eventually, rancor kind of spread throughout the parent group as we realized the expense of fixing this fell on us. There wasn’t going to be any help forthcoming.

I think all of us felt very strongly - you know, we’re all conscientious parents, but we’re not hepa-filters. We can’t put our bodies between those molecules of arsenic and the insides of our children.

CURWOOD: What’s toxic about arsenic, particularly for children?

STEINGRABER: Arsenic is a heavy metal, and it's both a carcinogen and a developmental neuro-toxicant, which means that we know it has the ability to cause cancer on the one hand, specifically lung, skin and bladder cancers, but a far more immediate risk is the ability of arsenic, like other heavy metals such as mercury and lead, to sabotage the developing architecture of the brain in such a way that cognitive abilities, attention, learning and so forth, are compromised.

CURWOOD: Near the end of your book, you bring up the story of finding a rabid bat in your house. And I found it interesting how shocked you were that the county was concerned with a preventive approach and was quick to reach for the public wallet to cover the cost of inoculating against the prospect of getting rabies.

STEINGRABER: My children discovered a bat in their bedroom, and I dialed the after-hours rabies prevention hotline number. Within 15 minutes I had a specialist standing next to me at 10 o’clock at night, who captured the bat, took it into the Department of Public Health, and within 24 hours I got a phone call letting me know that indeed the bat was rabid.

Long story short, we all ended up with prophylactic rabies shots, and in the course of deciding whether we needed them or not, the prevention specialist at the county public health department let me know that in case my insurance would not agree to pay for the rabies shots, which were many thousands of dollars, that the county would pick up the price, because they wanted nobody to make this decision about whether to go forward with getting these shots on the basis of money.

He said, ‘we want to err on the side of caution here.’ I had the precautionary principle incarnate, here, we were going to protect my kids no matter the cost. Well, I had just come through the whole arsenic in the playground incident where I could get nobody in the government on any level to help me solve this problem.

So I realized that we are capable, as a society, of preventive action around an environmental threat to children. But our ability to do that is really specific to threats that are visible, like a bat in your bedroom. And when it comes to toxic chemicals, which can be as deadly as rabies, we take a different approach. The arsenic in the playground equipment is a known carcinogen. There’s no doubt that it causes human cancer. And so, the difference between how we respond to a rabid bat and how we respond to arsenic-infused playground equipment is not one of evidence or proof.

CURWOOD: How do you talk to your children about climate change?

STEINGRABER: Well, I don’t talk to them a lot about climate change. I think it's one of the topics that is the job of adults to deal with. So there’s this story about Elijah when he was four, he asked to be a polar bear for Halloween. And I went to work sewing him a polar bear costume. And as I sewed it together, I began to realize that this costume may well outlast the species.

Sandra Steingraber and her two children. (Photo: Carrie Branovan for Organic Valley)

And on Halloween I was out there with my son, the polar bear, and what I saw were children who were bumblebees - they’re also in trouble right now, children who were penguins - heading for extinction. So it’s a whole village full of children dressed up as animals who are in trouble. And if that bothers us then what is our responsibility during this moment in history as parents to do? I’m not interested in turning children into atmospheric junior rangers who think that they have to protect the stratosphere against ozone depletion or too much carbon dioxide. I want them to go outside and play and to develop a sense of natural wonder about this incredible world that we live in and it’s my job, as their mom, to be looking out for danger.

CURWOOD: So in the end you don’t say much of anything to them about global climate change?

STEINGRABER: Well, it was my decision not to. But I ended up having to talk to my kids about climate change because my children asked me questions like: "momma is it supposed to be so hot?" My children gather together with other children and talk about how the earth is sick.

You know, this is like children hearing about sex on the playground - you want to make sure you have your own narrative story before they hear it from their peers - so in fact, there’s another big talk that parents now need to have with their kids that is almost the opposite of the sex talk.

And the reason why I think it’s the opposite is because the sex talk is all about creation - the climate change talk is all about what Bill McKibben calls ‘de-creation’ the unraveling of life. The extinction of species, and it actually is a much harder talk - I’m really good at the sex talk, I can give an age-appropriate sex talk to almost any kid you give me. The climate change talk is a harder one - and I think it’s one that parents avoid because it’s painful. And that’s not where we want to be as parents I think.

CURWOOD: Throughout your book, you return to the idea that we cannot rely on our government to protect our children. You do note the exception, around the rabies exposure. How do we protect them instead and what should we demand of our government?

STEINGRABER: We can’t turn our houses into kind of latter day bomb shelters and keep all the chemicals that are in the air and the water and the food from entering our children’s bodies. The only solution has to be the forceful engagement of parents in the political system so that we demand a radical redesign of our energy, our agriculture, and our materials' economy in a way that allow for the protection of children.

In 'Raising Elijah', I’m really calling on parents to be heroes. I’m not calling on them to simply recycle. I’m calling on them to do something much bigger. And it’s why I called the book 'Raising Elijah', to remind us that there were other points in history where parents played these roles. Elijah Lovejoy himself, the namesake for this book, at the time he was assassinated he was the father of a two year old and part of his motivation was as a father - the kind of empathy he felt for slaves whose children were being sold away from them - made him believe that the argument that our economy could not be completive without unpaid human labor, that there was a much bigger moral argument.

And I’m trying to make that same argument about the big moral crisis of our time, which is the environmental crisis. The environmental crisis now has gotten to the point where our children are not safe and we can’t plan for their futures, and therefore, parents need to insert themselves into the political process to redesign the whole system to change it.

CURWOOD: Sandra Steingraber is a biologist, poet, mother and author of 'Raising Elijah: Protecting our Children in the Age of Environmental Crisis'. Thank you so much!

STEINGRABER: Thank you Steve.

GELLERMAN: That’s Sandra Steingraber speaking with Living on Earth's Steve Curwood.



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