Kids, Parents and a Toxic World

Ann, my boss at my first job after college, happened to have grown up in the same New York suburb where I grew up, more than 120 miles from the city where we now lived. We both got a kick out of comparing our experiences growing up in our common hometown, a generation apart.

One of her stories in particular stuck with me: when the DDT trucks passed through the neighborhoods—in the 1950s, the government sprayed the insecticide to kill mosquitoes—she and the other kids would chase behind them, dancing in the mist of poison that trailed behind the trucks.

The first time I heard that story, I’m sure I was appalled. After all, not many years after Ann and her friends played in the clouds of DDT, Rachel Carson published her landmark Silent Spring, which pointed to the many dangers the chemical posed to both humans and animals (including the bald eagle, which faced near-extinction in the very nation it symbolizes due to DDT exposure). Carson’s book helped kick-start the modern environmental movement. It wasn’t until 1972, however—a decade after Silent Spring was published—that DDT was banned in the U.S.

I heard the story as a cautionary tale, a warning about the damage that can be done when government policy rushes ahead of, or simply ignores, scientific evidence—in this case, evidence, gleaned from study after study that links DDT to cancer, diabetes, and reproductive and developmental problems. Today, 20 years after Ann told me that story, I find myself having another, reflexive reaction: where were those kids’ parents?

The answer comes to me quickly enough: this was 1950s suburbia. In those pre-mall, one-income-family days, towns like ours were almost countryish—especially compared to the city neighborhoods from which many families had relocated—with vacant lots and wooded areas and a general sense of openness. Kids could roam freely in packs, knowing that in most houses, at least one parent would be home to pour restorative glasses of milk or pop band-aids on skinned elbows. Parents, it seemed, were no more worried about DDT than they were about their kids biking without helmets, riding in cars without seat belts, and staying out after dark without being tethered to home by a tiny phone in their pocket.

Now, of course, it’s a different story. To be a parent today—or, at least, a middle-class parent with the time and knowledge and disposable income for such pursuits—means calling the nice customer service folks at Lands End to find out if their lunchboxes contain PVC, and logging on to the Environmental Working Group’s website for its list of paraben-free sunscreens, and worrying if that junky bling-ring your kid won at the school carnival contains lead.

“Already maniacally busy, we are encouraged by popular media reports to read labels, consult Web sites, vet the contents of birthday party goody bags, shrink our carbon footprints, mix our own nontoxic cleaning products, challenge our school districts to embrace pesticide-free soccer fields, and limit the number of ounces of mercury-laced tuna fish consumed by each child per week,” Sandra Steingraber, a Cornell University biologist (and mom of two), writes in her new book, Raising Elijah: Protecting Our Children in an Age of Environmental Crisis (Da Capo Press).

Like Ann and her friends in the mist of DDT, today’s children are growing up in a stew of toxins; the difference is, their parents are generally more informed about those risks—and are charged with protecting their families from them. “In the absence of federal policies that are protective of child development and the ecology of the planet on which our children’s lives depend, parents have to serve as our own regulatory agencies and Departments of Interior,” as Steingraber puts it.

The unspoken public health policy in the U.S—”surround kids with brain poisons and enlist mothers and fathers to serve as security detail”—is insulting, she writes. And it’s not working.


Need evidence that it’s not working? Consider just a few of the statistics Steingraber lays out.

One of every eight babies born in the U.S. is premature; premature birth is the leading cause of death and disability in infants, and it’s scientifically linked to air pollution. More than 7 million American kids have asthma, which is also linked to air pollution and exposure to the plastic-hardening chemical phthalates. It’s the number-one reason kids end up in the ER or the hospital, and it accounts for $20.7 billion in health care costs a year.

One in 10 American kids has a learning disability, and almost the same number have attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder; in the U.S., 22 percent of all school spending–that’s $77.3 billion a year–goes to special education services. Research, again, links learning disabilities and ADHD to air pollution and exposure to toxins such as pesticides and heavy metals. One out of every 110 kids is diagnosed with autism, or considered to be on the “autism spectrum”; emerging science suggests that prenatal exposure to chemicals could be a cause.

And what’s being done to address this generational crisis? Not very much, at least by the government. Most U.S. laws addressing the environmental and public health effects of chemicals are outdated, Steingraber notes, reaching back to the 1970s in many cases.

A few examples: of the 80,000 synthetic chemicals used in the U.S., only 200 have been tested under the Toxic Substances Control Act—a law that dates back to 1976— “and exactly none of them are regulated on the basis of their potential to affect infant or child development,” she writes. There is no national pesticide registry in the U.S., meaning that farming operations, unlike manufacturers, are not required to report the chemicals they release into the environment.

Attempts to update the laws that do exist, or pass new ones, are invariably fought by the industries that benefit from lax oversight—and that, not coincidentally, donate lots of money to lawmakers. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, the chemical industry spent $45.3 million on federal lobbying in 2009; the biggest spender was the American Chemistry Council, which dropped $7 million. American University’s Investigative Reporting Workshop puts chemical industry lobbying for that same year even higher, at more than $100 million.

As a result, we end up with patchy legislation with plenty of gaps. Consider the 2008 Product Safety Improvement Act, which bans phthalates (linked by some research to asthma, allergies and damage to the reproductive system) from kids’ toys. “But this law does not protect children from phthalates leaching from flooring, carpet backing, or wallpaper, for example, nor does it offer them protection during prenatal life, which would require limiting exposures to their mothers,” Steingraber notes.

Efforts last year in Congress to pass a Toxic Chemicals Safety Act and a Kid Safe Chemical Act—which would have strengthened restrictions on chemical-using manufacturers—died in the face of intense industry resistance. This spring, U.S. Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) reintroduced the legislation.

In the absence of a governmental commitment to safety over industry profits, families are left to adopt what Steingraber calls an “individualized approach to a public health menace.” Parents, you want to keep your kids safe? Then it’s all on you.

There’s a lot that’s wrong with that approach, as Steingraber notes. It’s impossibly time-consuming for families to research every element in every bottle of baby lotion, every lawn-care policy at every playground, every ingredient in every box of cereal. It’s also money-consuming; once you find that bottle of organic, chemical-free sunscreen, you’ll probably find it comes with a $20 price tag. And treating our children’s health and well-being as a “consumer choice,” Steingraber writes, is inherently unfair. “Believing that we can buy safety for our children with money and knowledge leaves those with neither in harm’s way,” she points out.

In Steingraber’s house, the food is organic, the lawn is pesticide-free, and the asbestos-backed kitchen floor was—once discovered—removed (although not early enough for the author not to wonder if it contributed to her young son’s asthma).

Steingraber and her husband are not lazy parents looking for the government to shoulder a job that rightly belongs to them. She writes of turning down a tempting job offer in the Midwest rather than move her son to a community with a downtown trash incinerator, so she could work on a campus with an on-site coal-burning power plant. And when her son’s birthday gifts included a vinyl Curious George raincoat with that tell-tale strong chemical smell, she broke the news to him that George was not welcome to stay.

But no matter how vigilant the parents, no matter how well informed or well off, there are factors out of any one family’s control. “[M]y children do not lively solely within the bubble of my kitchen and property lines,” Steingraber writes. “They occupy a much bigger ecological niche, and I cannot verify the agricultural origins of every food item served at every birthday party, summer camp, sleepover, recital and library summer reading program event. I can’t ensure that every backyard soccer field, every patch of lawn, and every pet in every neighborhood home they run in and out of is free of organophosphates. Nor can I stop the wind from blowing.”

And even if she could, why should she have to?


Raising Elijah does many things, and does them well. It’s a book about science that makes the topic accessible without leaving the reader feeling as if she’s being spoken down to. That’s thanks, in no small part, to Steingraber’s gift as a writer; outside her work as a biologist, she’s also a poet, and her love of words and imagery enhances her science writing. (“Lungs are two vineyards separated by a heart. Inside their lobes, hanging like clusters of grapes from the ends of delicately branching airways, are the lungs’ alveoli. Here is where the Earth’s gaseous layer and the insides of our bodies meet.”) The book is also a memoir in which Steingraber connects the daunting environmental and health issues she addresses in her research with the equally daunting work of trying to raise two healthy kids.

For example: in 2002, the EPA announced that arsenic-containing pressure-treated wood could no longer be used in products like backyard decks and playground equipment due to health risks (including links to bladder and lung cancer). Since the 1930s, the poison had been used to treat wood to prevent rot caused by insects; in the 1970s, when the cost of naturally rot-resistant wood like cedar skyrocketed, the market for cheap arsenic-treated pine grew, and the product began showing up in homes and playgrounds around the country—including the one at the preschool Steingraber’s daughter attended.

While the federal government began looking into the cancer connection in the 1970s, the treated wood was not banned until 2002, and even then, manufacturers had two more years to comply. Meanwhile, consumers were left to figure out what to do with the existing structures that used the wood.

At Steingraber’s daughter’s preschool, the question caused a good deal of upheaval, not to mention acrimony. Some families worried about the cost of replacing the playground equipment; some worried that the public “perception” that the playground was unsafe would affect future enrollments. In the end, the school community decided the risk was minimal. The play structure stayed, although a number of families—including Steingraber’s—did not.

The author offers a thoughtful analysis of what happened at the school as families struggled to “fix” a problem whose roots were well beyond their control. “Thoughtful but overwhelmed parents correctly perceive a disconnect between the enormity of the problem and the ability of individual acts of vigilance and self-sacrifice to fix it,” she writes. “Environmental awareness without corresponding political change leads to paralyzing despair. And so, eventually, we begin to discount or ignore the latest evidence for harm. We feel helpless in the face of our knowledge, and we’re not sure we want any more knowledge. You could call this well-informed futility syndrome.”

Raising Elijah calls for parents to fight that inertia and reject the notion that the burden is all on them. “This book is not about shopping differently,” Steingraber writes. “Indeed, it rejects altogether the notion that toxicity should be a consumer choice. Instead, it seeks the higher ground of human rights in which to explore systemic solutions to the ongoing chemical contamination of our children and our biosphere.”

And it calls for dramatic policy changes that stop putting business interests over individual and environmental health. Why, Steingraber wonders, are parents of kids with asthma advised to keep their children indoors on muggy days (in direct contrast to that other parental warning about making sure kids get outside exercise to ward off obesity), while industries are allowed to pump all kinds of asthma-causing agents into the environment? Why are families urged to reduce their carbon footprints by changing their light bulbs while polluting corporations are cut break after break?

“The presumption that householders are more malleable than business institutions sounds to me a lot like a cultural willingness to tell individuals how to behave coupled with a reluctance to hold the energy and manufacturing sectors to the same standards,” she notes.

In short, Raising Elijah calls—persuasively, beautifully—for “outspoken, full-throated heroism in the face of the great moral crisis of our day: the environmental crisis,” Steingraber writes. “Another world is possible. Creating it requires courage.”

Author: Maureen Turner

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