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A victim's saga

LIVING DOWNSTREAM·Sandra Steingraber·Addison-Wesley Publishing Company· USA·Price US $24

By Zeyaul Haque
Published: Saturday 15 May 1999

-- WHEN THE health of the Earth itself is jeopardised. The health of its inhabitants -- plants and animals, including humans -- can no longer be ensured. When the 'dust, soil and air' are contaminated with carcinogens, a rise in the incidence of cancer in the human population is only inevitable.

The medical and scientific communities are a little slow to recognise the emerging trends: they wait for 'proof' for a little too long. However, when someone from the scientific community itself falls victim, and tries to muster some proof, there is a minor stir.

Sandra Steingraber, poetess, ecologist (she has a PhD in biology) and a cancer victim, collects and collates data on environmental pollution and its possible links with cancer. Partly a work of research, partly creative writing Living Downstream grabs attention with its fluid prose, its contemplative tenor and forceful argument. Steingraber's education as a biologist, her training as an ecologist, her experiences as a cancer victim and her literary skills as a writer and poet make this account immensely readable.

She almost nails environmental pollution as a major factor in the spread of human cancers. Pesticides like ddt, dde and pcbs have an overwhelming body of evidence against them as agents of death which have dangerously contaminated the earth, underground water sources and plants and animals (including humans). Some of the data she unearths is irrefutable, their links to cancer are obvious to everyone except the scientific and medical establishment.

Anil Agarwal of the Delhi-based Centre for Science and Environment (cse), himself a victim of the disease, has been consistently highlighting environmental pollution as a possible element in the growth of cancer. cse's Homicide by Pesticide and Agarwal's account of his ordeals as a patient in the us and France have numerous references. The ironies begin to cascade as one contemplates the fate of Rachel Carson, Steingraber's idol and writer of Silent Spring, a prophetic book that haunts her constantly. Silent Spring talks about a time when pesticides like ddt would make birds extinct and there would be no birdsong in spring. ddt thins eggshells to a point where they cannot withstand even the most careful and light sitting of the parent birds while hatching. "Carson's predictions of disaster can be viewed as prophetic and successfully averted," she writes. Carson, too, died from cancer. However, Carson's warning led to restrictions on the use of ddt.

Steingraber talks fondly of her friend Jeannie, also afflicted with the deadly disease. As the environment gets thoroughly poisoned, the risks of cancer grow. Statistically, one out of three Americans is afflicted with the disease at some point of his or her life. That is a frightful prospect to ponder.

Steingraber feels that the extraordinary stress on 'cancer genes' and genetic predisposition distracts attention from the significance of environmental factors. Even if it is genetically predetermined, a poisoned environment would be a precipitating factor in the onset of the disease.

She is not very sure about the thrust of government policies with regard to the disease. The propaganda by public health authorities that self-examination of the breast would help fight breast cancer is relevant not for cutting down its incidence, but starting an early treatment programme. She is amused at the public health authorities' announcement on cancer, which says, "Early detection is the best prevention." She says, and rightly so, that when one 'detects' cancer, it is already beyond the stage of 'prevention'.

Her answer to the problem: We have poisoned the environment and only we can detoxify it over a period of time. The 'we' includes governments, concerned groups and individuals.

To begin with, people must have and exercise their right to know. They must know the pollutants, and the level of pollution in the environment. They must also know the people and industries responsible for it.

People's groups have to act in coordination with government-run environmental protection agencies. Environmental groups within countries should coordinate with each other and with groups in other countries. Legal reforms and international conventions are parts of the larger strategy. The detoxification effort has to begin in right earnest to reverse the dangerous trend.

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