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Meeting My Environmental Heroes: Sandra Steingraber


“There Would Be No Peace for Me if I Kept Silent”: Exploring the Legacy of Rachel Carson for Our Time

The events of the past year or more have been cataclysmic for environmental protection of our country, our health, and our planet. The Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act, and many other basic environmental protections are under attack by the current administration. It is easy to despair and fall silent, particularly when we know that even before this current wave of anti-science sentiment and heedless deregulation, our future was chancy. But we cannot give up.

This Monday in Madison, I gained solace and inspiration from meeting Sandra Steingraber, who has been one of my environmental heroes for many years. I began reading her not long after Katherine died, as I was deciding what to do with the shattered remnants of my life. Steingraber was every bit as brilliant and warm as I expected from her books and her 2010 movie, Living Downstream.

She gave me advice about publishing, remembered my Facebook comment, and signed my copy of her book: “Never Give Up!” But what was most valuable was her inspirational perspective on her own work and the work and words of Rachel Carson. She began with a quote from Carson critiquing her current administration that could have been written today. She talked about Carson’s own courage in speaking out and her repudiation of the silence of her male science colleagues about the perils of pesticides with a quote from Abraham Lincoln: “To sin by silence when they should protest makes cowards of men.”

Steingraber spoke about how environmentalists struggle with the issue of whether or not to scare people with the truth. What environmentalists usually do, she said, is to understate the crisis we face and present overly optimistic projections, along with tips about recycling. Then when people learn how dire the threat is, they realize that changing their lightbulbs is not going to preserve the ice sheets, and they get cynical; they fall into well-informed futility syndrome. She said this approach is backwards. I believe she is precisely right, that we need instead to match our efforts to the level of the problems, to commit 100% to saving life as we know it for our children. With Steingraber, I believe we should be living heroic lives. She has spent many days in jail in civil disobedience, trying to stop fracking and pipelines in New York, and I hope to follow her example. As she says, during Hitler’s reign, you wouldn’t want to be a good German. I have been thinking that almost constantly this past year: would I have chosen convenient silence and enjoyed my dinner if I had lived then and there? I hope not. What does that mean now?

I was equally pleased two years ago at Benedictine to have dinner with another environmental hero: Jim Hansen. Just today, as we discussed his most recent article, I told my students a secret that he shared with us, that he hates having to communicate. It’s not his strength. He’s a super nerdy physics guy who prefers to work with numbers. But he speaks out heroically – writing books, giving speeches, and getting arrested – because he knows the terrible truth about climate change and cannot remain silent. To sin by silence when we should protest makes cowards of us all. Never give up.


Katherine’s Birthday

Yesterday would have been Katherine’s twenty-fourth birthday. Yesterday, I was too angry and despairing to write my usual blog in her memory. Why? Because despite the valiant efforts of activists like me, scientists like those I work with, and THE TRUTH, Goliath corporations have succeeded in buying our government and destroying the meager protections afforded by the EPA, among them the momentary ban on chlorpyrifos, the pesticide that killed my sweet daughter.

More children just like my beloved Katherine will die. More families will be destroyed by the senseless loss, the unending misery. This is simple fact.

Writing this blog, pursuing the work of my MPH, talking to students about this subject, is not work I enjoy — it’s work that should already have been done, BEFORE, to save MY daughter. Work like this is rather like gutting oneself with a fish knife while everyone watches. But it is necessary.

The chemical industry should not have to hold themselves to account, as the people who call themselves conservatives seem to think. As Jared Diamond argues in Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, this puts the conscientious at a disadvantage and elevates the evil, rather as we have done in our political system. As Garrett Hardin argues in his Tragedy of the Commons, conscience can be self-extinguishing in the wrong system. Commonsense regulation is absolutely necessary to keep our air and water clean, our bodies free of toxins. Didn’t we already decide this in the 1960s?

My dear friend Kay McKeen, head of SCARCE and one my very favorite Davids fighting Goliaths, sent me a quote they keep posted in the modest and busy SCARCE offices, gleaned from a Jewish man who prosecuted Nazis: “It takes courage not to be discouraged.” This something we Davids, we despairing, we underdogs think about every day.

One final thought: in Ocean Country, our likely Summer Reading, Liz Cunningham confronts the grim reality of our oceans: dead zones, plastic garbage patches, increasing acidification, dying coral reefs, over-fishing, out-of-control climate change. She encounters a philosophy that helps her continue on: “Active Hope is something we do rather than have. It is active. Instead of asking, ‘When is the train coming?’ you roll up your sleeves and say, ‘Let’s build that train.’ It doesn’t require optimism; we can even employ it when we feel hopeless. Active Hope involves identifying the outcomes we hope for and then playing an active role in bringing them about. We don’t wait until we are sure of success. We don’t limit our choices to the outcomes that seem likely. Instead we focus on what we truly, deeply long for, and then we proceed to take determined steps in that direction” (90-91).

I truly, deeply long for a world where children do not die, do not have their futures stunted and thwarted by environmental toxins, climate change, and the manifold evils we are wreaking upon ourselves. I long for a world where we could do better. I hope you will take determined steps with me in that direction.



Join EDF in Opposing Michael Dourson’s Nomination to EPA

Fifteen years ago, our eight-year-old daughter Katherine died of a preventable leukemia caused, we have every reason to believe, by mosquito spraying with chlorpyrifos, without permission or notification. Most parents cannot imagine what it is like to wake up and find their beloved child dead beside them. We have fought ever since to make sure fewer parents ever do.

If only we had known that this pernicious practice still existed — of broadcast spraying deadly pesticides down streets, in homes, coating every object and piece of vegetation — we would have stopped it. We did stop it, too late for Katherine. And mosquito spraying is only one route for exposure. We could work to help prevent children’s exposures today and tomorrow, exposures that often cause cancer, autism, ADHD, lower IQs, birth defects, and auto-immune disease. Pesticide exposures even contribute to the obesity epidemic. If we can reduce the average person’s exposure to tobacco smoke, with long-lasting health benefits for all, we could do the same thing for exposure to toxics.

Imagine, then, our feelings when we learned that President Trump has picked a chemical industry hired gun, Michael Dourson, to lead chemical safety at EPA. Dourson has worked for many years for chemical industry clients to downplay concerns about their products and advocate for looser standards. In Chicago, Koch Industries paid him to minimize the impact of the large petcoke piles in the neighborhood. On chlorpyrifos, the chemical we believe killed our daughter, Dourson has worked for industry interests to downplay concerns about the pesticide, which also harms children’s brain development—working for the chemicals producer to argue for a standard many times less protective than the EPA standard in place at the time and thousands of times less protective than the standard today.

He’s worked to downplay other cancer-causing chemicals like 1,4-Dioxane, PFOA and TCE. As many news outlets have now documented, when a chemical company was in trouble, they knew they could count on Dourson to help argue their way out.

He delivers results for the chemical companies, and our children suffer.

Who could possibly look at such a background and believe Dourson should be entrusted with the health of our children? Please contact your Senators and ask them to reject Michael Dourson for EPA this week.

Thank you,

Jean-Marie Kauth, PhD


Craig W. Colling, PhD


Success at Naperville Park District!

In July, Dr. Susan Buchanan from the Great Lakes Center for Children’s Environmental Health at UIC, Ryan Anderson of Midwest Pesticide Action Center, and I joined with a community activist group led by Elizabeth Catherwood to present information about about the hazards of lawn chemicals to the Naperville Park District Board.

Great news! They have decided to significantly increase their organic lawn care in an effort to protect children and will work to spread the word through an educational outreach. What an amazing example of how government can work with citizens and investigate carefully what is best for all. If Naperville can do this, any town can!

Here is the press release in the Chicago Tribune and Naperville Sun:

Naperville Park District to increase organic weedkiller use, limit Roundup

Responding to environmental and health concerns raised by residents this summer, the Naperville Park District will expand its use of organic weedkillers and other products to maintain park grounds, officials said.

For the next two years, eight of the district’s 137 parks will be treated with organic herbicides and similar plant and vegetation products, park district Executive Director Ray McGury announced Thursday. District officials also will continue with their policy of using only organic products on and in the immediate vicinities of playgrounds, McGury said in a statement.

The decision follows a three-month review that included input from the grassroots Non-Toxic Naperville citizens group. Its members asked professional environmental experts to accompany them to a July board meeting at which they expressed concern over the use of Roundup weedkiller and other potentially hazardous products.

Increasing the use of organic sprays and implementing new environmental practices “has been on the radar of the (district) for quite awhile now,” McGury said in the statement. “From maintaining Knoch Park with organic products since 2004 and the implementation of the employee-led Green Team (in) 2009, district board and staff have continued to demonstrate the importance of integrating environmentally-friendly practices into the organization’s operations.”

McGury said the regimen of natural herbicides, fertilizers and other products used in maintaining Knoch Park will be implemented at seven more locations: College Park, Columbia Commons, Cress Creek Park, Crestview Knoll, Dorothea Weigand Riverfront Park, Kingshill Park and Kroehler Park.

Those sites were chosen on the basis of “their varying amenities and locations,” according to McGury’s statement. “The goal is for residents to have a choice of several different parks that will be maintained using only non-synthetic products.”

As has been done in Knoch Park, the seven parks “will be monitored for the next two years, and soil samples will be taken to measure (the earth’s) health, which impacts the turf and foliage,” the statement said. “Provided the products work satisfactorily, the district would plan to expand its use of organic products to additional locations in the future.”

The district in June temporarily stopped using Monsanto’s Roundup brand herbicide glyphosate on playgrounds after residents reacted to a sign alerting park patrons to its use. A petition drive ensued in which residents asked the district to stop using chemical weedkillers.

In recent years, the potential human and environmental risks associated with Roundup and glyphosate has become a national issue. The experts who attended the July park board meeting argued against the use of weed-killing chemicals. Children, they said, are the ones most likely to spend a great deal of time in and on grassy areas, and as a result are at a higher risk of being harmed by such sprays.

McGury said the district will continue using Roundup, “but only in areas not accessible to the public,” such as around retention ponds and in thick woods.

Kevin Finnegan, the district’s director of parks, said officials “fully expect that our plans will continue to evolve as more is learned,” and as more new, effective natural products come onto the market.

Natural or nature-based products as Finalsan, Phydura, Pulverize and Scythe will be used “within 15 feet from the concrete borders and entryways” to playgrounds, according to a presentation made during Thursday night’s meeting.

“Given the fact that more effective alternatives for maintaining natural turf and park spaces are now available in quantities that our staff can work with efficiently, in addition to more economical costs, the time is right for us to increase our scope in this regard,” McGury said.

Elizabeth Catherwood, a Naperville resident and member of Non-Toxic Naperville, said in the statement she was “thrilled that we all were able to come together to make this great change for kids and families in Naperville.”


Resources for Healthcare Providers to Help Protect Children from Cancer, Autism, ADHD, and Lowered IQs


Most Providers think to warn parents about the dangers of lead in older homes and mercury in fish, but they might not ask about exposures to pesticides, endocrine disruptors, and chemicals in personal care products. It is important to educate parents about common environmental health risks that can lead to cancer, autism, ADHD, and lost IQ points in children. Simply exposing parents to the information is something; asking a few more questions on health histories accomplishes even more. Parents usually trust their pediatricians, who are often their very best source of information about how to protect their children.

The American Academy of Pediatrics Statement on Pesticides from 2012 provides definite recommendations for preventing health risks associated with pesticide exposures http://pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/130/6/e1757. One excellent environmental health history is available at NEEF (National Environmental Education Foundation) at https://www.neefusa.org/health. See the list of Resources for Providers below for a wide range of helpful sources, including links to toolkits for clinicians; CME courses in environmental health; and practical advice from the USCF Program on Reproductive Health and the Environment, the EPA, and the Midwest Pesticide Action Center. You can find flyers and posters for patients attached just below. All information is firmly based on peer-reviewed literature, best practices, and/or the experience of the Great Lakes Center for Children’s Environmental Health.

Flyer 10 Things.6_io

Poster 10 Things 11×17.6

Poster Resources for Providers.2



Env history form 10-2013

Flyer Spanish

Poster 10 Things 11×17.Spanish

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Transgenerational Effects of Toxic Chemicals

The Environmental Working Group has come out with a new report about how the toxics we are exposed to today can affect the health of our children, grandchildren, and even great-grandchildren by altering the way genes function. These exposures are cumulative not only in the individual but across generations. Please read and reconsider your use of pesticides, endocrine disruptors, and other common toxic chemicals.


WASHINGTON The harmful effects of some chemicals can be passed down not only to children, but also to grandchildren and even great-grandchildren, according to a new EWG report on the growing body of transgenerational toxicity research.

The impact of toxic chemicals on generations of offspring with no direct exposure to the contaminant is known as a transgenerational effect. A limited number of new studies suggest that short-term exposures to some chemicals during pregnancy can cause reproductive system damages, alter body weight, and even increase the risk of cancer for great-grandchildren of exposed animals.

“New science suggests that exposure to contaminants during pregnancy can have health impacts decades later,” said EWG Senior Analyst Sonya Lunder, author of the report. “We need to know more about this phenomenon in order to protect our children and great-grandchildren from the effects of harmful pollutants.”

Groundbreaking research by Mohan Manikkam and Michael Skinner of Washington State University at Pullman helped establish the principle of transgenerational toxicity by showing how toxic chemicals affect subsequent generations that are not directly exposed. In one study, the researchers tested the transgenerational impacts of mixtures of chemicals that people are commonly exposed to in everyday life, including bug repellents, plastics additives and jet fuel. After exposing pregnant rats, they bred three subsequent generations of animals with no exposure to the contaminants.

Despite no direct exposure to the chemicals, the third-generation rats had damaged reproductive systems. Females had an earlier onset of puberty and fewer undeveloped eggs in their ovaries. Male rats had higher levels of dead sperm.

Very few studies of multigenerational health effects in people have been conducted so far. More experimental research is necessary to learn more about this phenomenon and shed light on several concerning health trends including infertility, obesity, and even cancer.

You can read more at here or here.

60 MiNuets: Toxics

Thanks to the Environmental Health Team at UCSF for this fun and educational series on environmental toxics!

They said lead was safe. They said smoking was good for you.
What are they selling now?

A new team of reporters investigates how toxic chemicals are undermining our health and why government is failing to stop it. Modeled after the original 60 Minutes legendary journalists, you can meet the 60 MiNueTs Toxic team here:

Brought to you by University of California, San Francisco’s Environmental Health Initiative and the Program on Reproductive Health and the Environment, we will unveil one segment a week for the next six weeks featuring scientists and physicians from Columbia, Harvard, Mt. Sinai Medical Center, Boston Children’s Hospital, and, of course, UCSF.  Each segment is about 2 to 3 minutes.

As we premiere them on our social media channels, we hope you will share them with your networks.  You can follow and share from our Twitter and Facebook.  Or copy and paste these sample posts:

Facebook: They tried to keep their findings a secret. Find out what these investigative reporters uncovered. #60MiNueTs @UCSF.PRHEhttp://bit.ly/60MiNueTsPlaylist #HealthNotToxics #SaveEPA

Twitter: A new team uncovers the shocking truth about environmental health threats. @UCSF_PRHE http://bit.ly/60MiNueTsPlaylist #60MiNueTsToxic #HealthNotToxics #SaveEPA

In addition to the series preview, the segments include:

We want to thank the scientists who participated in this project as well as puppeteer Liz Joyce who brought our reporters to life and the Public Interest Media Group for producing the series.

Thank you and we look forward to your thoughts.

Tracey Woodruff, PhD, MPH
Professor and Director, Program on Reproductive Health and the Environment
Co-Founder, Environmental Health Initiative
Department of Obstetrics, Gynecology and Reproductive Sciences
University of California, San Francisco