(This column was first published in the April 15, 2002 Buffalo News.)
To prepare me for Earth Day, local activist Nancy Smith assigned me 276 pages of homework. She asked me to read Sandra Steingraber's Living Downstream: An Ecologist Looks at Cancer and the Environment.
Although I found this a serious book that required close attention, I thank Nancy for this assignment. I know of no writer since Rachel Carson who could personalize as well the mass of information Ms. Steingraber presents. She gave me new perspective on the world in which we live.
Two of her points especially struck home. One is encapsulated in this passage: "I had bladder cancer as a young adult. If I tell people this fact, they usually shake their heads. If I go on to mention that cancer runs in my family, they usually start to nod. She is from one of those cancer families, I can almost hear them thinking. Sometimes, I just leave it at that. But, if I am up for blank stares, I add that I am adopted and go on to describe a study of cancer among adoptees that found correlations within their adoptive families but not within their biological ones.... At this point, most people become very quiet....
"What runs in families does not necessarily run in blood. And our genes are less an inherited set of teacups enclosed in a cellular china cabinet than they are plates used in a busy diner. Cracks, chips, and scrapes accumulate. Accidents happen."
"Hereditary cancers," she tells us elsewhere, "are the exception.... As much as 90 percent of all forms of cancer is attributable to specific environmental factors."
The other relates to a common response: "By emphasizing personal habits rather than carcinogens, they frame the cause of the disease as a problem of behavior rather than as a problem of exposure to disease-causing agents. At its best, this perspective can offer us practical guidance and the reassurance that there are actions we as individuals can take to protect ourselves. (Not smoking, rightfully so, tops this list.) At its worst, the lifestyle approach to cancer is dismissive of hazards that lie beyond personal choice. A narrow focus on lifestyle -- like a narrow focus on genetic mechanisms -- obscures cancer's environmental roots. It presumes that the ongoing contamination of our air, food, and water is an immutable fact of the human condition to which we must accommodate ourselves. When we are urged to 'avoid carcinogens in the environment and workplace,' this advice begs the question. Why must there be known carcinogens in our environment and at our job sites?"
This bright young woman who has written so well and from first hand knowledge about one of our most terrifying diseases will be among those speaking in Buffalo as part of our Earth Day program.
Although this holiday will be celebrated internationally on April 22, here in Western New York environmental activities related to Earth Day straddle that date this week and next.
Here is a quick rundown for your calendar:
· Thursday, April 18 7:00 p.m.: Conversations with Sandra Steingraber at Allen Hall, University at Buffalo South Campus.
· Friday, April 19, 1:30 p.m.: Ms. Steingraber's Living Downstream at the Center for the Arts Screening Room, University at Buffalo North Campus.
· Saturday, April 20, 10:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m.: Earth Day Exposition at the Buffalo State College Student Sports Arena.
· Wednesday, April 24, 7:00 p.m.: Indian activist and Ralph Nader running mate Winona LaDuke's A Call for Environmental Justice at the Bulger Communications Center, Buffalo State College.
· Friday, April 26, 7:30 p.m.: urban designer Anton Nelessen's Creating a More Livable Western New York at Rockwell Hall, Buffalo State College.-- Gerry Rising