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Ms. Magazine
Tuesday, July 19th, 2011
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Raising Elijah: Protecting Our Children in an Age of Environmental Crisis (Merloyd Lawrence Book)

by Sandra Steingraber

Toxic Price Tags

A review by Laura Orlando

Sandra Steingraber's first book, Living Downstream: An Ecologist's Personal Investigation of Cancer and the Environment, left reviewers calling her "the new Rachel Carson." It is an apt comparison. Not since 1962, when Carson courageously challenged the chemical industry in Silent Spring, has a scientist woven so much revelation and research together with such gorgeous and persuasive prose. In Raising Elijah, Steingraber makes a case for "outspoken, fullthroated heroism in the face of the great moral crisis of our day." She girds readers for the struggle we must take up if we are to wrest our world from the embrace of the suicidals.

Steingraber explains that there are actually two crises: climate chaos from the accumulation of heat-trapping gases and the poisoning of our children's bodies with toxic chemicals. The two share a common root: fossil fuels. She walks us through the terrible statistics on childhood diseases linked to chemical exposures and, to show that children's health is not an economic "externality," gives each a price tag: The quantifiable are in billions; others, like early puberty among girls, and thus shortened childhoods, have no assigned dollar value.

When her son, Elijah, was born, Steingraber was living in a rented cabin in rural New York with her husband, Jeff, and daughter, Faith, the inspiration for her acclaimed examination of environmental threats to fetal development, Having Faith: An Ecologist's Journey to Motherhood. She worked from home, gave occasional lectures and considered it her job as mother to keep her children "from situations that seem inherently dangerous," like eating food grown with pesticides.

Though choosing organic food is good for the eater and the grower -- as well as for rural economies and environments -- Steingraber knows that the answers to the enormous problems we face are not to be found in "green" shopping guides and websites. "As a matter of principle, toxicity should not be a consumer choice," she writes. "Believing that we can buy safety for our children with money and knowledge leaves those with neither in harm's way." We can try to be our own poison-control centers, but it is institutional change and regulatory muscle that will make the difference.

Steingraber's narrative is personal and political, funny and smart. She shows us that feminism and motherhood are not at odds; combined, they make for heroes. Braving the question of whether to tell children about the dangers that lurk in our yards and our atmosphere, she writes, "The way we protect our kids from terrible knowledge is not to hide the terrible knowl edge, or change the subject...but to let them watch us rise up in the face of the terrible knowledge and do something. The immediate lesson for me was: Stop acting like a Good German around your kids and let them see that you are a member of the French Resistance." Raising Elijah is a call to arms, a cry for the moral solidarity that we must forge to prevent environmental degradation and its assault on children's health.

Think silent playgrounds.

Laura Orlando is executive director of the Resource Institute for Low Entropy Systems; she teaches at the Boston University School of Public Health.


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