We’re all living downstream

There’s a fable about a village along a river. Villagers began to notice increasing numbers of drowning people caught in the swift current, and went to work inventing ever more elaborate ways to save them. So preoccupied were these heroic villagers with rescue and treatment that they never thought to look upstream to see who was pushing the people in.

How many people have you heard of (or know) who have been recently diagnosed with cancer?   How does this experience compare with your experience of 5-10-20 years ago? “We never heard of cancer when I was growing up,” is a comment I hear frequently.

On one of my frequent forays to Half Price Books, I picked up the book Living Downstream, by Sandra Steingraber, written 15 years ago and revised in 2010.  Sandra is both cancer survivor and ecologist. The book chronicles how the health of the land, air and water in the world we inhabit is inextricably tied to our own health. In the legacy of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, she traces the high incidence of cancer and the terrifying concentrations of environmental toxins in her native rural Illinois. She chronicles similar correlations in communities throughout the United States, where cancer rates have risen alarmingly since mid-century.*

On alternate Mondays in the chemotherapy infusion center, I witness a procession of people coming for their treatment.  I am amazed and grateful beyond measure for the care we receive, and the way that care is given.  A few minutes at the pamphlet rack or in the resource center is cause for marvel at the patient-friendly information and holistic support systems that have been developed to assist people on this difficult journey.

But then I think, where is the outrage?  Where are the well-developed systems to oppose the ever-increasing disregard for human health and well- being as more and more cancer-causing toxins are poured into our environment?  Who has the courage to walk upstream and confront those who are throwing people into the river?

One current example is the move by oil and gas companies toward “fracking.”  Are you aware that toxic chemicals injected underground as part of fracking process will most likely eventually seep into our groundwater?  According to a recent story on National Public Radio, there are 10,000 fracking sites scheduled for development within the next few years .*

Sandra Steingraber, at the end of her documentary video, Living Downstream, speaks passionately about an emerging environmental human rights movement, which would inspire a groundswell of “carcinogen abolitionists.“  How might you, how might we begin walking upstream together?  Let me know at roseihm@juno.com.


*Sandra Steingraber, Living Downstream: an Ecologist’s Personal Investigation of Cancer and the Environment.  Da Capo Press, 2010.

*For an insightful and balanced article on environmental toxins/carcinogens, go here

*Also check out the NPR story . For more information and action ideas go to http://www.frackaction.com. 


An additional resource on the health implications of global climate change: Paul Epstein and Dan Ferber, Changing Planet, Changing Health: How the Climate Crisis Threatens Our Health and What We Can Do about It:  University of California Press, 2011.

RoseTherese Huelsman, IHM


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