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Living Downstream

image of Nicholas Kusnetz
Sandra Steingraber stands on the bank of the Illinois River in "Living Downstream". She blames her cancer on a mix of industrial chemicals.
A powerful documentary about the toll industry takes on the health of those living near power plants, factory farms, and chemical facilities

In 2010, American industries dumped more than 1 billion pounds of carcinogenic chemicals into the country’s land, air, and water. Look at practically any sector of our economy -- agriculture, energy, manufacturing -- and you’ll find that we produce and emit hundreds of chemicals that we know or suspect can disrupt our bodies’ normal functions. Even more troubling, perhaps, is the fact that beyond this category is a much larger group of chemicals whose relative safety or toxicity is still unknown.

The result is that our industrialized economy, even as it generates great wealth, raises the risk of cancer and other diseases for tens of thousands of people (at least) who live near power plants, factory farms, and chemical facilities. Who are these victims? How many are there?

Sandra Steingraber believes that she is one. Steingraber grew up in Pekin, Illinois, and you might say that cancer runs in her family. When she was in college, Steingraber was diagnosed with bladder cancer at the same time that her mother was fighting breast cancer. An aunt eventually died of the same type of bladder cancer that Steingraber had developed.

The twist is that Steingraber was adopted. Armed with a doctorate in biology, she blames her illness on the mix of industrial and agricultural chemicals that have washed through her town since the end of World War II, from atrazine to PCBs, and which she says have pushed cancer rates in Pekin above the national average.

This is the setting for Living Downstream, a documentary that has been circulating at film festivals for the last two years and will finally make its broadcast premiere on Outside Television, a direct-broadcast satellite network, on Thursday night. The film, directed by Chanda Chevannes, is based on the 2010 second edition of the book of the same name, which Steingraber first published in 1997.

The narrative pursues two parallel story lines. As we follow Steingraber’s personal battle, we join her in the examining room for her annual cystoscope, and watch as the doctor performs the procedure. (This scene implicates the viewer by making him or her yet another one of the intruders whom Steingraber assures us become an essential part of a cancer patient’s daily life.) When we’re not accompanying her on check-ups or sitting in on family discussions, we shadow Steingraber as she moves through her public life, which she devotes to touring the country and speaking about the connection between environmental toxins and cancer rates.

As she explains in the film, despite a wealth of studies linking her type of cancer to chemical exposures, her doctors never once mentioned this correlation when she was being diagnosed. Exposure simply didn’t enter the discussion. So after earning her doctorate, Steingraber decided that rather than don the white coat and chain herself to the lab, she would instead take the research her colleagues had been conducting and act as a sort of translator to the public.

"Everyone was running around with their pieces of the puzzle," Steingraber said in a phone interview with OnEarth, "but no one was putting the pieces together."

One of Living Downstream’s goals, clearly, is to help assemble these pieces to reveal the larger picture. Toward this end, we visit the site of a research project on the Salinas River, in California’s Central Valley, where exposure to the widely-used pesticide atrazine appears to be transforming male frogs into females by turning their testosterone into estrogen. Addressing the chemical’s possible connection to increased rates of breast cancer in women, the director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences tells us that atrazine exposure disrupts the development of a young woman’s breasts, dragging out the fragile period of immaturity when problems are more likely to arise. It would be "naïve," she says, to assume that the chemicals that we know cause problems in animals are somehow harmless to humans.

Later in the film, we trace the path of airborne PCBs -- the carcinogenic chemicals banned back in 1979 -- as their remnants continue to ride weather systems north to New Hampshire’s White Mountains, where the chemical has penetrated the leaf litter, and then on to Canada. There, PCBs and other toxins are accumulating in the tissues of Beluga whales, which we see in visceral detail as researchers remove swollen baleen glands during a lab dissection.

Lurking behind all this is the Toxic Substances Control Act, a relic of the Ford Administration, which the President’s Cancer Panel condemned in 2010 as perhaps "the most egregious example of ineffective regulation of environmental contaminants." Keep in mind that this is the law designed to regulate chemical use in the United States. But as the President’s Cancer Panel report explains, the law allows more than 80,000 chemicals to circulate through our economy and environment today -- with 1,000 to 2,000 new compounds created each year -- without requiring either industry or government to "confirm the safety of existing or new chemicals prior to their sale and use."

Efforts to reform the law have met with various kinds of resistance from the chemicals industry and its political allies. Steingraber argues that the decades-old and ongoing leaching of toxic chemicals -- many of which seem to make their way into our food, air, and water no matter what steps we may take as individuals -- constitutes an unforgivable violation of human rights.

Living Downstream doesn’t necessarily break new ground; if you’re already the kind of viewer who’s up-to-date on the sagas surrounding BPA, PCBs, PAHs, and scores of other toxic acronyms, the film won’t open your eyes any further than they’ve already been opened. What it will do, however, is clearly articulate a compelling central question, one that Steingraber lays out quite plainly at one point: "How much evidence do you want before you do something different?"

Living Downstream will air November 22 at 8 p.m. and 11 p.m. on Outside Television. Click here to find Outside TV on your local cable or satellite provider.

image of Nicholas Kusnetz
Nicholas Kusnetz has written about energy, natural resources, and other topics for ProPublica, The Nation, Miller-McCune.com, InsideClimate News, and other publications. He was a 2011 Middlebury Fellow in Environmental Journalism and a reporting fell... READ MORE >
This article begins, "In 2010, American industries dumped more than 1 billion pounds of carcinogenic chemicals into the country’s land, air, and water." I want to make that assertion in something I'm writing (a fictional story, actually), but if I make it, I want to be able to say where I got the figure. Where did you? Documentation please, reference, footnote. ljardine, pawa
Thanks for reading the post, and I'm glad you found it useful. You can find the data here: http://www.epa.gov/tri/tridata/tri10/nationalanalysis/index.htm