book review: Raising Elijah: Protecting Our Children in an Age of Environmental Crisis

Sandra Steingraber is a scientist, poet, cancer survivor, and mother who wrote the hands-down best book about pregnancy in existence, Having Faith: An Ecologist’s Journey to Motherhood. How’s that for an introduction?!? Seriously, if you haven’t read Having Faith, go do it.


In a 2011 book, Steingraber moves on from pregnancy and birth to tackle the ecology of childhood and parenting. Raising Elijah: Protecting Our Children in an Age of Environmental Crisis explores what scientists, policymakers, and others know (and don’t know) about how environmental toxins interact with human development and health, particularly in the early years of life.

This book is eye-opening and readable. Like Having Faith, it blends personal storytelling with environmental and biological science, although the science here is less blow-you-out-of-the-water cool and gorgeous than in the earlier book.

But the real strength of Steingraber’s work is its emphasis on the necessity of societal rather than individual solutions to the huge problems of toxicity in the human environment and of climate change. Sure, she narrates her own family’s choices and discusses small changes we might make in our own lives: drying clothes on a line rather than in a dryer, etc. However, instead of placing responsibility on parents’ (which generally means mothers’) shoulders, Steingraber insists that our society must step up and protect individuals from corporations. She calls for a large-scale investment in renewable approaches to food and energy production that don’t carry immense hidden costs to children and to all people. And she does so with style, passion, and clarity.

For instance, consider polyvinyl chloride. Why, Steingraber asks, is a “public health menace” (and, because of its production process, a potential friend to terrorists) like PVC dealt with by sending parents to shit tons of web sites: PVC-free toys at the Ecology Center’s database, PVC-free school supplies at the Center for Health and Environmental Justice’s, and on and on. She presents five objections to this approach: 1) who has the time?, 2) it creates conflict between parents and children, who naturally want to keep the cool-but-potentially-toxic stuff they’re given, 3) “as a matter of principle, toxicity should not be a consumer choice. Believing that we can buy safety for our children with money and knowledge leaves those with neither in harm’s way,” 4) this approach leave renters like my family screwed, as we can’t go around replacing flooring and suchlike, and 5) toxic, flammable, explosive substances can harm people who don’t purchase them, too (133-4).

For Steingraber, a consumer-oriented approach to industrial and agricultural toxins is an awful lot like reacting to potential nuclear war by building a bomb shelter (135-6). She wants us to push for disarmament instead of digging in our back yards.

This is all, of course, rather depressing. We live in an alarmingly toxic world and cannot possibly just think okay, I’ll fix that right up, then. No one can buy their children’s way out of the toxicity, either. As Steingraber points out, no matter what consumer choices you make, you can’t stop the wind from blowing or take your children out of the larger ecosystem that creates and sustains (and simultaneously poisons) their bodies. It’s less depressing than it would be in another, less sensitive and human, voice, but still: not a big upper. And yet I think we need to think about this stuff.


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  1. Posted 5 March 2013 at 12:42 AM | Permalink

    Loved Having Faith! This sounds like a good one too!

  2. Posted 9 March 2013 at 5:28 PM | Permalink

    Sounds really interesting. I’m currently reading various things on our food system (just finished a coursera course on it) so I’m not sure I could handle another topic on systemic problems that affect our health and our children at the moment, but I’ll definitely put it on my reading list for a bit later!

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