For many, a cancer diagnosis is a deeply personal, private matter. But when Sandra Steingraber confronted a diagnosis of cancer that is rarely found in young women as a college biology student more than 40 years ago, it set her on a life-long mission to document the intimate connection between human and environmental health and hold polluters to account.
Steingraber used her scientific training to unearth a vast body of evidence linking toxic chemicals in the environment to cancer, including the bladder cancer that had upended her life. Patients often hear that cancer is a result of bad luck or poor lifestyle choices, but bladder cancer, she discovered, is a “quintessential” environmental cancer, linked to industrial chemicals and contaminants in drinking water. She marveled at the huge gap between what the science shows and what patients and the public hear about cancer causes.
In 1993, Steingraber left her tenure track job to communicate scientific evidence about environmental threats to public health. She framed the potential for chemical and fossil fuel companies’ toxic products to poison people, even before they are born, as “toxic trespass.”
“From the right to know and the duty to inquire, flows the obligation to act,” Steingraber wrote in her acclaimed 1997 book “Living Downstream,” the first in a trilogy on environmental health.
Over the past decade, Steingraber has led efforts to halt fracking across the Marcellus Shale deposits, which run from eastern Ohio through several states to upstate New York, where she lives. Steingraber retired as a scholar in residence at Ithaca College in 2021, and now works as a senior scientist with the Science and Environmental Health Network. She co-edits a peer-reviewed compendium of scientific, medical and media findings showing the risks and harms associated with fracking and related oil and gas infrastructure, which ultimately convinced Gov. Andrew Cuomo to make New York the first state to ban fracking, in 2014. She believes fracking—which she calls the world’s “ugliest gerund”—is “linked to every part of the environmental crisis.”
Steingraber received the prestigious Heinz Award in 2011 for her efforts to understand how contaminants in air, water and food endanger human health. Last month, 170 scientists led by Steingraber and seven other high-profile scientists including Peter Kalmus, Michael Mann and Rose Abramoff, urged President Joe Biden to reject a proposed liquefied natural gas terminal in Louisiana known as CP2 and similar projects to instead chart a rapid, just transition from fossil fuels.
Inside Climate News spoke to Steingraber in San Francisco last month during the annual meeting of the American Geophysical Union, the world’s largest gathering of earth and space scientists. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
When did you decide to reject the traditional thinking that scientists can’t be activists, that speaking out undermines your objectivity and credibility?
I do strongly believe that scientific objectivity is not the same as political neutrality. And I, like every scientist I know, am very proud of my ability to just look at a whole batch of data, and let it tell me the story. At the end of that work, if it shows grievous harm to people, then I feel an obligation to speak out about it. And I don’t think that’s the opposite of being objective. It’s just that I, along with everybody else who walks this earth, whether we’re scientists or not, has an obligation to our fellow human beings.
It kind of started early on in my career when I was a field biologist and doing my dissertation research up in northern Minnesota at the Lake Itasca Biological Station. I was looking at the role that deer browsing was playing in shaping the species composition of the forest.
In about year four of doing this research, I got some data given to me by the park naturalist because he was closing his office. At the time I was actually living in a tent and I had to look at these quickly because rain was coming. So I’m rifling through and see a memoranda “for your eyes only.” I discovered that there had been, in the 1960s, this secret spraying program to give tourists who came to the state park a better view of the headwaters of the Mississippi River by knocking out the understory shrubbery. And what they were using was Agent Orange.
Then, of course, in 1970, the big congressional hearings happened about the use of Agent Orange in Vietnam. Vietnamese journalists figured out that babies were being born with terrible birth defects and it was probably from the Agent Orange exposure. Eventually, we had hearings in Congress, and that was stopped. The spraying program in the nation’s forests was also quietly stopped.
I began to see how certain practices about what’s considered safe and unsafe were not based on objective science. So I began to see how science is done in a political context.
You’re an ecologist by training and were told you had cancer as a young college student. How do you see the connection between your personal history and training as an ecologist with your current work looking into the impacts of fracking?
The cancer diagnosis kind of pulled me off stage. I didn’t feel anymore like part of this cohort of young biology majors, because it’s very unusual for a young person, especially a young woman, to get bladder cancer. My cohort of fellow bladder cancer patients were mostly older men.
I had enough scientific training to read the literature on bladder cancer. And I learned pretty quickly that bladder cancer is a quintessential environmental cancer, and it’s linked to tobacco smoking, which didn’t have anything to do with me. But it’s also linked to exposure to all kinds of solvents.
My aunt went on to die having the same kind of bladder cancer I had. And my mother at the time of my diagnosis had breast cancer. So she and I were actually co-cancer patients together. But I was adopted. So I knew what united my family was not genetics and heredity, but maybe a shared environmental exposure.
Then I discovered ecology, which meant I could do biology outside and away from toxic chemicals in the lab. I went specifically into something I thought was beautiful and pure, and wanted to look at the feeding behavior of female deer because no one had done that.
I was just trying to stay alive on the one hand, because I was going in and out of the hospital all the time for checkups. And then this discovery that actually, my whole study site had been sprayed with Agent Orange was just like, okay, there’s no running away for me. I need to use the science I know to be a public intellectual and comment on and demand change for these kinds of reckless practices.
After I had finished graduate school, I worked for my student newspaper. I knew enough organic chemistry, but I could also file Freedom of Information Act requests and get access to the Toxics Release Inventory data and the cancer registry data and start putting those together [for “Living Downstream”], which nobody had really done. And then realized, oh, I’m not just one strange person who got diagnosed with cancer. I’m part of a cluster of data points in this zip code. And indeed, my drinking water wells were contaminated with chemicals known to be linked to bladder cancer.
I think that’s when I kind of knew that this was my life’s work now, in whatever form that took. It started off with chemical carcinogens, and has moved kind of upstream I guess, to oil and gas, because the chemicals I used to write and think a lot about are petrochemicals. They’re made possible because we’re drilling oil and gas out of the ground. Now I’m really interested in re-narrating the story of oil, coal and gas deposits, not as fuels, not as resources, but as kind of like an underground coral reef that is actually supporting a biosphere of lots of organisms.
On a panel at the AGU meeting, you asked members of the society to think about whether they want to allow employees of the fossil fuel industry to present at their conference. Could you talk a little about how vested interests can shape the kind of questions that are asked in research?
I’m one of the co-authors in the principles of this fracking science compendium, which began a decade ago when we were fighting fracking in New York. I think the first time we did this, there were 65 studies in the peer-reviewed literature. Now, there are like 2,500 studies. What we’ve noticed, as we’ve done this work, and when I say “we,” I mean scientists with Concerned Health Professionals of New York, is that there’s a huge difference between industry-sponsored or funded studies and the ones that are independently funded. Even before I go to the acknowledgements section to see who funded the study, I can pretty much read the introduction, and know whether this is an industry-funded study or not based on the language they use. Some of it is really subtle, and some of it is more blatant. But oftentimes, a big economic case is made right in the introduction about the economic benefits of fracking and the clean natural gas and the boom that it’s provided our nation. Well, that isn’t science. That’s propaganda.
You mentioned seeing patterns of harms to health and the climate in independent studies. What were a few of the most troubling patterns you saw?
Toxic air pollution accompanies fracking wherever it goes. And there’s no real way to mitigate that. As soon as the drill hits the shale, a weeks-long process has to go on before it’s even hooked up to a pipeline. During those weeks, you have now an open hole between the middle of the shale and the atmosphere. And so methane is just pouring out during that time, but so are radioactive particles. Because especially in the Northeast, where the Marcellus Shale represents a lot of silt that was fossilized from an eroded mountain range, that was just full of radioactive elements as mountains are. So you’ve got radon, you’ve got uranium, polonium, all of these things are also coming out. And then you have things like formaldehyde … benzene.
I have come to think of fracking well sites as these sort of giant cigarettes in the earth. Eventually they get hooked up to a pipeline. But that doesn’t mean the emissions completely stop because the pipeline then is carrying the gas, but the compressor station has to push the gas and again, every now and then gunk builds up in it and you have to clean it out. And you just open it up and send what’s called a pigging operation, this little like, cleaner thing gets shot through to scrub it out from the inside. Meanwhile, it’s just venting every possible thing.
And so the communities that live nearby, we see study after study of increased death rates among older people, increased heart attack and stroke risk. And then the most troubling data to me are bad pregnancy outcomes. Pregnant women, of course, live everywhere. And when they live near fracking sites, you see over and over, from Pennsylvania and Oklahoma and California and Texas and Colorado, you see increased rates of low birth weight, preterm birth, birth defects, and now, childhood cancers.
As for the climate, there’s just spiraling methane emissions. And it’s pretty clear that the ongoing spike we see globally is actually driven by North American fracking operations. And the old wells continue to leak, even after they’re plugged, because cement and steel are not immortal substances—they shrink, they crumble. So eventually, we have this permanent problem of wells that are just going to keep leaking methane from way down in the Earth to up in the atmosphere. We’re shattering the bedrock of our nation, and then the emissions that come out are shattering the climate above our heads.
At an AGU panel about scientists as activists you said you spent time in jail after getting arrested while protesting at a storage site for natural gas. How did that happen?
To be clear, the gas was being fracked in Pennsylvania and the proposal was to bring it by train to these abandoned salt mines along and underneath Seneca Lake. This Texas-based gas company at some point decided these would make good gas tanks, to take compressed natural gas and store it in there. This was going to become the Northeast hub for the storage of fracked gas. And so, of course, a lot of people said no, this is our source of drinking water for 100,000 people, it’s where our wineries are, that it would represent mass industrialization of this beautiful place with flare stacks and compressor stations and all of it.
There were hydrologists, who know much more than I do about the behavior of compressed natural gas in salt chambers and how that could actually solidify, even if it didn’t explode, it could push brine into the lake and salt it up, making it undrinkable. We all gave expert testimony at the hearings. FERC [the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission] basically just said, “We’re not scoping our environmental review to consider these issues. Sorry.”
It was like a crossroads for me. My kid goes to summer camp right down the road from there. I know a lot about this now, and I know this isn’t safe. And then a guy knocked on my door one day, and asked if I would come to the driveway of this salt company that had now been purchased by a Texas gas company, because he and a couple of other people, including a Methodist minister, were planning to chain themselves to the gate and would I just come in bear witness.
This story is funded by readers like you.
Our nonprofit newsroom provides award-winning climate coverage free of charge and advertising. We rely on donations from readers like you to keep going. Please donate now to support our work.
So I was watching an elderly Methodist minister chain himself up, because he just felt so strongly that this is God’s creation, and you can’t wreck it. And then there was a nurse who talked about the health effects. And I watched them get taken away by the police and I thought, why am I not up there? Then a group of four or five of us met and decided we would kick off a sustained campaign. We didn’t know how long but we would just keep getting arrested at the gate. We didn’t want to chain ourselves to anything because we didn’t want people to have anything more than violation-level charges. We didn’t want anyone to have a criminal record because if winemakers have a criminal record, they can’t have a liquor license. Same with teachers and nurses. We just wanted you to turn on your TV and say, “Why is my dental hygienist and my kid’s history teacher being arrested?”
So we did it, we stopped the expansion. We were just charged with essentially like a traffic ticket. But if you refuse to pay the fine, then you could go to jail. I refused twice to pay my fines. Each time I was given the maximum sentence of two weeks. But while I was in there, I could be writing and getting it published and getting the word out.
Local elected officials, they might be really annoyed with us, because we were really tying up law enforcement, we were filling the courts up so no other work could get done. But in the end, they just wanted that gas industry to go away. And they got convinced that, yeah, our future does lie with wineries. And you know, we have this sort of vibrant rural economy with destination weddings and farm-to-table food. And this was all going to be wrecked.
The annual COP climate talks just ended, and finally mentioned fossil fuels. What gives you hope that policymakers will at last take meaningful steps to phase out fossil fuels?
I agree with Michael Mann and others who say we can’t just walk away from COP. The oil and gas industry would like nothing better. So we have to stay engaged in that process. The political leaders who are showing up for COP have to be given a mandate by civil society, so we have to put so much pressure on them. And it takes everybody, scientists, faith leaders, everyone has to be engaged in this. I feel like it’s part of my job in this moment as a biologist is to find a language to talk to people that make them want to be engaged rather than turn away.
I think people turn away because they are afraid that they’ll feel overwhelming despair, or overwhelming grief or shame or something. And I’m really interested in saying, “Come be heroes with us.” We have to meet the scale of the problem by being monumental ourselves. I often say, “We’re all members of this great human orchestra and it really is time to save the world’s symphony. Nobody has to play solo, but you do have to know what instrument you hold. And you have to find your place in the score.”