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

September 15, 2012

Book Shelf


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

By Sandra Steingraber
Merloyd Lawrence/Da Capo, $26

Reviewed by Sue Smith-Heavenrich

The environmental crisis is actually two crises, writes Sandra Steingraber. One is what’s happening to our planet, the atmospheric accumulation of heat-trapping gasses. The other is the accumulation of toxic pollutants in our bodies. At the core is our dependency on fossil fuels.

Steingraber — ecologist, mother, cancer survivor — has been compared to Rachel Carson, both as a scientist and essayist. So it is fitting that her most recent book, Raising Elijah, was released on Earth Day.

As in her previous books, Steingraber writes on a personal level, blending science and memoir. But this time Steingraber speaks as a warrior, a parent determined to protect her children — and all children — from the polluted and climate-challenged world they have inherited.

From pizza to playgrounds, she shows how compounds developed for chemical warfare ended up in our kitchens, our gardens and our schoolyards. Take “pressure treated” wood, the chromated copper arsenate (CCA)-treated beams used to build decks, picnic tables and playground equipment. Great stuff; won’t rot. But there was a small problem, Steingraber explained: arsenic started showing up in soil, leaching out of the wood, and getting into children.

How did a chemical deemed too carcinogenic to be handled by adults end up in an industry selling products for children? And what can we as parents do about it?

I’ll admit right now that, as an organic gardener, the real reason I picked up this book is the pair of chapters on farming and food. Steingraber opens Chapter 3 with a description of her CSA — a community-supported agriculture farm where she picks up weekly boxes full of fresh berries, vegetables, honey, eggs and even flowers. She writes about organic and conventional farming, cites the National Research Council report highlighting the special vulnerabilities of children to pesticides and asks why the U.S. EPA review on reducing children’s exposure to pesticides — due in 1999 — has yet to be completed.

Is organic food healthier for our kids? “Accumulating evidence does seem to point in that direction,” Steingraber writes. Researchers have found that children with higher levels of pesticides in their bodies were more likely to display symptoms of attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder. An ongoing study measures pesticides in umbilical cord blood and promises to follow children throughout their development. But those results are twenty years away and our job, as parents, is to protect our children now. For that reason Steingraber sticks to food grown without poisons.

Those who argue that not everyone can afford organic food need to continue reading into the next chapter, an essay on pizza and ecosystem services. Organic farmers need the same things conventional farmers need: access to credit and markets, crop insurance, infrastructure (processing plants and mills) and university research dollars. The institutional neglect of organic farming means that even when consumers create a demand for pesticide-free food, systemic bottlenecks prevent supply from catching up.

To assuage her insatiable curiosity, Steingraber calculates the cost of baking a pizza from locally sourced organic food. Her pizza for four totals up to nearly $10; a similar pizza concocted from conventionally raised ingredients would cost only $6.25. Still, Steingraber argues that organic agriculture can feed the world and brings the advantages of pollinator services and diversified cropping systems. In 2009, she notes, small farms in New York produced 65 bushels per acre compared to the national average of 44.4 bushels.

For the most part, this is a hopeful book, one that left me leafing through seed catalogs and dreaming about a greener future.

Sue Smith-Heavenrich is an upstate New York writer who specializes in science and agriculture.

* From the quarterly newsletter SEJournal, Summer/Fall 2012. Each new issue of SEJournal is available to members and subscribers only; find subscription information here or learn how to join SEJ. Past issues are archived for the public here.

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