(Courtesy of the talented photgrapher Michael Itkoff who sent me some of his pictures... one of which was used with this essay)
Environmental Amnesia: While questioning what we buy, we've forgotten where we live
by Sandra Steingraber
DURING THESE TEN YEARS of running and speaking, I’ve noticed two opposing trends. The first is that people increasingly believe that their health is affected by hazardous materials in the environment. And they know a lot more about hazardous materials. Pesticides in strawberries. Lead in lipstick. Bisphenol A in water bottles. But there is decreasing knowledge about the actual environment itself. Public awareness is specific to chemicals in consumer products—which are produced elsewhere (increasingly China) and brought into our homes. The location of those homes on former orchards (where arsenical pesticides were used) or near old toxic-dump sites (where drums of solvents were buried)—these matters seem blurrier and blurrier to the folks in my audiences. In fact, I’ve had to start explaining the word “Superfund,” as it doesn’t seem to ring any real bells for a lot of people—including people in communities where Superfund sites are present. (Superfund sites are the nation’s worst toxic-waste sites. There are 1,305 of them, and they are named for the “super” fund of money put together by Congress in 1980 to clean them up, a trust that went bankrupt five years ago.)
I was recently invited to Rockford, Illinois, to speak about toxic chemicals. That seemed appropriate because Rockford is the site of a longstanding Superfund site. Solvents used by former businesses had drizzled into drinking water wells. Rockford is famous within toxicology circles because of the bladder-cancer cluster that was discovered here and because it was here where researchers figured out, in the 1980s, that the level of solvents in human blood is predicted not by the amount of water drunk from the tap but by the length of “shower run times.” In other words, inhalation is a bigger route of exposure to solvent-contaminated drinking water than drinking it, and showering provides the biggest dose. And yet only two people in my college audience knew about these studies—or even knew that Rockford had a Superfund site. Even the local emergency-room physician hadn’t heard the news.
WHAT’S INDUCING THIS EPIDEMIC of environmental amnesia? Maybe one contributor is the long silence of the federal government on environmental catastrophes of all kinds. In the breach, activist groups have tried to protect the public. In need of positive messages and deliverable results, they focus on individual solutions. Don’t microwave in plastic. Buy organic. There is no place in that discussion for the barrels of waste buried atop the aquifer. The very mention of them fills a room with paralyzing despair.
Or maybe we’re now spending so much more time with consumer objects than with our natural environments that we have forgotten how to think about them. Sport water bottles are real to us—polycarbonate? or stainless steel?—but creekbeds are fuzzy concepts.
Or maybe our unremembering is a wall against grief. My own elementary school—along with the field, playground, and wooded path to the crosswalk—was razed years ago to make way for discount shopping.
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