Raising Elijah, and a call for the Precautionary Principle

Posted by | March 12, 2012

I was first introduced to ecologist Sandra Steingraber’s work through Orion Magazine and have always considered her writing thought-provoking and meaningful.  Her recently published book, Raising Elijah: Protecting Our Children in an Age of Environmental Crisis, is no exception.  As a cancer survivor, Steingraber has dedicated herself to exploring the intersection of chemical contamination and human health.  She rejects the notion that toxicity should be a consumer choice and insists we have a human right to demand a regulatory framework that safeguards and advances a healthy planet and healthy people.

Raising Elijah describes the domestic routines of family life with young children and how they are linked to public health issues.  The book explores a range of issues, from increased exposure to chemicals like phthalates, which have been linked to asthma, to the toxicity of play structures built from pressure treated wood, which have been shown to leach arsenic.  In the U.S., there are over 80,000 chemicals on the market and little is known about their effects on human health and the environment.  In addition, less is known about the safety of these chemicals in combination with each other.  Steingraber focuses less on pointing fingers and more on a broken system that fails to regulate dangerous chemicals:  “…give me federal regulations that assess chemicals for their ability to alter puberty before they are allowed access to the marketplace…give me chemical reform based on the precautionary principle.” Her commitment to creating regulations that protect consumers can be seen as an example of environmental justice.  Indeed, consumers with less knowledge and/or financial ability to purchase alternatives should not have to unknowingly expose themselves and their children to toxic chemicals.

Alternatives do exist, but are not yet mandatory or mainstream.  Voluntary programs for business such as the EPA’s Design for the Environment  (DfE) can be utilized in concert with the precautionary principal to develop chemicals and mix chemical formulas with less environmental impact.  DfE focuses on chemistry and identifies safer alternatives, while the precautionary principle is a form of risk analysis that aims to ensure a higher level of environmental protection.  Used wisely, programs and guidelines such as these can help break a legacy of toxicity and help to usher in an era of responsible environmental design.

There is increasing demand for safer chemical products and some companies are responding.  We are encouraged to see companies adopt policies that prohibit the use of substances listed as persistent, bioaccumulative, or highly toxic; potential carcinogens; mutagens; or reproductive toxins.   In our world of increasing population and declining ecosystem services, we believe chemical companies that formulate non-toxic substances, facilitate the reduction and reuse of chemicals, and create products that have environmental benefits for the end user will have a competitive advantage.


Emily is a Senior Research Analyst with Portfolio 21 Investments. She has 9 years of experience in the environmental field.

Post categories: ecological limits, environmental health, environmental justice

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