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by Sandra Steingraber
Da Capo Press, 2011
Review by Hennie Weiss on Sep 13th 2011

Raising Elijah

Writing about the environmental crisis and experiences concerning her own son, Raising Elijah: Protecting Our Children In An Age Of Environmental Crisis by Sandra Steingraber is a fascinating and moving story about a parent's struggle to protect her child's health and wellbeing while still planning for his future in a world full of environmental dangers.

Focusing mostly on two major environmental factors, global warming and chemical exposure and pollution caused by major corporations, Steingraber manages to engage the reader by drawing from personal experiences of motherhood and how these influence and shape her decisions on where to live, what jobs to accept, what to eat, where her children go to school and how to relate to her own child in order to minimize the exposure of toxins. 

According to Steingraber, the environmental crisis we now face is also a parenting crisis as children's bodies are receptive to toxins, pollutants and chemicals to a greater degree than adults. These chemicals and pollutants are ingested into our bodies and our children's bodies through contact (such as touching materials containing chemicals), from the foods we eat, from drinking, and through the air we breathe.

Steingraber states that environmental laws mostly ignore children while basing their reference doses and regulatory systems on adult males (Steingraber calls this the reference man). The impact of the environmental crisis on children's bodies and minds is therefore under inspection and many reports are presently being written. What we do know is that children's bodies are very much affected and that they face a range of developmental, physical and psychological implications. These include asthma, ADHD, autism, bronchitis, as well as other learning disabilities, attention difficulties, respiratory conditions and brain development difficulties. Early onset of puberty is also an issue that girls who are exposed to toxins might face, while testicular cancer and demasculinization can impact boys.  

Steingraber states that the struggle parents face in managing the chemical and toxic exposures in our environment cannot be based solely on minimizing the contact of such chemicals, placing the sole burden of children's health on their parents. Instead, laws and regulations need to be in place to prevent the exposure in the first place. As Steingraber states: "Restitution is not possible" (p. 211).

Even though the picture Steingraber paints is a rather bleak one when discussing the physical, financial and psychological implications of living in a world of environmental crisis, she is still hopeful for the future. There are ways to decrease the exposure of toxins for children as well as adults, improve the conditions for plants and animals and also end our dependency on fossil fuel. The process of doing so is however a complicated one that requires not only changing our lifestyles, but our whole society as well. Steingraber takes on the discussion of whether or not organic farming can support our world, how to use less fossil fuel and how parents can make a difference in their own households. On page 182, Steingraber provides three suggestions for individual action that are easy enough for parents to apply and that make a difference (especially if implemented on a greater scale) to the environment.  

Steingraber writes in a witty, poetic fashion, easily drawing connections between the environmental crisis and children's health. On a larger scale, Steingraber also makes it apparent that the environmental crisis cannot be ignored, and does her very best to provide suggestions for action that can be implemented by all members of our society. The book is written for a general audience and is easily understood as Steingraber describes and explains how chemicals, toxins and pollutants affect the bodies, minds and overall health of children. The intended audience is not only parents concerned with raising children in an increasingly poisonous and unhealthy world, but anyone interested in the effects of our environmental crisis, and the financial and personal cost of raising children in an environment that is dangerous for them.

The book is one of the most fascinating and well-written pieces concerning the environmental crisis that I have read. There are however two aspects that needs to be considered. First, Steingraber realizes that not all parent have the same opportunity to avoid certain environmental threats, while minimizing exposures to environmental toxins. This notion can make it difficult for parents to feel that they have options in trying to maintain the health of their children, and to act on these options. Second, parents face the main responsibility of keeping children safe from environmental threats, despite the fact that large corporations are the main sources of chemical and toxic exposures. Steingraber mentions the impact of large powerful and wealthy corporations, but does not fully engage in a discussion of capitalism, the resistance of corporations to change, and the fact that corporations do not want laws restricting their release and use of dangerous chemicals and toxins.

 

© 2011 Hennie Weiss

 

Hennie Weiss is a graduate student in Sociology at California State University, Sacramento. Her academic interests include women's studies, gender, sexuality and feminism.