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Sandra Steingraber, Ph.D.

Ecologist discusses role of toxins in cancer, infant development

OU-COM students urged to promote breast feeding

By Richard Heck

April 16, 2009 

The environment seems to play an equal or greater role than genetics in the development of cancer, a noted ecologist and cancer survivor told students this week at the Ohio University College of Osteopathic Medicine (OU-COM). 

Sandra Steingraber, Ph.D., author of Living downstream: An ecologist looks at cancer and the environment, spoke to OU-COM’s first- and second-year classes and several faculty members during her April 13 campus visit. Steingraber also delivered the final Kennedy Lecture Series presentation of the academic year and attended the OHIO Women Making a Difference conference.

Steingraber, distinguished visiting scholar at Ithaca College in New York, almost became a doctor herself. She changed her focus from medical school to biomedical research at age 20, after she was diagnosed with bladder cancer. 

That was when Steingraber first suspected the impact of environment on cancer. Although similar cancers affected her family, Steingraber was adopted, and many neighbors in her Illinois hometown also suffered from the disease. 

“I have a problem with medical intake forms because they only ask about family history,” without asking about lifestyle and environment, which are “too are relevant to ignore,” Steingraber said.

At OU-COM, she focused mainly on dioxin contamination of breast milk, a topic on which she has advised the United Nations. She also deals with the issue in her most recent book, Having faith: An ecologist’s journey to motherhood.  

Steingraber called on the medical students to encourage their patients to breastfeed their infants. Breastfeeding not only protects an infant’s immune system from environmental toxins, but it has also been shown to reduce the mother’s risk for breast cancer. 

“My goal is to change public health policy,” Steingraber said, noting that current regulations and laws, such as the nation’s Clean Air Act, permit “acceptable levels” of toxins into the environment. “We allow some toxic chemicals to be released into the environment, but at ‘safe’ amounts, which I reject.”

During her Kennedy Lecture presentation Monday night, Steingraber compared the economy with the current state of ecology. Jacqueline Wolf, Ph.D., associate professor of social medicine at OU-COM, called it “a talk that every American should hear.”

“Imagine what things would be like if we got news reports on the ecology with the same frequency that we do on the economy,” Wolf said.

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Last updated: 01/28/2016