Bookshelf: Raising Elijah

Jennifer Sahn, Editor of Orion, reflects on adapting a selection from columnist Sandra Steingraber’s newest book, Raising Elijah: Protecting Our Children in an Age of Environmental Crisis, for publication in the March/April 2011 issue of Orion. Steingraber’s latest column, “Household Tips from Warrior Mom!” appears in the September/October 2011 issue of the magazine.

I first read Sandra Steingraber’s book Raising Elijah in manuscript form. I had asked Sandra whether any chapters from the book might be adapted into an Orion article, and she sent me the whole work, chapter by chapter, which I then printed out and read.

I read a lot of books before they become physical books (or bytes, depending on your delivery mechanism), but rarely do I read a manuscript that gives me such a strong sense of privilege—of being accessory to the creation of a revolutionary text, one that has the potential to change the course of history. Raising Elijah is the story of a mother who is determined to protect her children from harmful substances that lurk in our air, our water, our furniture, clothes, and food. Her efforts are extensive, heroic, and painstaking—confiscating a brand-new Curious George raincoat from her son because vinyl contains endocrine disruptors; switching her children’s school because of an arsenic-laden play structure. But she cannot ultimately succeed in her quest. Toxic substances are too deeply embedded in our environment, our industry, our way of life. The pesticides drift, the student on the bicycle gets a face full of auto exhaust, and most young people will at some point encounter a tuna fish sandwich, which inevitably will have mercury in it. A sobering thought, this is: that even the most dedicated mom cannot entirely protect her children from this kind of harm.

But Raising Elijah is not a hopeless book; it is an empowering one—or at least it should be. Because we don’t have to live our lives hitched to industrial processes and substances that make us sick. Pesticide-based agriculture is an option, but not a necessity. Nor are coal-fired power plants an inevitable part of our future. All children could eat food that is not poisoned by neurotoxicants, breathe air absent harmful particulate matter, play on play structures that didn’t make them sick. Raising Elijah is a call to arms. This is insane, Sandra Steingraber is saying. A culture wedded to systems that sicken its children is completely insane. But also, Let’s change it. Let’s build a world that doesn’t threaten the lives of our kids.

For publication in Orion, I settled on the chapter in which Sandra outlines the links between neurotoxicants in our air and our food and the unprecedented rise of learning disabilities in our schools. Editorially, I thought it was a coup, an eye-opener of the highest degree. I was convinced that this was the most important article we would publish this year—even this decade—that readers everywhere would sit up and take note. Take note, at a minimum, but hopefully also get angry, and, once the anger runs its course, get active.

Reader mail and online comments have not indicated this to be the case. And Sandra’s most recent Orion column, “Household Tips from Warrior Mom!” bears me out. In it, she recounts how time after time she is interviewed for all kinds of audiences—television, radio, auditoriums filled to the gills. And each time she arrives prepared to talk about a new paradigm, about considering any system that systematically sickens our children to be unacceptable. And instead, her interviewers and audiences want to know what kind of water bottles she uses. Sandra’s theory is that in people’s minds, paradigm change is too big, too daunting, too difficult to even consider. But switching water bottles? Spend $18 and you’re done.

Steingraber has combed through the data, interpreted it for the lay reader, and written a book that reveals in no uncertain terms how the modern way of life is damaging our children’s bodies and their brains. Are we brave enough to meet this knowledge head-on? And if so, can we be trusted to do something more with it than buy a new water bottle?

Jennifer Sahn is Editor of Orion. Raising Elijah: Protecting Our Children in an Age of Environmental Crisis, by Sandra Steingraber, was published in March by Da Capo Press.