Parents face challenges in a toxic world

Shanna Shipman

Stephanie Leichtenberg is a thoughtful mother. She constantly educates herself regarding the healthiest choices for her children, 22 month-old Olivia and another baby girl due in late August.

Watching Olivia play recently, Leichtenberg said matter of factly, “She’s my full-time job, so her well-being is on my mind 24-7.”

That is why Leichtenberg takes the extra steps that she feels necessary to protect her unborn baby and Olivia from unwanted toxins in the environment.

Consider pesticides and preservatives, for example.

Leichtenberg, a Pekin resident, regularly purees homemade baby food from organic produce, buys organic eggs and dairy products, and hopes to begin purchasing more locally grown organic meats as well.

She also continues to make breastfeeding a priority, after managing to completely avoid artificial baby formulas.

“I am trying to keep Olivia as healthy as I can without putting processed, unnatural things into her body,” Leichtenberg said.

Next, she will focus on what goes onto her girls’ bodies.

Her next baby will be wearing washable cloth diapers instead of disposables.

“When you hear the statistics of how many diapers go into the landfill and how long they take to decompose, it is disturbing,” Leichtenberg said. “I know we have thrown away a huge amount of diapers with our first. With the next baby, we are hoping to take the next step and use non-disposable diapers to do our part.”

The commitment displayed by Leichtenberg and her husband Todd seems above and beyond that of most busy parents, but still, she said it is hardly a drop in the bucket.

“Unfortunately there is a lot more I can do, but it’s overwhelming,” she said. “You just do the little things you can handle at the time.”

Environmental author and activist Dr. Sandra Steingraber understands.

Herself a busy working mother of two, the Pekin native said in a recent interview: “I am not interested in asking all mothers, including my friends and myself, to become our own regulatory agencies. … I can’t always be a chemical engineer every time I shop in the grocery store, especially if one kid is hungry and the other needs a nap.

“I am interested in re-creating our chemical policy so it is protective of our health, so toxicity is no longer a choice.”

Steingraber said she applauds individual action while encouraging mothers especially to surpass their internal efforts by gathering, organizing and writing their way to broader political impact. She stressed that the great efforts parents go to and the time they spend out of environmental consciousness inside the home would be most effective extended to the public realm.

Consider an issue of local importance: the landfill in Peoria County.

“I have concerns about toxic waste being dumped above Peoria and Pekin’s drinking water aquifers,” Steingraber said. “There are reasons for people in Pekin to follow that story. If that toxic waste is allowed to expand, it sends a message that the Tazewell/Peoria County area is a good place for the world’s most toxic pollutants … because people will allow it.”

She urged people to become educated on the issue and speak out.

“That is the beginning of meaningful upstream change that will make all of our efforts as parents much easier,” she said. “Remember, you’re not just a shopper, you’re also a citizen and therefore have the ability to influence public policy.”

Steingraber’s research leaves her optimistic, she said, as solutions for most of our environmental problems already exist. But she realizes that commercial viability and political will are both needed to make these solutions the mainstream in everyday life, she said.

Steingraber’s passion for battling “toxic trespass,” and the price citizens pay for acquiring unwanted chemicals in their systems, stems from research in which she was the first to couple government data on industrial and agricultural toxic releases with cancer registries. The project was inspired by her own battle with an environmentally induced cancer, and led to the 1997 publication of her acclaimed book, “Living Downstream: An Ecologist Looks at Cancer and the Environment.”

Since then, Steingraber’s research has continued to trace the events of her life.

She published “Having Faith: An Ecologist’s Journey to Motherhood” following her first pregnancy and birth of her daughter, Faith. In the book, she explores how unwanted chemicals affect the development of children in utero.

Her current book project focuses on the next stages of parenthood and the environmental lives of children. Folded into the book will be her recent research on the falling age of puberty in girls, exacerbated by chemicals and hormones in the environment.

Steingraber travels nationwide and abroad frequently, speaking to groups and universities about her ongoing research efforts and writing projects focused on the effects of toxins in the environment.

Also a frequent guest-writer for numerous publications, Steingraber said much of her work is inspired by the lessons she’s learned as a mother and ecologist, in an effort to make her household “run as an ecosystem.”

While speaking out publicly, she also does her part to walk her talk.

Steingraber’s commitment to spreading the word makes the self-proclaimed irony of spending so much of her time in airports as a necessary evil. She gives her husband credit for primary parenting while she is gone from their home in central New York state, she said, and she explains to her son and daughter that she is trying to make the world a better place for all children.

“There is no substitute for spending time with your children,” she said. “That’s why when I am home, I am really home.”

Steingraber, also a college professor, spent spring break making organic dyes for Easter eggs, returning overdue library books by bicycle, and exploring ponds and streams to see if the frogs were out yet.

Another common family outing is to the local organic food market, where they stock up on produce in season that they then store in a freezer chest bought for that purpose. Steingraber gave up the clothes dryer and hangs her laundry in exchange, all in an effort to keep the family’s carbon footprint to a minimum.

“At first, as a mother, I thought, ‘Great, who has time?’” Stengraber said. But laundry time is more quality family time, she said, and without the randomizing that happens in the dryer, the task takes less time than one would think.

“Some things pitched to us in the name of convenience are not so convenient in the long run,” Steingraber said. For her, some personal sacrifice in time and money is made in awareness of the bigger environmental picture.

Still, Steingraber said she hopes that ongoing research will make the case that environmentally sound consumer choices don’t have to be unaffordable.

For instance, she points to research in organic food production that shows that chemical-free farming practices can produce yields on par with the chemical-based methods that became the norm in the second half of the 20th century.

Steingraber said her own research in the nutritional content of organic foods shows that nutritional superiority also makes growing food chemical-free worth the effort.

“One of powerful things we can do as individuals is support our local organic farmers,” she said. “You have to eat anyway, so why not direct those food dollars to local farmers who are providing food without poisoning the earth?”

“We all have responsibilities,” Steingraber said. “Surely we can look in the mirror and ask ourselves, what can I do differently here to clean up my act and lower our burden?”

Pekin Times