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Raising Elijah
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Raising Elijah: Protecting Our Children in an Age of Environmental Crisis

Mark Newton

7th July, 2011

Combining hard science with a sympathetic approach to the realities of family life; Raising Elijah is one of the most important books you’ll ever read, says Mark Newton

One of the greatest moral bargaining chips in the environmental movement is the fate future generations: to think of the children. Those who employ such arguments suggest that it’s our children who will be the ultimate victims of environmental degradation, and it is they who will have lost out on what we ourselves were lucky enough to experience: a cooler climate, pristine forests, greater biodiversity. But those looking to the future are overlooking something crucial: the impact of current climate change and ecological issues on children today.

Raising Elijah is a meticulously researched piece of environmental writing. The book requires little in the way of scientific understanding but despite this, hard facts are dealt with. Local problems are scaled up to be revealed as feeding into complex national or even international issues; topics are placed within the context of corporate greed and politicking. Legal frameworks are analysed against a historical backdrop of scientific understanding. This is a genuine, all-encompassing environmental study.

In Raising Elijah, Sandra Steingraber seeks to explore the relationship between children and the environment in more detail, and dwells on the stewardship of parenthood – for it is the parent who stands between their child and exposure to the environmental problems of contemporary life. Steingraber is very clear from the start on how vulnerable young children can be: that they put their hands into their mouths an average of 9.5 times a minute. Put that together, as Steingraber does, with the fact that that timber treated with chromated copper arsenate (arsenic) can be found in many family homes and playgrounds, and you start to realise the extent of the toxins that our children are being exposed to.

In other chapters, Steingraber discusses food, both organic and locally produced, and contrasts these with conventional farming. It’s a subject we’re familiar with. Pesticides are of course remarkably immune to biodegradation and Steingraber reminds us what they are actually made from and of the implications: ‘Frequently used in fruit and vegetable farming, organophosphate insecticides kill be attacking the nervous system of insect pests. They have the same effect in humans: Organophosphates block the action of an enzyme that regulates a neurotransmitter and are thus brain poisons.’

Science is brought to the dinner table. Traces of these ‘brain poisons’ can be found in children’s urine and have an impact on brain development. Researchers have found that those with high levels in their urine were more likely to show symptoms of ADHD, though fully researching the effect of pesticides on children will take decades. Steingraber argues that, as a parent, she cannot afford to wait so long – she must make her choices for her children now. Yet she doesn’t lecture; she is sympathetic to the difficulties of needs versus costs, understanding the budgetary restraints on many families. She uses her own family and life experiences, from budgeting to moving house, as examples of how a balance can be struck. Continuing in this format, each chapter is a wonderfully formed discussion - a mini treatise on the issue at hand. From the food, Steingraber moves on to examine the air we breathe, the fabric from which our buildings are constructed, the impact of environmental factors on children’s brain development, all the way through to the familiar territory of climate change. There is also an excellent examination of the deeply contentious issue of hydraulic fracturing (or fracking) and its impact on both air quality and water supply. These are not abstract points either: the importance to growing children is illustrated with scientific data.

 

As the book draws to a close, it is clear that Raising Elijah differs greatly from the average lifestyle book. Everything is backed up by drawing on a large number of peer-reviewed journals, and is related to the reader with real elegance. Everything has context, which means that the message remains strong and clear. In less capable hands, so many overwhelmingly depressing facts about the state of the world, and how toxins envelop our entire lifestyle, could be simply be read as scaremongering. But Steingraber, refrains from generating the kind of headlines one might find in the Daily Mail. Armed with a rational interpretation of the problems, she deals with them in a balanced way while simultaneously managing to remain upbeat. Written from the perspective of a mother-cum-scientist, Raising Elijah is that rare beast that combines hard data and approachable intimacy. At heart, it is an inspirational personal journey, a tale of activism at family level. It is perhaps the most essential book a parent can read this year.

Raising Elijah: Protecting Our Children in an Age of Environmental Crisis by Sandra Steingraber (£15.99, Da Capo Press) is available from Amazon

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