Film examines cancer survivor’s quest to track carcinogens

Photo of Dr. Sandra Steingraber by Benjamin Gervais / The PPC

The famous quote “We all live downstream” seems to be attributed most often to Japanese-Canadian environmental activist David Suzuki, best-known as the host of the long-running CBC-TV newsmagazine The Nature of Things. It’s one of those sayings that seems like it ought to be obvious but isn’t. Once you really begin to think about it, it’s a sobering concept. Once you throw something away, there’s really no “away.” Sooner or later we all have to deal with the consequences of our wasteful and thoughtless ways of living on this Earth.

Among those consequences are illnesses caused by carcinogens and other toxins that human industries put into the environment. Ecologist Sandra Steingraber, PhD, who is currently scholar-in-residence at Ithaca College, came from a home where cancers ran in the family, so she probably shouldn’t have been too surprised when she developed the same type of bladder cancer that had killed one of her aunts. There was just one oddity about that: Dr. Steingraber was adopted. She bore no blood relation to that aunt. Whatever was giving that cancer to people in her family was thus most likely something occurring in their environment.


Following her cancer diagnosis and subsequent inability to get meaningful information about possible environmental causes from her doctors, Steingraber set out to document and educate the public about commonly occurring carcinogens in the environment and their effects. The results of her yearlong odyssey were a book and then a featurelength documentary film, both titled Living Downstream.

The movie, directed by Chanda Chevannes and released in 2010 by the People’s Picture Company, documents Steingraber’s private struggles with cancer and her public fight to bring attention to the human rights issue of cancer prevention. Following the pathways of chemical carcinogens as they migrate throughout North America, the film includes interviews with scientists who believe that these toxins may be working to cause cancer, and shows how chemicals enter the bodies of humans. In a review of the film for the Toronto Star, Catherine Porter dubbed Steingraber “the Rachel Carson of the new millennium.”

Living Downstream will be screened on Tuesday, April 17 at 5 p.m. at the Weis Cinema in the Campus Center at Bard College. It will be followed by a discussion and question-and-answer session with a panel of environmental and public health experts. The keynote speaker will be David Carpenter, M.D. of the Institute for Health and Environment at the University of Albany. Also on the panel will be Jannette Barth, president of J. M. Barth and Associates; Michael Edelstein, director of the Institute for Environmental Studies at Ramapo College; and Mark Lytle, chair of Environmental and Urban Studies at Bard College.

This screening and discussion are free and open to the public. For more details about the event, visit To view a trailer and clips from Living Downstream, visit