The cost of chemicals in our environment

Californians have been at the forefront of developing and using chemical and technical approaches to increase agricultural production, boost industrial output and expand fuel extraction for decades. These techniques have been at the center of vast fortunes made in the Golden State.

But at what cost?

Sandra Steingraber – an internationally recognized ecologist whose writings and advocacy have shaped public discussion of environmental health – finds that California’s “production and use of hazardous chemicals cost the state $2.6 billion in 2004 alone in lost wages and health care expenses to treat workers and children with pollution-linked diseases.”

UC Merced is presenting a free public discussion by Steingraber entitled “Fracked Out: Drinking Water vs. Oil in an Age of Extreme Fossil Fuel Extraction.”

This isn’t just a topic of discussion for Steingraber; it’s a significant part of her life.

She draws on her experiences of living with cancer, a lucid vision expressed through a literary grasp of place, and unflinching analysis of cancer’s environmental underpinnings. What ensues is a discussion of the unintended consequences of technological innovation.

She has extensively documented the persistence of air-, water- and soil-borne carcinogens in the United States and has pointed the way toward ameliorating the environmental consequences.

The San Joaquin Valley – which produces a third of nation’s fresh fruit and vegetables – needs protection and care, as does the rest of the state, which is the world’s eighth-largest economy.

Steingraber says there is hope for change as we begin addressing these problems through science.

Some of that important science is taking place among us, here in Merced.

Researchers at UC Merced are examining, among other topics, precision agriculture, water resources and quality, health issues and disparities and alternative, renewable energy sources. They are also working to provide information to facilitate scientifically informed popular consideration of innovations and their environmental implications, as well as resources management.

Steingraber’s work – and the work of UC Merced scientists – can help educate us about how we can sustain our state, region and community. It might even renew our sense of California as the steady, abiding landscape it is, strengthening our sense of what it means to live within it.

UC Merced invites everyone to hear Steingraber during her visit to UC Merced on Oct. 20. There will be two events in which she will discuss scholarship and activism and fracking for natural gas.

The first conversation, about scholarship and activism, is at 10 a.m. and the second, her lecture on fracking, is at 4:30 p.m. Both are free and open to the public in the California Room on the UC Merced campus.

Tom Hothem is the assistant director of the Merritt Writing Program and a lecturer with UC Merced. He wrote this for the Merced Sun-Star.