Sandra Steingraber had plans to attend medical school when she received a diagnosis of bladder cancer at age 20. Her suspicion that the illness was linked to contaminated water in Tazewell County, Illinois, where she grew up, set her on a path to understand the public health impact of common carcinogens released into the environment – first as a biologist, now as one of the most celebrated writer-activists-ecologists of her generation. Her trilogy of books about environmental health – Having Faith, Living Downstream, and Raising Elijah – wraps complex science lessons in finely drawn memoir and has earned her comparisons to her hero, Silent Spring author Rachel Carson.
In 2011, she received a Heinz Award worth $100,000 and used the money to seed New Yorkers Against Fracking, a coalition of anti-fracking groups in her current home state. By then Steingraber had made opposing fracking her life's work. "My anti-fracking work has absorbed my toxic chemical work," she says, "because the road to chemical reform runs straight through energy policy – green energy solves both toxic chemicals and climate change."
In March, Steingraber was arrested during a road blockade to stop the construction of a gas compressor near her home close to Seneca Lake. "New York has a temporary fracking moratorium, but the infrastructure is getting fast tracked," she says. "To see this happening so close to my home, I needed to let my body speak."