Freedom from Fear: Parenting, the Environmental Crisis, and Overwhelming Reponsibility

Tom Gomoll. Image from family photos.

My father grew up in Wauwatosa, WI–a blonde ball of energy with three siblings, a love of horse racing, and the freedom to explore suburban labyrinths and skateboard downhill  until the dinnertime call was shouted through a backdoor screen. Like so many children, he conquered imaginary worlds atop wooden play structures, consumed processed food, and pushed toys around the living room floor. Each night before he was tucked beneath twin bed sheets, my Dad proudly buttoned up his flame-retardant pajamas–purchased lovingly by a mother who fiercely protected her brood of 4.

15 years down the road, Brominated Tris, the chemical stitched into those boyhood PJs in the name of fire safety, was “banned after it was found to be carcinogenic in animal tests and to leach into children’s bodies. Its replacement, chlorinated Tris, was also later banned” (Furniture Safety & Fire Prevention Act, 1977).

Fast forward to the year 2001. Mid-December and I was the child dressed by loving parents, seated at a desk in a high-performing elementary school–my packed lunch loaded with nutritional snacks and tucked away in a cubby. Scrawling away at a Social Studies test question about Benjamin Franklin, my pencil (its painted coating pocked with nervous bitemarks,) was stopped mid-sentence. My mother’s profile filled the doorframe, and the news wasn’t great. She and Dad were leaving for 4 days to see a specialist in Indiana. Dad had testicular cancer, and we were all fighting it together.

And fight we did. After a hard year of chemotherapy, missed concerts and family events, Dad was in remission. The cause of his cancer was unknown. It could be one (or any combination) of countless known carcinogens. My Grandmother was convinced it was the pajamas.

In the sweet sadness of baked apple crisp and comforting vegetable stew, Grammy cooked meals for our family throughout that trying year–atoning for all of the things Dad had been exposed to that went  unidentified as dangerous until decades after he grew up.

Original image by Norman Rockwell (Freedom from Fear,) taken from

The horror of unintentionally exposing our children to objects and environments that potentially expedite their deaths is the plight of the modern parent. As a future parent, I must come to terms with the reality that I am incapable of completely protecting my kids.

Faced with a constant flood of information and fear fed through “mommy blogs,” news reports, TV interviews, media, and parenting literature, the priorities of parenting are increasingly obscure. With leaked government cover-ups, polarized ideas of what the “issues” are, and disillusion when it comes to who exactly has trustworthy advice, it’s easy to understand why some in my generation cling to the mantra “I’m never having kids.”

Parenthood has become (and perhaps it always was) an overwhelming series of serious decisions that come with deceptively simple labels like “lunch,” “playground structure,” “pajamas,” “kitchen floors,” and “good schools.” Being a Super Mom or Dad in a country of convoluted systems, consumer culture, and confusing regulations should be given the same prestige as conducting brain surgery daily.

Acknowledging parents’ conflicted flurry of emotions and unwavering duty to serve as advocates for their kids, environmental author Sandra Steingraber published in 2011 an inspiring book of anecdotes, carefully compiled research, and relatable cultural analyses titled Raising Elijah: Protecting Our Children in an Age of Environmental Crisis. 

In her environmentally themed memoir, Steingraber artfully explores staples of American childhood–unpacking the invisible and harrowing consequences of milk, pizza, playgrounds, laundry, and homework. With poetic descriptions of her own journey through motherhood, Sandra Steingraber takes her reader from familiar personal vignettes  to the details of phthalate plasticizer and ehtylene dichloride production. As I read her memoir, Steingraber had me sweating for a dozen pages at a time–realizing the countless carcinogens I had been exposed to in my own childhood.

Moving from familiar suburban household dynamics to large scale implications, Steingraber’s chapter headings are a genius synopsis of her unique perspective on parenting in an ecological crisis:

  • One: Milk (and Terror) 
  • Two: The Nursery School Playground (and Well-Informed Futility) 
  • Three: The Grocery List (and the Ozone Hole)
  • Four: Pizza (and Ecosystem Services) 
  • Five: The Kitchen Floor (and National Security) 
  • Six: Asthma (and Intergenerational Equity) 
  • Seven: The Big Talk (and Systems Theory)
  • Eight: Homework (and Frontiers in Neurotoxicology)
  • Nine: Eggs (and Sperm)
  • Ten: Bicycles on Main Street (and High-Volume Slickwater Hydraulic Fracturing) 

Placing the seemingly mundane experiences and physical surfaces of her children’s days into the context of larger systems, Steingraber has us thinking about the unending compromises of parenthood. In this systems-thinking approach to parenting, I was struck most by Steingraber’s analyses of playgrounds, grocery lists, and the classroom dynamics inspired by neurotoxicology. In each of these accounts I was overwhelmed by information, left helpless, and then reeled back into pseud0-comfort with creative solutions invented by Steingraber for her own quirky family.

For the purposes of this post, I’d like to focus on one representative example from Steingraber: the experience of the playground.

Deconstructing the Playground:

When I was a vivacious second grader at Cumberland Elementary School, I spent lunchtime recess climbing to the top of an airy log cabin nestled in the spongy woodchips of our playground. Its sides were constructed of beams made smooth by the oily touch of miniature hands. We sat on the slanted roof and played patty-cake–listing the names of juvenile crushes, giggling, and eventually springing our bodies back to the ground and heading for the towering yellow plastic slide.

A few years after my “graduation” from the 5th grade, the wooden playground I knew and loved was replaced with a modern castle of primary-colored plastic and speckled rubber matting. Even at age 12 I was nostalgic for the structure that had been lost, but I didn’t ask the question “why?”

The new playground at Cumberland Elementary. Image from

Returning to my hometown, I assumed (until very recently) that the school just had extra money. As I played babysitter and pushed someone else’s children on the swings, I entertained fleeting  thoughts about the fight against childhood obesity and a blossoming “exercise culture.” Maybe that weird looking set of bars in the corner was supposed to help kids pass their fitness tests in gym class.

After reading Steingraber’s chapter on well-informed futility and the nursery school playground, I realize that the reason for the disappearance of my childhood playground was probably linked to arsenic and cancer. Will that recess playhouse I so adored become one of the million-and-one variables that kills me? Probably. If this is the case, were my parents even told about the danger I was exposed to in the years those toxins lay undiscovered? Or were they told 5 years down the road (when my little brother was a student at the same elementary school) that the playground was simply receiving a happy “upgrade?” I’m guessing the framing of the plastic castle construction was done in the latter form. No need to get the parents riled up about something that’s too late to change… right?

In Steingraber’s own experience and storytelling, a similar scenario is presented. After a rigorous and informed search for the ideal nursery school, Steingraber finds a little Eden for her daughter Faith. After a year of idyllic experiences with afternoon snacks, great teachers, and inventive learning games, the only problem with Faith’s nursery school lies within the pressure-treated wood of its play structure–a seemingly minute detail that Steingraber cannot stomach. In the end, she removes her daughter from the school (after several attempts at community organizing and legal action to have the contested structure removed) and places her daughter in a nursery school spread across the vast acreage of a farm.

The reasoning behind Steingraber’s Mama bear decision is explained through the chemical makeup of arsenic and an appalling assessment of the way our government regulates its seepage into our everyday lives. The “experts” have gotten far too good at keeping us in the dark. Steingraber refused to buy into a culture of ignorance after she’d uncovered a patch of light.

Steingraber begins her systemic breakdown of Faith’s playground conundrum with this thought; “Our environmental policies pretend that children–who make up 40 percent of the world’s population–do not exist. Entire regulatory systems are premised on the assumption that all members of the population basically act, biologically, like middle aged men” (28).

In a country that often preaches change and progress for “the next generation,” we treat children as if they are invisible–failing to acknowledge that laws and regulations must be adapted to fit their unique frames and metabolisms. America’s parents live with the false understanding that their children are looked out for by the government–that the food they purchase in the grocery store and the public land they let their children run and climb is safe. Even when we seek out “approved” experiences and consumption for our children, we aren’t seeing the whole picture. For example, Steingraber tells us that “until 1990…the reference dose for radiation exposure was based on a hypothetical 5’7″ tall white man who weighed 157 pounds” (28).

Reading this statement, I found myself asking the question that recurred page after page : How is this allowed? 

A few more facts from Steingraber’s myriad to get your heart beating fast:

  • “Only 200 of the more than 80,000 synthetic chemicals used in the US have been tested under the Toxic Substances Control Act…and exactly none of them are regulated on the basis of their potential to affect infant or childhood development”(29).
  • Children have alternative metabolic pathways and take longer to rid their bodies of pollutants. They are more prone to neurological toxicity. They insert their hands into their mouths an average of 9.5 times/hour (30).
  • Pressure treatment (pesticide application) of wood involves an embalming-like process that includes Chromated copper arsenate–a chemical that is 22% pure arsenic by weight (35).

What happens when as a parent you begin to see your child’s world through the lens of this information? Do you keep them locked indoors–forbidding them contact with any structure involving pressure treated wood, move into a new house, and pray for the power of your protectively induced child bubble’s success?

Increasingly, this “put them in a bubble” paranoia has become a trend in parenting culture. We might think about the link of invisible environmental hazards to the culture of distraction shaped by hours in front of screens. As cultural media theorist Marshall McLuhan states in his text Understanding Media, “the medium is the message.” In some ways, a safe space has been created in front of the television set–children lulled into a state of “entertained” as they sit cross-legged in a carefully contained living room (furniture, carpeting, and paint all researched for toxic remnants and potential developmental effects.) The message is stay safe. 

Back to arsenic and playgrounds and pressure-treated wood. Throughout her “dense fact” style chapter, Steingraber acts as storyteller–making the journey of pressure-treated wood to suburban decks, play structures, and homes into a menacing character. Family barbecues, lounging on the porch, and playing barefoot on the deck suddenly become life threatening activities.

In Steingraber’s narrative, we learn that the EPA began a review of arsenic pesticides in the late 1970s. The review of chromated copper arsenate (CCA) took ten years, but it was clear throughout this decade that the cancer risk factor of the chemical was too high to continue production at current levels.

While the EPA gathered evidence (at a glacial pace,) “the manufacture of pressure-treated wood increased by 400 percent, and its use expanded to other types of construction: including picnic tables, gazebos, and children’s playgrounds” (35). Pressure treated wood became the norm rather than the exception, and the public remained in the dark. Capitalism trumped public health.

Arsenic, that chemical featured in poison-scheme murder movies, accumulated in the surfaces that permeate childhood. Lumber yards and Home Depot-style departments introduced sheets with rambling warning labels…but no one understood their scientific jargon (or had the time to read them in the first place.) Furthermore, CCA was exempt from hazardous waste rules because it would be too difficult to have civilians navigating the “correct” disposal of their kids’ outgrown play forts.

In the next 20 years, scientists (who were also parents) began to test the toxic levels of their children’s playspaces. From 1980-2002, reports came out of the woodwork–documenting playground surface swabs containing “more arsenic than the EPA allowed in drinking water” (38). It was found that children were being (or had already been) exposed to arsenic at levels that were enough to raise the lifetime risk of lung or bladder cancer to 1 in 300 (38). In fact, “according to one estimate, the average five-year-old playing on a CCA play structure could exceed within two weeks the lifetime cancer risk considered to be acceptable under federal pesticide laws” (41).  This was only arsenic. What else were we absorbing through our thin skin and fragile capillaries?

Many parents were enraged by this influx of data…and some were so overwhelmed that they pushed it aside. This is where Steingraber’s definition of “well-informed futility” applies. In a world of conflicting feedback loops, parents already hold their children’s hands as they avoid patches of pesticide labelled grass, research the water in towns before they buy white picket fence properties, dive into parenting guides, and painstakingly list the things they can and cannot do when their children are still in the womb. How can it be that the “safest” places in their children’s lives could lead to chemotherapy and developmental deformities? Why is it that beyond school choice and teachers and extra curricular activities we have to worry about the buildings our children touch?

We cannot rebuild every playground. We don’t have the time or the money to test every play structure and gather evidence for its removal. We don’t have the luxury of moving every child to a different district. We can’t stop children from playing outside when their growth depends on outdoor and peer interactions. So what do we do? 

What if the precautionary principle were the default in our society? What if we, like the country of Norway, removed arsenic treated wood and the soil surrounding it from thousands of schools, parks and daycare centers–vowing to eliminate its use in future projects and refusing to wait for “evidence” to warrant these actions? What if we fundraised for proper toxic waste disposal–or, better yet, the government took care of it? What if we didn’t have to wade through dense and deceptive reports and spent large sums of money to finally define what the “right” choice for our children is? And finally, what if the nature of all of these what ifs didn’t make us want to throw in the towel?

When we start to see the whole picture, we feel helpless. Defined as “well-informed futility,” Gerhart Wiebe came up with the term for this learned helplessness in 1973 when “television had brought war into the living rooms of Americans for the first time” (46). When we are bombarded with depressing statistics and images of our world’s cruelty day in and day out, we become inured to them. We focus on the simple pleasures and the things we can control. No wonder we have become a society of individualism and nuclear family units.

Steingraber comments on the convenience and self-protecting nature of inaction as she states; “ironically, the more knowledgeable we are about a problem, the more we are filled with paralyzing futility…but action is exactly what is necessary to overcome futility” (46). We push aside the hundred-page lists of carcinogens we have unknowingly exposed our children to in order to stay sane. We think, “maybe they were wrong.” We pour skim milk into the glasses at the dinner table and imagine the bodies of our children growing strong. According to risk expert Peter Sandman, “we all instinctively avoid information that triggers intolerable emotions” (47).

So, if informing the public isn’t the answer, how do we improve the conditions of the next generation’s immediate environment without inducing a mass parental meltdown? How do we motivate citizens to act when the effects on their children can’t be taken back? How do we move outside of the culture of familism in America–bridging personal connection and care to a larger scale?

Through the relateable example of playground chemistry in Steingraber’s systems-thinking approach to parenting, we see a perspective that is both awe-inspiring and revolutionary. Should Raising Elijah be used as a call to action, we might adjust our society’s translation of the term “parenting.”

Being a parent in America should not be a counter-cultural activity. We should not (and cannot) have to uncover the loopholes our government has climbed through, read the excessive fine print of every object our children’s tiny hands touch and consume every hour of every day, or raise a generation of kids confined to safe “bubbles.”  We should not have to completely give up our lives in order to responsibly parent our children and keep them out of harm’s way. Ignorance is bliss should not be the mantra of parenting–rearing its ugly head when we learn 10 years down the road that our children are walking carcinogens and there’s nothing we can do about it now.

The system should work for us rather than against us. All of those politicians raving about the potential and importance of the next generation should do more to help us protect it.

Beyond Steingraber’s family-unit approach to taking on colossal environmental complications through household changes, ideologies, and conversations, we need to come together as a collective American family. We need to combine our nuclear groups of 4 and demand action from our communities and our country. Steingraber named her son Elijah after the famous abolitionist Elijah Lovejoy. Like Lovejoy’s lifetime dedication for justice, Steingraber claims that “Raising Elijah [is a] call for the outspoken, full-throated heroism in the face of the great moral crisis of our own day: the environmental crisis” (xii).

We should listen and reply.

This entry was posted in Sustainability Culture Fall 2012, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Freedom from Fear: Parenting, the Environmental Crisis, and Overwhelming Reponsibility

  1. Pingback: From Sesame Street to Sense of Wonder: Environmental Education in the Digital Age | growingupinamerica

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