Having coffee with Kristin Shrader-Frechette

Author: Kerry Temple ’74


OK. Now. It’s time to talk straight, because when you sit down with Kristin Shrader-Frechette (she has a ‘72Ph.D. from Notre Dame) you get straight talk. She knows her stuff. She’s informed, direct, gently emphatic. Her passion for justice, evident throughout a lifetime’s work in public health and environmental justice, is that of a prophet’s, but without the histrionics or stridency.

When she talks, she might tell you that about 27 million U.S. children under the age of 13 have asthma—a 40 percent increase over the past decade—and that more than half these children live in areas that violate air-pollution standards.

She might note the increase in autism and cite epidemics in Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder and other neurological and developmental disorders, then explain that mainly because of pollutants from coal-fired plants, one in five U.S. women of childbearing age has blood levels of mercury that are able to cause neurological and developmental problems in unborn children.

She might say that the lethal dose of a pesticide like some organophosphates for infants is 1 percent the lethal dose for an adult, and cite a report from the U.S. National Academy of Sciences that says a million Americans will die from allowable pesticides in the next 75 years.

Or she’ll tell you that a third of all heart disease in Chicago can be associated with air pollutants, and that National Cancer Institute data show that eight people die each day in the city because of particulate pollution . . . and that half the deadly particulate pollution found in the ozone comes from transportation, mostly automobiles.

She’ll explain that the leading cause of death for Americans who die before the age of 85 is cancer, and up to 90 percent of those cancers, according to the U.S. Office of Technology Assessment, are “environmentally induced and theoretically preventable.”

She’ll also talk about her latest book, _Taking Action, Saving Lives, a comprehensive discussion of the impact of industrial and agricultural toxins on the environment and on public health. It opens with an alarming case study in Hammond, Indiana, where a tragic number of children suffered from rare cancers of the brain and central nervous system—16 toddlers in one four-block area.

As one mother was putting the clues together, she soon had a list of 100 local children, all diagnosed with cancer, mostly under the age of 3, with all signs pointing to Keil Chemical, a facility owned by Ferro Corporation, and its releases of ethylene dichloride and vinyl chloride.

Health matters
The book examines the science and ethics of that case and others, the role of government, industry and the families affected. And she calls on all of us to get serious about our obligations in a democracy to protect the health of its people. If you think things have gotten better over the past few decades—with clean air and water laws, and success stories celebrated in film, and perhaps a finer national conscience—you’d be wrong. “Not true, absolutely not true,” she says.

Cancer rates in adults climb about 1 percent per year, and 1.4 percent in children whose development and rapid growth make them 10 times more susceptible. “The Toxic Release Inventory,” she explains, "is a listing of reported pollutant releases on 600 of the worst U.S. pollutants. The reports are given by industry and usually not checked by anyone, so they’re typically underestimates. The reports show hazardous pollutant releases are going up, up, up, up, up.

“Although some good pollution laws are on the books, they’re not being enforced. This is particularly true of the past eight years”—a period, she notes, during which enforcement funds have been cut by up to 40 percent and government agencies have weakened laws as they’ve interpreted and implemented them. “There are millions of Americans who drink water that violates U.S. water standards and millions of Americans living in areas violating all of the EPA’s [list of] criteria air pollutants.” The fact that Latinos and African Americans are two- to three-times more likely to live in such areas is a point that particularly riles Shrader-Frechette.

Polluters, she says, usually choose poor, minority communities in which to build dump sites, incinerators and other dangerous facilities because the residents do not have the influence, know-how or resources to hire scientists or attorneys to monitor pollution and ensure that laws are followed.

In fact, this aspect of her life’s work—protecting children, minorities and the poor—is fundamental to her commitment to environmental justice being more about public health and social justice than protecting wildlife and wilderness. It’s often a clash between Davids and Goliaths, and she’s been on the frontlines—as a scientist, ethicist and advocate— in Africa, California, Indiana and elsewhere.

It’s rarely a fair fight, one she compares to the long-running quarrel that pitted the people, government, science, health care and the tobacco industry against each other. “Everybody older than age 30,” she explains, “knows that for 50 years tobacco companies had been paying scientists to try to say that cigarettes aren’t harmful. The same thing happens today with many industrial polluters— the same sorts of strategies, the same hiring of scientists, the same sort of advertising, the same PR and lobbying in the Congress. People get the tobacco case. If they could just transfer it to the pollutant case, they’d understand why things aren’t better.”

Her work on the Science Advisory Board for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), she says, has demonstrated that three-fourths of all scientific studies in the United States are paid for by special interest groups. “And the polluters control much of the media, PR and the lobbyists. There are four or five lobbyists for each person in Congress,” she adds.

Such analysis would be less credible in a person without Shrader-Frechette’s credentials, but her scholarly and scientific approach brings considerable weight to her advocacy. She studied physics and mathematics as an undergraduate, earned a doctorate in philosophy from Notre Dame in 1972, and did postdoctoral work in biology, economics and hydrogeology. She held senior professorships at the universities of California and Florida before returning to Notre Dame, where she is the O’Neill Family Professor with concurrent appointments in the departments of philosophy and biological sciences.

She directs Notre Dame’s Center for Environmental Justice and Children’s Health, which does pro bono work to educate and assist victims throughout the world of industrial pollution, toxic waste and other threats.

Shrader-Frechette, whose research has been funded by the National Science Foundation for 25 years, has written more than 350 articles and 15 books, and has served as an adviser to numerous organizations, including the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, the EPA, the United Nations and the World Health Organization. She is only the third American to win the World Technology Award in Ethics. In 2007 Catholic Digest named her one of 12 “Heroes for the U.S. and the World.”

She attributes her dedication to social justice to her Catholic education and her parents, both active in the civil rights and peace movements. Her mother, the first white member of the NAACP in Kentucky, was dying of environmentally induced cancer when Shrader-Frechette, then 26, had just earned her doctorate and returned home to Kentucky to teach. A group of Appalachian farmers asked her for help. A local nuclear dump was illegally releasing radioactive waste that was killing their livestock.

Her efforts stopped the shallow burying of the waste, stopped the company from releasing radioactively contaminated water down the hillside at night and led eventually to the closing of the nuclear dump. Her calling had found her.

Sad times
The vocation, however, has had its pains and tribulations. “I have some teary days,” she says, "when I have to deal with dying people—because I am so angry that people should not have died before their time. I am angry that people dying of pollution won’t see their grandchildren. I am angry that their children will grow up without a mom. I’m angry because we don’t have a health tracking act in the United States, so the local centers of high levels of pollution are not apparent as they are in many other countries. I see so many needless deaths, particularly of children. So that gets me down.

“But there is hope. The world is full of good people. People are good, and I see them making a difference. The people who stopped that pollution that killed those little toddlers in Hammond were a bunch of moms without college degrees—many so poor they didn’t even have health insurance. These were poor, blue-collar families. Many of the people who do the greatest things in stopping the threats to our health are moms and grandmoms—not mainly the educated people or the scientists. But when people start seeing their children dying, they start taking action.”

One recurrent thread that weaves in and out of the conversation is the Catholic Church and the role of faith in advancing environmental justice. Shrader-Frechette will tell you, “The bishops have said some amazing things about environmental justice.” The two prominent environmental issues for the U.S. bishops, she explains, are climate change and children’s health. “[A]s they put it, if you’re interested in protecting life, you need to protect children once they’re here, not just before they’re born. And the tragic thing is that little children are hurt the most by pollution.”

Shrader-Frechette also admits the bishops’ position “hasn’t made it down to the pulpit, hasn’t trickled down to the people.” One reason for this, she explains, is that "many, many people talking about environmental issues have not tied those environmental issues to public health, to the fact that the statistics are pretty unanimous, that straight government data say up do 90 percent of all cancers are environmentally induced and that right now 600,000 U.S. citizens die of cancer each year. We’re killing ourselves, and we’re killing little kids first.

“So until environmentalists talk not just about endangered species and threatened wetlands and disappearing ecosystems but about the humans killed because of environmental pollution, many people won’t take environmentalism seriously. They’ve got to make the connection between environmental pollutants and increased cancer, between environmental pollutants and heart attacks. . . .

“The second reason,” she continues, “is a lot of people find it easier to promote the Church’s position on respect for life when they don’t have to change their lives.” It’s easier to take a stand on capital punishment or abortion, she says, when it isn’t something we’re going to do anyway. But driving an automobile, Shrader-Frechette explains, produces about half the particulate pollution responsible for much childhood asthma, heart attacks and many cancers, and so implicates all of us in an activity that threatens the health of our children.

“The tendency,” she says, “is to point to other people who do what we consider wrong, but not find the spots in our own eyes. And we’re all guilty. Our lifestyle causes death, no doubt about it. We’re causing death. Period. We have to change our lives.”

Another reason the bishops’ message on environmental justice has not been widely heard, she adds, “is that many of us make money from various forms of pollution that put others at risk, and we simply don’t want to look at the ways we’re implicated, even when we work for companies engaged in questionable practices.” But we are implicated, she cautions, even in those actions and inactions that harm the lives of others.

The thing is—even when she sounds extreme or leaves you doubting the impact one person can make—you know she’s right, and you realize she’s showing you just how one person can have an impact.

Kerry Temple is editor of this magazine.