When I described the documentary “Living Downstream” to my friend she expressed uncharacteristic apathy: “I'm not really worried about pollution causing cancer. Everyone gets cancer anyway if they live long enough.” I rolled my eyes at her, but she was exhibiting a common contemporary experience. Our constant exposure to medical information is overwhelming even to members of a health obsessed society. News programs now designate entire segments to health. Doctors become celebrities. TV ads peddle pills. Websites like provide enough detailed medical information to keep any hypochondriac awake and sweating. We are bombarded with so much information that it is difficult to absorb all the claims let alone decide which are true.

Cancer suffers from this overwhelming information flow more than most scientific subjects. The disease is naturally complex. The designation 'cancer' means any one of hundreds of diseases with different causes and symptoms, many of them yet unknown. This complexity makes the disease more frightening, and people react to this fear by repeating any rumor of a cause or cure. A list of carcinogens might include charred meat, water bottles, cell phones, and microwaves, let alone industrial or agricultural chemicals. Who can worry about all of that? So we focus on the obvious problems like cigarettes, or the well marketed ones like breast cancer and throw our hands up at the rest. We are all going to die anyway.

“Living Downstream,” based off of the book by Sandra Steingraber, recognizes how overwhelming its subject can be. Not the type of documentary that pelts the viewer with statistics and experts, it frames the basic information about the health risks from pollution inside Steingraber's personal story. It uses emotions to try to break through the viewer's cancer exhaustion, instead of trying to convince us logically. A natural strategy since Steingraber's background ideally qualifies her to argue her position.

Steingraber was diagnosed with bladder cancer in her 20's coinciding with several other cases in her close family. What would otherwise appear to be a case of a congenital susceptibility to cancer was complicated by the fact that Steingraber was adopted. She responded to her diagnosis by studying the environmental causes of cancer and discovered that there was a high occurrence rate in her native city, Pekin, Illinois, an industrial center. After her cancer went into remission she completed a doctorate in biology. She soon began promoting knowledge about the health risks related to chemical pollutants through her books and lectures.

The film discloses Steingraber's background through interviews with various family members, which for the most part feel unscripted. The camera follows her to a routine cancer screening. The results of which may, or may not mean, a recurrence. With her health uncertain the majority of the movie shows her attempting to cope with an uncertain prognosis while she travels, lecturing on cancer prevention and the need to abolish certain chemicals.

The cancer story, as a genre, has become plagued by cliches. It loves to put tears in our eyes with “strength through adversity,” wig shopping, and hospital beds surrounded by tubes. “Living Down Stream” thankfully skips the emotional heavy handedness. Instead Steingraber speaks in a cool, almost scientific voice, about her feelings and her sickness. Her words have a lyrical grace to them (not for nothing does a colleague introduce her as “the poet laureate of the environmental health movement”), and she is also clear and concrete. The only time we see strong emotion from Steingraber is when she is talks about people who refuse to listen to the dangers posed by pesticides and industrial emissions. Then anger barely seeps through her composure. Steingraber's calm demeanor makes the viewer's emotional reaction even stronger. The film never tells us how to feel and it doesn't really need to. That factories and farms excrete thousands of tons of toxins with little being done to prevent it, is simply outrageous and tragic.

“Living Downstream” successfully emotionally connects the viewer to the issue, but the issue is overshadowed by Steingraber's story. We are not given enough information to trust her claims over those of the internet quacks and trendy pseudo scientists. A few times the film breaks with Steingraber to interview scientists about the effects of specific chemicals. These breaks provide variation, but the scientist's areas of research are too obscurely related to the point to really help the argument. (The first researcher hunts for transsexual frogs and the second dissects whales.) Steingraber offers information here and there, but not enough to make a clear case.

Since the personal narrative eclipses the agenda, “Living Downstream” risks feeling like just one more depiction of an individual vs. cancer. Although the movie's technique places it above the average Lifetime movie or Discovery channel documentary, without the environmental health angle it would have little original to offer. Cancer prevention through abolishing environmental contaminants is explicitly the target, and too many of the scenes stray from the center. The viewer doesn't need to know what Steingraber was cooking when her doctor called with test results. Her diagnosis by itself lends emotion to her argument. Everything after her basic history is a distraction from her environmental goals.

The movie's strong cinematography and use of imagery go far to make up for its incomplete argument. Visuals, like stock footage from the 50's of a truck blasting pedestrians with insecticide, make their own argument about America's chemical dependency. Even simple shots of rivers, small towns, farms and factories are gorgeously filmed and fit seamlessly with the narration. The entire movie is shot with a subdued palate, as if through a haze, tuning the visual aesthetics of the film to a perfect pitch.

Though the “Living Downstream” puts its sweeping pan shots and aerial photography to good use the film is most affecting when the camera merely records Steingraber during her speaking engagements. When narrating the movie her voice is almost whiny, but it becomes fully authoritative in front of a live audience. Her speeches do what the documentary did not, balance the emotional and the logical. Standing before a room full of CEOs and lawmakers in her home state, Steingraber declares,

“When carcinogens are introduced into the environment some number of vulnerable persons are consigned to death. I think we should become carcinogen abolitionists, here in the Land of Lincoln. Even one death by involuntary exposure to a cancer causing chemical is too many.”

Although the “Living Downstream” is imperfect, the power of Steingraber's words, the haunting images, and the necessity of its message make this movie easy to watch and hard to forget, even for those overwhelmed by nonstop medical media.

Evan Moore is an assistant editor for the Free Press. He can be reached at