Remembering Elizabeth Grossman

In July 2017, Oregon lost a fierce advocate, Oregonian, and one of the most important environmental health writers in the nation.

Elizabeth Grossman’s tenacious reporting on the chemical industry and her book Chasing Molecules brought her national acclaim; but that attention did not draw her away from working to protect her home state. Grossman played a critical role in shaping Oregon’s policies to protect human health from toxic chemicals.

There are many writers that we depend upon to make complex science accessible. But Grossman’s impeccable accuracy made her voice not only strong and clear, but trustworthy. When Grossman described the range of subtle effects that toxic chemicals can have on the human body, she gave lawmakers as well as health and environmental experts the language they needed to advocate for change.

Grossman’s work didn’t stop at science alone. She was tenacious in teasing out the ways that science is influenced by business, politics, education and a range of social systems—and the ways in which those systems fail to protect health.

But Grossman also had a vision for a better future. If chemists were trained in toxicology and ecology, if value was placed on preventative health, if manufacturers were tasked with preventing hazards as part of the original design of a product—we could move towards a healthier world in harmony with a strong economy.  She wrote of hazardous chemicals in our bodies and environments in the prelude to Chasing Molecules: “As with climate change, it is not possible to turn back the clock and erase all the damage caused. However,…great improvement and much recovery are possible.”

When Grossman’s Chasing Molecules was published in 2009, OEC was gearing up a campaign to get Oregon to restrict the use of the toxic chemical BPA in baby bottles and food can linings. We knew that BPA was just one among hundreds of chemicals we encounter every day that could be undermining health. But here was an urgent one: the chemical disrupts hormones, it is found in products made for infants—and safer alternatives are already possible.

Grossman testified before state legislators, wrote opinion editorials, and supported this work in Oregon even as she worked to inform changes in federal policy. Even when one legislative session turned into another and years of debate and discussion ensued, Grossman was there as a steady strong Oregonian voice. The groundwork was being laid for what is now one of the strongest laws in the nation to protect kids from hazardous chemicals in everyday products. Grossman helped build the foundation for Oregon’s Toxic Free Kids Act of 2015.

It is very sad to have lost this champion for health to ovarian cancer at age 59. OEC staff and alumni count ourselves among the myriads who Elizabeth Grossman inspired. Her work as an exceptionally talented advocate and a generous partner will continue to inspire us as we hold the torch high and continue in our common goal: to build a healthy future for Oregon.

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