UCS Blog - CSD (text only)

I’m Elise, and I’m a Scientist Marching in the Peoples Climate March. This Is Why.

There have been times throughout history when great people have acted to better unfortunate situations.  However, if we examine social and political history you will find times where man had great opportunity to act but did not. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. challenged this behavior by questioning, “How can a man sleep through a revolution?” With a consensus among scientists that climate change is attributed to human activities, we have a unique opportunity unlike any other to exhibit consciousness in the face of a changing climate.

To me, the Peoples Climate March represents a gathering of the masses to make known that we are not asleep; that we recognize the revolution, embrace its challenges, and welcome equitable solutions that will reshape a more sustainable world for all. The Peoples Climate March is more than just a day of people walking in the streets of DC. It is a collection of love and of care and represents the power of people and sound science.

As a scientist I am well aware of the impacts of climate change. We know with great confidence that the sea level will rise, flooding homes and cities. In the Northeast, for example, the region depends on aging infrastructure that is highly vulnerable to climate hazards. The Northeast has experienced a greater recent increase in extreme precipitation than any other region in the U.S. This increase combined with coastal flooding creates major risk for damage to homes, buildings, infrastructure and life.

We also know that in my home, the Southeast, there will be an increase in the frequency and intensity of extreme weather events, leaving many vulnerable. We understand that temperatures are rising, increasing heat-related illness and deaths. The U.S. average temperature has increased by 1.3 degrees F to 1.9 degrees F since 1895. According to data from NASA and NOAA, 2016 was the warmest year on record. We know that there will be changes in precipitation causing floods in some areas and droughts in others; and that there will be expansion of the geographic range of hosts of vectors that cause diseases like Zika. These are just a few of the changes we expect to occur.

These changes will mean that people will have to migrate to new areas of the country, more people will deal with the associated mental and emotional health issues, and culture will be lost when people migrate from communities where their family has lived for years to new lands. All of these are consequences of a changing climate, but will those who are rich, those who have made millions of dollars off of carbon intensive industries, have to experience this burden? Not to the extent that the general population will. The impacts of climate change will not be felt evenly.

People of color, Indigenous Peoples, and low-income communities bear disproportionate burdens from climate change itself, from ill-designed policies to prevent it, and from side effects of the energy systems that cause it. Climate change affects our health, housing, economic well-being, culture, and social stability. As a graduate of Tuskegee University, a Historically Black College (HBCU), utilizing knowledge to benefit people, specifically the most vulnerable, was a foundational part of my training. I believe that using my knowledge to work towards a more just climate change agenda is very important and that we must ensure that equity, including addressing racism and classism, be at the cornerstone of all policies and plans.

Climate change presents an opportunity for producing a more just society with a more robust economy. We can provide jobs that help traditionally impoverished people get out of poverty; we can create policies that improve the lives of all, and promote a more sustainable framework for living on this Earth.

I am marching because as a scientist, I understand the science that leads to the impacts; as a person, I empathize with those who are vulnerable to those impacts; and as a global citizen, I have a duty to take action.

 

Elise Marie Tolbert is an ASPPH/EPA Environmental Health Fellow in EPA’s Office of Air and Radiation, Indoor Environments Division. She is currently working on a project to better understand and address heat stress among vulnerable populations. Through her work, she hopes to ensure equity in environmental planning and decision-making. Elise received her B.S. in Environmental Science from Tuskegee University and Masters of Public Health in Environmental Health Sciences from the University of Michigan. Elise’s research has explored how pollutants and unhealthy features of the environment can affect human health. Furthermore, she seeks to examine how improving environmental health can produce social justice. Ms. Tolbert’s interests include climate change, environmental health policy, environmental justice and sustainable community development. Her future interest includes continuing her professional education and developing a career in which she can strategically work to alleviate the burden of environmental hazards, specifically for historically disadvantaged populations. Elise also serves as the Founder and Director of Next Step Up, a mentoring and tutoring program in Tuskegee, AL. Through this program, college students assist local high school students by providing the skills and motivation needed to reach their academic and personal goals.

Science Network Voices gives Equation readers access to the depth of expertise and broad perspective on current issues that our Science Network members bring to UCS. The views expressed in Science Network posts are those of the author alone.

 

March for Science: A Search for Truth, Trust, and Public Support

“Sure, this is nice and all, but be honest, can’t you prove just about anything with ‘a study?’” I’m all too familiar with this question, and I think it stems largely from one simple fact. As scientists, my colleagues and I spend too much time in our labs worried about truth and too little time connecting with the public and building trust. That’s why you’ll find me at the March for Science this weekend along with thousands of my friends and neighbors.

As a professor at Wayne State, the focus of my research is combustion. Almost everyone uses combustion every day. When controlled correctly, combustion in a car’s engine maximizes fuel economy, with a minimum of pollutant emission. These regulations directly impact the economy and public health. But from 2009 to 2015 vehicles sold from VW cheated on these regulations.

How was this cheating uncovered? It was research done a small university lab in the mountains of West Virginia that provided the data which alerted the public to this problem. The shocking part? The WVU study was published May 30, 2014, but the notice of violation from the air resources board did not go to VW until September 2015 and appeared only after VW had made its own public admission. The lack of communication among scientists, the media, and the public prevents environmental crises like this, and others, from reaching us quickly enough.

This is part of what the March for Science is all about. Getting attention paid to science and making sure science gets the support it needs. President Trump’s budget proposal cuts funding to basic science, slashing programs within the NIH, EPA, NASA between 10 and 30 percent, for a net savings of just less than 10 billion, while simultaneously ballooning spending in the military by 52 billion. This kind of policy shift away from science and towards the military is a dangerous shift in US priorities towards ‘might makes right.’  We must stand together against this dangerous idea.

Science brings us together because the essence of science is consensus. That’s a word I wish I heard more coming out of Washington. We must hold all elected leadership accountable to facts. Without support for and trust in science, we don’t have a common basis of facts to decide  what to do next.  I hope you’ll agree that the time is ripe to March for Science and that you’ll walk alongside me as I hold up my sign: “Science is pro-testing,” but if you can’t, then I hope to see you back in Detroit!

 

Dr. W. Ethan Eagle is a faculty member in Mechanical Engineering at Wayne State, and he supports the student-led effort to charter a bus from WSU to DC to attend the Science March on Washington. You can help support those students here https://www.gofundme.com/march-for-sciencewsu.  In Michigan, there are planned marches in Detroit, Ann Arbor and Lansing. Find out more about the events at marchforscience.com.

Science Network Voices gives Equation readers access to the depth of expertise and broad perspective on current issues that our Science Network members bring to UCS. The views expressed in Science Network posts are those of the author alone.

Marching for Science and Climate Protects Our Communities

Until three years ago, you could have called me a scientist, educator, or mentor—but not an activist or marcher. Over time, however, I have recognized that I have the knowledge, privilege, and responsibility to act and march to protect the communities I love.

Early in my studies at MIT, I believed I could only contribute to solving the climate change dilemma by creating energy efficient and renewable energy technologies. This all changed after I participated in the first People’s Climate March in New York City in 2014. Now I am convinced that activism as a citizen-scientist is an equally valid way to highlight problems and advocate for solutions.

Attending the People’s Climate March was a life-changing experience. I marched alongside more than 310,000 individuals in the heart of NYC to call our world leaders to start taking serious action against climate change. That day I understood the difference I could make by becoming part of something greater than myself.

Furthermore, I recognized that staying on the sidelines to claim “objectivity” as a scientist was not an option. Sitting this fight out would mean staying silent while I watched disenfranchised and vulnerable communities suffer. By staying silent, I would be denying my own relationship to these communities, my own humanity, and I would be ignoring my responsibility as a citizen to fully participate in the democratic process.

As a son of poor immigrants from Central America who grew up in the inner city, I am painfully aware that poor communities are disproportionately affected by environmental threats like climate change. For example, the tragic outcomes of Hurricane Katrina overwhelmingly affected low-income and minority communities. Of the 250,000 evacuees that arrived in Houston, and were housed in shelters, 90 percent were African American, of which 6 in 10 had incomes below $20,000. Today we see similar structural inequalities and issues arising from water contamination in Flint, Michigan, and in the potential impacts of the Dakota Access Pipeline on the drinking water of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe.

Understanding that climate change, like other environmental problems, is an issue of equity and justice has further motivated me to take action. As Einstein once said, “those who have the privilege to know have the duty to act.” I believe scientists, engineers, and experts should be working not just to address climate change, but to do so in a way that empowers communities that do not have an equal seat at the negotiation table.

Therefore, as I prepare for the March for Science on April 22 and People’s Climate March on April 29, I want to remind my colleagues that science or technology alone will not solve the major challenges facing our society. Peaceful marches and protests are valid and necessary means of creating the societal momentum needed to make change. More importantly, if we are going to address these challenges in a fair and equitable way, we must use our privilege to empower and uplift the most marginalized communities in society.

If you can identify with me as a scientist, educator, person of color, or son or daughter of immigrants, then I ask you use your voice to speak up. For me that means marching to protect the communities I care about. I ask that you do the same. If we are truly going to protect and empower our urban and rural communities from an environmental and health hazard as big as climate change, we need everyone to fight.

 

Josué J. López is an educator, mentor, and active citizen-scientist. He is a National Science Foundation Graduate Research and MIT Lemelson Presidential Fellow. Josué was born in Los Angeles, studied in Houston, and now feels like a true Bostonian. He has worked on educational initiatives focused in promoting ‘green’ careers to inner-city youth. Most recently, he has analyzed investment and marketing trends in clean tech and contributed to a blog for the New England Clean Energy Council.

Science Network Voices gives Equation readers access to the depth of expertise and broad perspective on current issues that our Science Network members bring to UCS. The views expressed in Science Network posts are those of the author alone.

I’m Marching for the Same Reason Preservationists Have Always Marched—to Save Places and the Communities They Anchor

As a historic preservationist, I often find myself in common cause with my nature conservation colleagues. So I took note last year when the International Union for the Conservation of Nature adopted a startlingly blunt message:  The ecosystems that underpin our economies, well-being and survival are collapsing. Species are becoming extinct at unprecedented rates. Our climate is in crisis. This is the moment to get it right, they said, but our window of opportunity is closing.  

Given the inter-linkages of nature and culture in the global landscape, I couldn’t help but wonder what IUCN’s warning meant for our cultural ecosystems and what are the opportunities to safeguard humanity’s heritage? These are big questions… and a big opportunity to help supply some answers is at hand.

An unprecedented mobilization

The end of April will witness an unprecedented mobilization on the climate question. It begins on April 22 with the March for Science to defend science, scientists, and evidence-based policy-making and culminates with the People’s Climate March on Saturday, April 29.

The most recent elections have emboldened climate skeptics, but polls show that 70 percent of Americans say climate change is happening and a majority understands that humans are responsible for it. These marches will help clarify just who among us stands on the side of climate action.

My passion for historic preservation calls me to be counted in that number

Historic preservation is by definition forward-looking. What aspects of the past will the present save for the future?  Melting ice and permafrost, increases in sea level and extreme temperatures, more frequent and intense storms give this question new urgency.

The impacts of climate change threaten historic buildings across the US as well as the communities they anchor and the livelihoods and traditions that define us. National Landmarks at Risk, a report by the Union of Concerned Scientists, found that even the country’s most iconic and historic sites including some of our most treasured national parks face an uncertain future.

Thankfully, fighting threats to heritage is nothing new to us. Historic preservation isn’t partisan, but it is political—and it always has been. Anyone who’s ever fought to save a historic building from a wrecking ball knows that. This is a movement that stared down reckless “urban renewal,” and highway building and helped turn the tide on careless sprawl. And now we face a changing climate.

Historic Preservationists at the 2014 Peoples Climate March in New York City. Photo: Andrew Potts

Now it’s time to get to work

As the US National Trust for Historic Preservation has warned, climate change is not merely a physical threat to our cultural heritage; it also challenges our understanding of what it means to “save” a place. While the challenges are complex, all our prior battles have prepared us for this moment. Now it’s time to get to work.

One of historic preservationist’s strengths has always been its practical utility. We win when we stress that preservation and human progress are synergistic, not mutually exclusive. But too few of us our following this proven strategy when it comes to climate change.

Many of the resources we seek to preserve–from archeological sites to traditional and indigenous knowledge–hold valuable information on how earlier cultures responded to changing environments, can be part of a lower energy demand future, and can inform us about the origins of modern climate change. The National Park Service’s 2016 Cultural Resources Climate Change Strategy puts it best:  “Through the tangible and intangible qualities they hold, cultural resources are also part of the solution to climate change.”

It’s time for us to lead

As with so many other crises, cultural resources are a source of community resilience, an asset to be leveraged. Historic preservationists have been down this road many times and it’s time for us to lead. Correction: it’s past time. It’s past time for historic preservationist to make clear our commitment to use the tools of our movement in service of climate action.

How could we not stand on the side of those committed to preserving tribal and other communities on the front-lines of global change?  Where else would you expect to find us when sites that weave the very fabric of our shared history—from Ellis Island to the Everglades, Cape Canaveral to California’s César Chávez National Monument—are at risk?

So why will I be marching in the March for Science and the People’s Climate March later this month? And why under the banner of historic preservation?

Simple: as a historic preservationists, I’m in the saving-places business and some places I care about need our help.

Author bio: Andrew Potts is a partner at the law firm Nixon Peabody, where he focuses on financing for historic rehabilitation projects. He is the former executive director of the US National Committee of the International Council on Monuments and Sites. 

EPA Should Not Delay an Update to Its Chemical Facility Safety (RMP) Rule

As you may know, Scott Pruitt’s Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is delaying or “reconsidering” numerous science-based safeguards, generally at the behest of industry. One of the rules caught in this delay is a very important update to the EPA’s Risk Management Program (RMP). After initially staying the rule for 60 days and then an additional 90 days, Administrator Pruitt has proposed a new rule to delay the implementation of the RMP update until February 2019. My colleague covered how ridiculous the idea is here.

The EPA should not delay critical safeguards to help prevent chemical disasters. Communities, first responders, and workers need this protections in place immediately.

The EPA should not delay critical safeguards to help prevent chemical disasters. Communities, first responders, and workers need this protections in place immediately.

Earlier today, EPA held a public hearing in Washington, D.C. in order to hear comments from stakeholders on a potential delay (let’s not overlook the fact that the only hearing on this proposal was being held in Washington, far away from many of the low-income communities and communities of color that would have the most to lose if the rule were to delayed).

UCS took this opportunity to provide some initial feedback and amplify the voices of many of the affected communities who could not attend the public hearing today. My colleagues Charise Johnson, Amy Gutierrez, and myself, all testified. You can see our prepared comments below.

The agency is currently taking written comments on the proposed delay. We hope that you will join us and tell Administrator Pruitt that the time for delays is over. The EPA should immediately implement its updates to the RMP rule.

***

Comments by Yogin Kothari:

Thank you for this opportunity to speak on the proposed effective date of the Risk Management Program (RMP) Rule final amendments.

My name is Yogin Kothari. I am here both as a concerned citizen and on behalf of the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists. With more than 500,000 members and supporters across the country and across the political spectrum, we work to improve public policy through the application of rigorous and independent science. We also advocate for adequate transparency and integrity in our democratic institutions, along with improved public access to government scientific information.

Last year, I testified at a public hearing hosted by the EPA, alongside community and industry stakeholders, on the importance of modernizing EPA’s RMP rule, which had not been updated in over two decades.

It was heartening to see EPA take my remarks, along with those of more than 60,000 others over the course of two years, to carefully inform and finalize a rule that requires covered facilities to follow common sense best practices to enhance emergency preparedness and makes communities safer.

The process to finalize the final amendments was extensive and rigorous. Everyone had ample opportunity to participate. This included multi-agency stakeholder input, public listening sessions throughout the country, multiple national webinars, a request for information before the proposed rulemaking, a small business advocacy review panel, a regulatory impact analysis, a notice and comment period, and extensive interagency and OIRA review. 

Ultimately, it became evident that there was a critical need to update the RMP rule to prevent injury and death for workers, first responders, and fenceline communities, especially for low-income communities and communities of color, which live in the shadow of danger from many high-risk chemical facilities.

That is why it is shocking, and extremely disappointing, that the EPA has decided to hold this hearing in Washington, D.C. because many communities across the country that have the most to lose if this rule were delayed don’t have an opportunity to make their case today.

Let me be clear: by delaying the implementation of this rule, and by denying impacted communities a voice in this absurd reconsideration, you are putting the public at risk. Think of this as you go back to your comfortable Washington, D.C. home tonight: if this rule is further delayed, these communities will continue to face increased risks of a chemical disaster. These communities know better than almost anyone in this room the importance of these basic protections.

When the initial delay was announced, many community organizations, from California to Texas to Delaware to New Jersey, expressed their dismay. The NJ Work Environment Council (NJ WEC), a coalition of about 70 labor, community, and environmental organizations working for safe, secure jobs and a healthy, sustainable environment, said:

“The RMP Rule final amendments should be implemented immediately. This is an opportunity for EPA to take action and ensure industries using hazardous substances are safer and more secure.  We see no credible reason to delay implementation given the amount of stakeholder engagement, including industry, safety advocates, and other federal agencies such as the Department of Homeland Security and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.”

Furthermore, they said, these modest requirements  are needed to save lives. Improving coordination between chemical facilities, firefighters, and other local emergency planners and first responders is a common-sense reform. I could not agree more.

NJWEC also shared:

“New Jersey has already proven to be a successful testing ground for implementing a safer technology analysis. In 2008, New Jersey adopted rules that required facilities to conduct inherently safer technology (IST) reviews and submit reports to the state.

These reviews have prodded facility management to take measures to protect millions of workers and community residents from serious, preventable hazards. For example, in New Jersey nearly 300 water and wastewater treatment plants that formerly used highly dangerous chlorine have switched to safer processing methods.

There’s no reason to delay these federal requirements, especially when we look at the success of New Jersey.”

The modest improvements to the RMP rule, which in reality are best practices, should take effect now. Communities and scientists have long been calling for an update. EPA’s own data showed that there were more than 1,500 serious incidents at covered facilities from 2004 – 2013, resulting in 58 preventable deaths and more than 17,000 preventable injuries. If the rule were to be delayed until 2019, can we really afford to have an additional 300+ incidents that will result in additional injuries and death when we know that we had an opportunity to put some key best practices in place to prevent these disasters?

When accidents and disasters happen, fenceline community members (including children in many cases), frontline workers, and first responders will unnecessarily remain in harm’s way. EPA finalized this rule to help prevent chemical disasters and save lives.

Communities across the country do not need more process. They do not need more delays. They need action.

Thank you.

***

Comments by Charise Johnson:

Thank you for this opportunity to speak on the proposed rule to further delay the effective date of the Risk Management Program Rule final amendments..

My name is Charise Johnson. I am here on behalf of the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists. With more than 500,000 members and supporters across the country, we are a nonpartisan, non-profit group, dedicated to improving public policy through rigorous and independent science. The Center for Science and Democracy at UCS advocates for improved transparency and integrity in our democratic institutions, especially those making science-based public policy decisions.

We also work to improve public access to government scientific information. The final amendments include crucial improvements to public access to RMP data.  A delay of this rule is a delay in access to information that the public has a right to know and hampers the ability of affected communities to know and prepare for chemical risks.

I first want to recognize that many of the communities that would be most impacted by a decision to delay the updates to the RMP rule are also the communities that lack representation, and the ones whose voices are often drowned out. In my comments, I hope to amplify their voices, and their continuous fight for environmental justice.

Despite years of petitioning the federal government to adopt stronger measures to prevent chemical disasters, this is the first major update to the prevention requirements of EPA’s chemical Risk Management Program in more than 20 years, adding important, modest protections for vulnerable communities. The rule seeks to prevent accidental releases at facilities that use or store certain extremely dangerous chemical substances and require facilities to conduct inherently safer technology reviews. Fence-line communities face the highest danger along with workers and first-responders when these accidents occur. Maybe you have been fortunate enough NOT to have to worry about an explosion, fire, or leak from the over 12,000 facilities that use or store toxic chemicals in the U.S and are covered by this rule.  But many of our families and communities—especially communities of color or low income communities — are not so lucky.

This is the case for our partners from Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services, or TEJAS. In 2015, TEJAS invited me to join a “toxics tour” through the East Houston community of Manchester. Within 15 minutes, I had to ask if we could please roll the windows up, because I was having difficulty breathing. The air was thick and sweet with benzene emissions from a nearby facility. The smoke plumes rising from a nearby refinery set the backdrop for the only community park, a park where children were playing. Metal crushing facilities bordered the ship channel on one side, on the other, a public bike trail.  This is real life every day for the people living in Manchester, as well as other communities and neighborhoods across the country.

More often than not, the people facing the greatest risks are people of color and/or living in poverty. In a recent report, UCS and TEJAS found that in Houston, for example, a significant population of the communities of Harrisburg/Manchester and Galena Park live within one mile of an RMP facility. 90 percent of the population in Harrisburg/Manchester and nearly 40 percent of the population in Galena Park lives near an RMP facility. These communities are predominantly made up of people of color and have higher poverty rates than the rest of the city.

We are disheartened that the long-awaited revision to the RMP rule has been delayed. The amendments to the RMP rule could and will reduce risks associated with and improve emergency response to catastrophic chemical facility incidents. By delaying the rule, we are deciding to put the best interests of industry over public health; we are continuing to keep communities at risk. This rule is critical for fence-line communities, workers in these facilities, and those first responders who arrive at these facilities during an accident.

***

Comments by Amy Gutierrez:

Thank you for this opportunity to speak on the proposed delay of the effective date of the Risk Management Program (RMP) Rule final amendments.

My name is Amy Gutierrez. I am here both as a concerned citizen and on behalf of the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists. I am also here on behalf of our half million members, both scientists and activists who believe that science should have a pivotal role in public policy.

I want to highlight three sections of the rule that I think are critical and should be implemented as soon as possible. The first, analysis of inherently safer technologies. This should be considered a business best practice. The facility is not required to implement these safer technologies, nor do they have to release this information to the public, rather a business should know if there are ways to make their work safer for their workers and those who live near the facility. Second, third party audits for accidents or near misses. This also represents a business best practice. If I owned a business and something went awry, I would want to get to the bottom of the incident to make my operations safer. Last is better coordination of emergency management and personnel. Regardless of the cause of the West Fertilizer plant explosion, emergency responders and Local Emergency Planning Commissions should have knowledge of critical information before running into the facility. Had this coordination been in effect, those 12 firefighters who heroically ran into the plant would be here today.

I would like to close with a community focus. I know our partners the Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services (TEJAS) will be speaking but I wanted to highlight my trip to Manchester and its effect on my outlook of this rule. The communities most affected by this rule are for the most part not in this room today. But make no mistake; their lives are the ultimate measurement of the need for this rule to take place as soon as possible. I went on a toxics tour with TEJAS and couldn’t help but notice that as they took me by a road of the chemical facilities that on the other side were homes. Outside those homes two children were playing soccer in a parking lot, breathing in these releases while trying to enjoy a summer day. I have family that lives in the neighboring city of Pasadena, TX and I worry whenever I see a news notice that another chemical release has occurred that they are outside during recess. No community and no family should have to worry about a chemical disaster taking their partner, child, or local hero from their lives. I urge you to implement this rule as soon as possible for those fence line communities who need these common sense protections most.

***

Just a reminder: UCS provided extensive comments during the development of the updates to the RMP rule, and many of our members and partners joined in support. We hope that you will continue to join us in championing common-sense best practices at high-risk chemical facilities and enhanced emergency preparedness measures in order to protect fenceline communities, workers, and first responders.

Why I March for Science: The Frightening Risks We Aren’t Talking About

This post has also been published at ScienceNode.org.

“Thank you, Dr. Goldman. That was frightening.” Moderator Keesha Gaskins-Nathan said to me after I spoke last week as the only scientist at the Stetson University Law Review Symposium. My talk covered the ways that the role of science in federal decisionmaking is being degraded by the Trump administration, by Congress, and by corporate and ideological forces. Together these alarming moves are poised to damage the crucial role that science plays in keeping us all safe and healthy. This is why I will march for science this Saturday.

Science-based policy as we know it could change forever. Indeed, some of its core tenets are being chipped away. And a lot is at stake if we fail to stop it. We are currently witnessing efforts by this administration and Congress to freeze and roll back the federal government’s work to protect public health and safety, Congress’ attempts to pollute the science advice that decisionmakers depend on, and the appointment of decisionmakers who are openly hostile to the very missions of the science agencies they now lead.

A democracy rooted in science

We cannot afford to make policy decisions without science. This is why I will march. Photo: UCS/Audrey Eyring

America has a strong tradition of using evidence to inform policy. Past leaders of this country understood the value of making sure independent science—without the interference of politics—could inform government decisions. There are, of course, factors beyond science that go into policy decisions, but the scientific information feeding into a policy process should remain unaltered. This system works. While it is imperfect, this has by and large allowed the nation to ensure scientific integrity in policy decisions and prosper.

For example, under the Clean Air Act, air pollution standards are developed to protect public health. Let’s take ground-level ozone. Every five years, the EPA conducts exhaustive research on the relationship between ozone and health. A team of ozone experts from universities and other institutions across the country convene to discuss the science and make an official recommendation to the agency. The EPA then uses the scientific recommendation to set a new ozone standard.

This process allows science to be collected and debated separate from the policy discussion in a transparent way. This means the public can scrutinize the process, minimizing the potential for political interference in the science. The process also means the public will know if the policy doesn’t follow the scientific evidence and can hold decisionmakers to account (as they have in the past).  But largely, this process has worked. Even in the face of tremendous political and corporate pressures, the EPA sets science-based air pollution standards year after year.

Threats to science-based America

We cannot afford to make decisions any other way.  But now, this very process by which we make science-based policies in this country is under threat.

  • Our decisionmakers have deep conflicts of interest, disrespect for science, and aren’t being transparent. This is a recipe for disaster. How can our leaders use science effectively to inform policy decisions if they can’t even make independent decisions and don’t recognize the value of science? EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, for example, this month said that carbon dioxide “is not a primary contributor to global warming.” (It is.) This blatant misinforming on climate science occurred on top of his extensive record of suing the agency over the science-based ozone rule I just described (among other rules). This type of disrespect for science-based policies from cabinet members is an alarming signal of the kind of scientific integrity losses we can expect under this administration.
  • Congress is trying to degrade science advice. A cornerstone of science-based policy is the role of independent science advice feeding into policy decisions. But Congress wants to change who sits on science advisory committees and redefine what counts as science. The Regulatory Accountability Act, for example, would threaten how federal agencies can use science to make policy decisions. Past versions of the bill (which has already passed the House this year and is expected to be introduced soon in the Senate) have included troubling provisions. One mandated that government agencies could only use science if all of the underlying data and methods were publicly available–including health data, proprietary data, trade secrets, and intellectual property. In another case, the bill added more than 70 new regulatory procedures that would effectively shut down the government’s ability to protect us from new threats to our health, safety, and the environment. It is a dangerous precedent when politicians—not scientists—are deciding how the scientific process that informs policy decisions should work.
  • Scientists face intimidation, muzzling, and political attacks. No one becomes a scientist because they want a political target on their back. But this is unfortunately what many scientists are now facing. While it won’t be enacted in its current form, the president’s budget shows the frightening priorities of the president, which apparently include major cuts to science agencies like the EPA, Department of Energy, and NOAA. Communication gag orders, disappearing data, and review of scientific documents by political appointees in the first month of the administration have created a chilling effect for scientists within the government. Congress has even revived the Holman Rule, which allows them to reduce the salary of a federal employee down to $1. It is easy to see how such powers could be used to target government scientists producing politically controversial science.
Hurting science hurts real people

Importantly, we must be clear about who will be affected most if science-based policymaking is dismantled. In many cases, these burdens will disproportionately fall to low-income communities and communities of color. If we cannot protect people from ozone pollution, those in urban areas, those without air conditioning, and those with lung diseases will be hurt most. If we cannot address climate change, frontline communities in low-lying areas will bear the brunt of it. If we cannot keep harmful chemicals out of children’s toys, families who buy cheaper products at dollar stores will be hurt most. And if we cannot protect people from unsafe drugs (FDA), contaminated food (USDA, FDA), occupational hazards (OSHA), chemical disasters (EPA, OSHA, DHS), dangerous vehicles (DOT) and unsafe consumer products (CPSC), we are all in trouble. This is about more than science. It is about protecting people using the power of science. We have everything to lose.

But we can take action. We can articulate the benefits of science to decisionmakers, the media, and the public. We can hold our leaders accountable for moves they make to dismantle science-based policy process. And we can support our fellow scientists both in and outside of the federal government. It starts with marching, but it cannot end here.

Science Just Saved My Daughter—The Most Important Reason Why I #StandUpForScience

The morning of April 4, 2017 began with excitement. My family and I were ready to fly to Boston, where we were to meet up with friends and their children at the geography conference. Our five-month old baby Amaia had lost some weight and been all kinds of fuzzy over the last two weeks, so we stopped to see her doctor in the morning thinking she would get some antibiotics for a stomach bug and we would be on our way.

Instead, the doctor called the National Children’s Hospital in Washington, DC, and told them we were coming. Amaia had not nursed or soiled a diaper for too many hours, and her constant grunting told the doctor something was wrong. At the emergency room, things got jarring quickly. The blood, stool, and urine work did not reveal any infections or much else.

But when doctors ordered fluids and these kicked in, her grunting and difficulty breathing got much worse. At that moment, a lot of medical professionals started coming and going into our room. We got scared when we saw what looked like paramedics standing back ready for action, gloves on, ready to go.

It was obvious to us they were waiting for our Amaia to crash so they could jump and resuscitate her.

Cardiologists explained to us that Amaia had a rare condition called cor triatriatum, which means “three atria in the heart” (instead of the normal two!), a congenital malformation in her heart. An extra layer of heart tissue was making blood flow difficult, and worse, it was making fluids flow into the lungs. The surgeon told us very flatly that we either allowed her to be operated on to remove the tissue, give her a blood transfusion, and rebuild the septum, or her heart would collapse at any moment and she would not live.

There was no decision to make, no real choice in front of us. I know the hospital makes one sign consent forms because there are legal issues and people who have religious or other objections to blood transfusions or surgery. My wife believes in God and science; I believe in science and trust the medical professionals to do what they do best.

I looked each of them in the eye before they took her and saw confidence and professionalism. I pleaded to them silently to bring my girl safely back to me.

They did. Amaia spent 6 hours in the operating room. She came out around midnight and we saw her little, fragile but unfathomably resilient body fight for her life. She is now at home recovering quite nicely from her ordeal.

In retrospect, I’ve asked myself how doctors and nurses were able to diagnose and correct her certainly fatal heart malformation. The answer is science. Science built up over the centuries, with increasing medical knowledge, along with technology.

First, doctors conducted blood, urine, and stool analysis on Amaia to rule out viral infections or bacteria. Then X-rays of her chest revealed fluid in the lungs. An electrocardiogram (EKG) showed that the electrical signals of her little heart were off. The final proof of evidence and the “aha!” moment for doctors came with an echocardiogram (a Doppler image of the heart’s structure), which showed clearly that there was a third chamber in the left side of her heart.

A team of the best pediatric cardiologic surgeons, nurses, nurse practitioners, and anesthesiologists worked to install a cardiopulmonary bypass— essentially a pump—to reroute her heart’s blood, lower its temperature, stop it for a few hours, and operate to restore our daughter’s heart. She recovered in state-of-the-art cardiac intensive care and heart and kidney recovery units at the hospital, all made possible by scientific discoveries, technological developments, and the care and compassion of the medical personnel.

Being a social scientist, I’ve also asked myself why there was not a clear line of evidence and medical inquiry that led doctors straight to her condition. After talking to the medical personnel, I’ve come to the conclusion that in spite of the advanced state of today’s medical sciences, there is much more to research and understand so we can cure and manage more diseases.

You see, Amaia’s condition occurs only in 0.1 – 0.4 percent of all cases of heart disease. EKGs and echocardiograms done in utero during my wife’s pregnancy did not find anything wrong with her heart. These facts suggest to me that there are knowledge as well as technological limitations to our medical sciences.

These gaps in understanding can only be filled with more research, more funding, and more scientifically sound investigations. But the current administration has proposed to slash the budget for the National Institutes of Health (NIH)—the main federal medical research institute—by nearly 20 percent! Why is this important?

If the top research papers in an internet search are an indicator, it can be said that a lot of the research that made possible a surgical cure for Amaia’s heart disease was funded by the NIH.

There is more to government-funded science, of course, than the NIH. Worrisome proposed budget cuts have combined with political interference in science to create a toxic environment at other federal agencies that work to protect our health. President Trump has taken a “wrecking ball” approach at demolishing climate protections; his head of the EPA consistently denies the reality of climate change; and Trump’s racist and misogynist attacks on immigrants weaken both science and the social fabric of the United States that contributes to a fact- and evidence-based scientific culture.

I am not willing to stand by as science-based protections to air, water, soil, and tiny hearts like Amaia’s are compromised in the name of the special interests of polluting industries. That’s why I will march for science this Saturday April 22.

And I am not alone in this. Early reports are coming in that across the country and world, scientists, teachers, parents, workers, and more, are getting ready to highlight the value of science to public health and the environment and to stress that political interference and the wholesale disregard for protections to our health and environment are unacceptable.

Scientific understanding of the world at all scales—the microscopic, the human body, the planet—is needed to face the challenges that threatens us. Our baby Amaia survived her first trial due to the power of the women and men of science. We must all #StandUpForScience together.

Behind the Carbon Curtain: How the Energy Corporatocracy Censors Science

In my forthcoming book, Behind the Carbon Curtain, The Energy Industry, Political Censorship and Free Speech (University of New Mexico Press), I tell the stories of scientists, artists and teachers who have been silenced by the collusion of energy corporations and public officials. My purpose is to provide witness, to record events, to give voice—and in so doing to shift the balance of power ever so slightly to bring us closer to a tipping point of outrage and change.

These stories and my analysis will not change society—at least not these alone. But maybe they will as part of a national narrative that includes the families in Pennsylvania driven from their homes by leaking methane, and whom energy companies compensate only in exchange for their silence. The nation’s story includes the citizens in West Virginia who were sued for libel by a coal company for criticizing the industry in a newsletter. And our country’s narrative involves the professor in the University of Oklahoma’s ConocoPhillips School of Geology and Geophysics who was intimidated into silence when an oil tycoon and major donor demanded the dismissal of scientists studying the link between fracking and earthquakes. Free speech is under attack by the energy industry across the nation.

I’d like to share a few vignettes from the varied and disturbing tales of censorship to provide a sense of what is happening in Wyoming and elsewhere.

A typical fracking operation requires 2 to 8 million gallons of water (along with 40,000 gallons of various, often toxic, chemicals, including acids, alcohols, salts and heavy metals). The outpouring of tainted waste water is dumped into lined evaporation pits. Behind the pit can be seen the drill rig and tanks that provide fracturing fluid for the drilling (photo by Ted Wood).

In 2001, Dr. Geoff Thyne was a research scientist in the University of Wyoming’s School of Energy Resources when he was contacted by a reporter from the Wyoming Tribune-Eagle who was investigating the development of an enormous gas field in southeastern Wyoming. When she asked Thyne how much water would be needed for fracking, he offered a range of figures based on the available scientific literature.

After the story came out, a University vice president notified School of Energy administrators that Noble Energy and the Petroleum Association of Wyoming were on the warpath. Thyne explained to the frenzied administrators that he’d, “made the comments based on my experience as a member of the scientific advisory board for the current EPA hydraulic fracturing study.”

At a meeting with university and corporate bigwigs, Thyne was ordered to write a full retraction. Mark Northam, the director of the School of Energy Resources, told Thyne: “I will edit your letter and you will sign it. You shouldn’t have said anything and don’t say anything ever again.”  Thyne relented to the director’s revisions, but the scientist refused to retract his estimates of water usage. Soon after, Thyne was fired and told that: “Mark Northam gets a lot of money from these oil companies and you are screwing with that.”

The Sinclair Oil Refinery in the eponymously named town of 450 stalwart souls. The Wyoming plant processes crude oil at a rate equivalent to the output of about ten fire hoses running 24 hours/day. In 2013, the Wyoming Occupational Safety and Health Administration levied a $707,000 fine for workplace safety violations—the largest such penalty in the state’s history (photo by Scott Kane).

In 2008, the University of Wyoming’s Office of Water Programs was headed by a committed climate change denier who dismissed the findings of the world’s leading experts by saying, “All these climate change models look like a bunch of spaghetti.” Director Gregg Kerr defended the fossil fuel industry by asking, as if this were a serious question, “Are we going to stop energy production and starve to death?”

He convinced the university that any mention of climate change was politically untenable. So Dr. Steve Gray, the state climatologist, met with fierce administrative resistance when he fulfilled his obligations to the people of Wyoming and spoke about climate change.

Eventually, Gray realized that “there was no chance to expand the program to better meet the State’s needs.” He left Wyoming for the US Geological Survey’s Climate Science Center in Alaska, where, Gray says, “It’s not hard for people to see the relevance of climate change when your village is falling into a river as the permafrost melts.” So it is that Steve Gray was the last state climatologist of Wyoming.

In 2014, nobody would’ve foreseen a problem with updating the Next Generation Science Standards, unless they were privy to emails from the chairman of the State Board of Education. Ron Micheli objected to the inclusion of climate change as “fact” rather than “theory” in the Next Generation Science Standards and he insisted that, “The ice pack is expanding [and] the climate is cooling.”

In the waning minutes of the spring legislative session, Wyoming’s politicians passed a budget footnote prohibiting the use of state funds to implement the science standards. The bill’s author explained that the standards treat “man-made climate change as settled fact… We are the largest energy producing state in the country, so are we going to concede that?” At issue was not the veracity of the science but the vitality of the energy companies. The governor defended the use of ideological indoctrination with a rhetorical question, saying: “Are the Next Generation Science Standards…going to fit what we want in Wyoming?”

We live in a time in which people take it to be normal that most everything is treated as a commodity—including speech. And in this frenzied marketplace, the energy industry has purchased academic positions, scientific questions, and classroom curricula.

But perhaps there’s hope. Prompted by years of legislative and corporate meddling, the editorial board of the Wyoming Tribune-Eagle [subscription required] put the situation into stark terms:

What is the value of academic freedom? That’s the question all Wyomingites should be asking themselves. To state lawmakers, it is a commodity that can be bought and sold, like coal or oil… What was once non-negotiable at UW now has a price tag on it. Lawmakers have sold the school to the highest bidder—the energy industry…

The journalists also incisively portrayed the nature of self-censorship, which may be the most insidious manifestation of oppression in the scientific community. There is no doubt that researchers simply decide not to pursue certain lines of inquiry, fearing retribution by legislators, CEOs and administrators. But my colleagues at the University of Wyoming have been adamant that they will take what comes, rather than asking me to be quiet. Living behind a carbon curtain of silence is too high a price to pay.

 

Bio:  Jeffrey Lockwood earned a Ph.D. in entomology from Louisiana State University and worked for 15 years as an insect ecologist at the University of Wyoming.  In 2003, he metamorphosed into a Professor of Natural Sciences & Humanities in the department of philosophy where he teaches environmental ethics and philosophy of ecology, and in the program in creative writing where he is the director and teaches workshops in non-fiction.  His writing has been honored with a Pushcart Prize, the John Burroughs award and inclusion in the Best American Science and Nature Writing.  You can follow his work through his website, Facebook, and Twitter.

Science Network Voices gives Equation readers access to the depth of expertise and broad perspective on current issues that our Science Network members bring to UCS. The views expressed in Science Network posts are those of the author alone.

 

Restoring California’s Coastal Ecosystems

Over two-thirds of Californians live in coastal counties. Californians love their coastline for good reasons—the mild weather, recreational opportunities, and of course their iconic beauty and natural diversity.

The California coastline hosts a variety of ecosystems ranging from sand dunes to rolling grasslands to mixed evergreen forests. These ecosystems not only are beautiful and provide habitat to many species of plants and animals, they also provide important services to people. Coastal wetlands, for example, help to improve water quality, reduce shoreline erosion, and buffer against sea level rise.

Mission Bay Wetlands in San Diego. Photo by Joanna Gilkeson/USFWS.

But the millions of Californians who live near the coast have had significant impacts on these ecosystems. Less than 10 percent of original wetland habitat remains. Likewise, the forces of urbanization and agriculture have made California’s coastal grassland and scrub ecosystems among the most endangered in the nation. The challenge is finding the balance between meeting the needs of people and conserving these ecosystems and the many species that depend on them, including humans.

Valuing, conserving, and restoring our coastlines

Example of sand dune ecosystem. Photo: K. Holl.

Fortunately, California has visionary leaders and a general population that has recognized the need to protect the coast for future generations. In 1972, voters passed an initiative to establish the California Coastal Commission, which was tasked with balancing development and protecting coastal resources. Californians continue to recognize the importance of coastal ecosystems, as we saw in the June 2016 election: 70 percent of voters in nine San Francisco Bay Area counties approved a $12 parcel tax that will provide an estimated $500 million to support wetland restoration efforts over the next 20 years.

Conserving remaining intact ecosystems must be the first priority. But ecological restoration is also an important component of conservation efforts, especially where there has been extensive habitat conversion and degradation, as in many areas of coastal California. The question is how to restore coastal ecosystems in an ecologically appropriate and cost-effective manner. This is where the work of my students, my collaborators, and me plays an important role.

Improving restoration success

Developing methods to restore ecosystems starts by documenting what is out there. How degraded are the hydrologic and soil conditions? Which species are missing entirely? If left alone for a few years, will the site recover on its own? If not, will changing the management regime favor native species?

For example, our coastal grasslands host approximately 250 native wildflower species, many of which are now threatened or endangered due to habitat loss and competition with tall-stature invasive grasses, primarily from Europe. My lab has studied how different management regimes, such as grazing and fire, can be used to help restore native wildflowers. Our results show that properly-managed cattle grazing can help to increase the density of a number of wildflower species.

Much of my research aims to develop restoration methods that are practical and safe for humans. To do this, I work with land managers at government agencies like California State Parks, private land trusts, and other groups to understand their challenges and identify research questions they need answered. For example, herbicides are widely used in many coastal restoration projects to control invasive plant species prior to planting native species. But, there is growing concern about the effects of herbicides on the health of those who apply them and on nearby communities. Hence, we have been testing various non-chemical methods of invasive control, measuring not only their ecological effectiveness but also costs, to evaluate whether alternative methods would be practical at a larger scale.

Training the next generation of environmental leaders

Students learning at the UC Natural Reserve System. Photo: K. Holl

As a professor at the University of California, one of my most important roles is training the next generation of environmental leaders. Therefore, both undergraduate and graduate students are an integral part of my research. Each year, the University of California Natural Reserves staff and I work with 50-60 students doing hands-on restoration research and implementation. This gives students an opportunity to develop both critical thinking and practical job skills. We aim to ensure that the students involved in these projects reflect the diversity of the state. We know that low-income and minority communities are disproportionately affected by negative environmental impacts, but they are generally under-represented in ecology. We offer introductory field courses for students who have not had ample opportunities to study outdoors, and we are raising funds for paid internships so they can gain these important job skills and contribute to the growing restoration economy.

My goals are to do research that improves how we restore coastal ecosystems and to provide educational opportunities for learners of all ages. My hope is that together we can conserve California’s amazing coastal ecosystems for future generations.

 

Karen Holl (holl-lab.com) is a professor of environmental studies at the University of California, Santa Cruz. She is a leader in the field of restoration ecology and the faculty director of the Norris Center for Natural History. You can watch a short video on her grassland restoration research here.

Science Network Voices gives Equation readers access to the depth of expertise and broad perspective on current issues that our Science Network members bring to UCS. The views expressed in Science Network posts are those of the author alone.

Safer Blood Products: One Researcher’s Story on Why Federal Support Matters

In 1982, a crisis was beginning to unfold. Gay men were dying of an unknown cause, which years later was shown to be the Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV).  At that time, I was not involved with the gay community, with acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS), or with HIV. But federal funding of my research on blood products helped us prevent the transmission of HIV and hepatitis to tens of thousands of Americans.

I led a small team of research scientists at the New York Blood Center (NYBC) interested in developing new therapeutic products from plasma, the fluid portion of blood. What was known in 1982 was that a plasma product called AHF used in the treatment of hemophilia occasionally transmitted hepatitis B virus and transmitted another virus eventually to be known as hepatitis C. The risk of hepatitis C in this patient group was accepted because the infection was believed to be mild and the benefit of treating the patient with the plasma product was great.

The challenge

If we were going to succeed in developing new plasma products useful to large numbers of patients, such as ones that accelerate wound healing, we had to eliminate viral risk. The only way of doing this with certainty was the use of viral killing methods. The challenge was to find methods that would kill large quantities of virus without damaging the therapeutic protein.

Finding a solution

Supported by the virology laboratories and others at NYBC and based on preliminary studies demonstrating virus kill, in 1983 we received an award from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) totaling just over $750,000 for the “Detection and inactivation of non-A, non-B hepatitis agents in blood”. This award enabled us to greatly accelerate our work which, by that time, included exploring the use of organic solvents and detergents such as had been used in the preparation of viral vaccines. The idea was to disrupt viral structures by stripping away essential fatty acids with the hope that the proteins of interest would be unaffected. Our hopes were fully realized.

We showed that the method we developed, commonly referred to solvent/detergent or SD treatment, completely inactivated hepatitis B and C viruses in a chimpanzee model, and, in collaboration with Dr. Gallo at the NIH, we showed that HIV was rapidly and completely inactivated. As importantly, the valuable proteins such as AHF appeared to be unaffected.

Based on these results, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) licensed the NYBC’s plasma product for the treatment of hemophilia in 1985. More complete clinical studies run cooperatively by NYBC and the FDA showed that the AHF protein was undamaged and HIV and hepatitis viruses were not transmitted.

Impact

For the next fifteen years, over 60 organizations worldwide adopted SD technology and applied it to a wide variety of products including AHF, intravenous immune globulin used in the treatment of immune deficiency disorders, and even monoclonal antibodies and other recombinant technology derived proteins. Hundreds of millions doses of SD-treated products have been infused in people; countless transmissions of Hepatitis B, Hepatitis C, and HIV were eliminated; and the lives of tens of thousands of patients were saved or improved.

The importance of federal support

Success stories like these are not guaranteed. Without federal support, I am reasonably certain that our findings would have made for a nice publication or two and little else. Additional federal grant support that I received resulted in improving the consistency and viral safety of transfusion plasma, now available broadly, and spawned efforts leading to red cells and platelet products with enhanced viral and bacterial safety.

I am forever grateful for the grant support that I received, and the granting agencies and the nation should take pride in the initiatives they foster. My, no really our story, demonstrates the impact of federal funding and the degree to which the scientific enterprise is a collaborative effort, bringing together many diligent minds from research institutes, private organizations and multiple federal agencies. We should all hope that this continues unabated. Our population deserves it.

 

 

Dr. Bernard Horowitz is recognized internationally for his research on blood viral safety and the preparation and characterization of new therapeutics from blood. He has served on several company scientific advisory boards and as a director of Omrix Therapeutics, Biogentis, Inc., Dermacor, Inc., Protein Therapeutics, and V.I. Technologies, a company he co-founded. At the New York Blood Center, Dr. Horowitz was its Vice President for Commercial Development and a Laboratory Head in its Lindsley F. Kimball Research Institute. He has served as a scientific consultant to the National Institutes of Health, the Food and Drug Administration, the National Hemophilia Foundation, the International Association of Biological Standardization, and the World Health Organization. Dr. Horowitz is the recipient of several prestigious awards, including the Robert W. Reilly Leadership Award from the Plasma Protein Therapeutics Association, the Morton Grove Rasmussen Prize from the American Association of Blood Banks, and the 11th International Prix Henri Chaigneau from l’association francaise des hemophiles. Dr. Horowitz received his B.S. in biology from the University of Chicago and his Ph.D. in biochemistry from Cornell University Medical College.

Science Network Voices gives Equation readers access to the depth of expertise and broad perspective on current issues that our Science Network members bring to UCS. The views expressed in Science Network posts are those of the author alone.

Is No Place Safe? Climate Change Denialists Seek to Sway Science Teachers

Co-Authors: Glenn Branch, Deputy director of NCSE, and Steven Newton, Programs and Policy Director at NCSE

A few weeks ago, science teachers across the country began to find strange packets in their school mailboxes, containing a booklet entitled “Why Scientists Disagree About Global Warming” (sic), a DVD, and a cover letter urging them to “read this remarkable book and view the video, and then use them in your classroom.”

Heartland Institute Report Cover Spring 2017 with "Not Science" stamp

“Not Science” stamp on top of the report cover mailed to teachers during spring 2017. The report misrepresents the fact that nearly all climate scientists agree about human-driven climate change.

The packets were sent by the Heartland Institute, which in the 1990s specialized in arguing that second-hand smoke does not cause cancer. Even though its indefensible defense of the tobacco industry failed, Heartland now uses the same pro-tobacco playbook—touting alleged “experts” to question established science—to argue that climate change is not real.

At the National Center for Science Education, we have almost three decades of experience helping teachers, parents, and students facing creationism in the classroom. A few years ago, we added climate change to our docket. So teachers know that when issues regarding evolution or climate change come up, NCSE is there to help.

This wasn’t Heartland’s first unsolicited mailing of climate change denial material to science teachers, and judging from the reactions we’ve seen, teachers haven’t been fooled by this outing. But here is how we’re advising science teachers to explain why using these materials in any science classroom would be a terrible idea.

1. Virtually every assertion is false, controversial, or at best unclear.

That’s a judgment that might seem to call for a point-by-point rebuttal. But I’m not going to offer such a rebuttal, both because every substantive point in the Heartland mailing is a long-ago-debunked canard (see Skeptical Science passim) and because there is already a place where responsible scientists discuss the evidence for climate change: the peer-reviewed scientific research literature.

If Heartland has such a good case to make, why is it spending thousands of dollars on direct-mailing a self-published report to teachers, instead of trying to convince the relevant scientific community?

2. Heartland represents what is, at best, a fringe position in science.

Of course, Heartland isn’t willing to admit its fringiness, devoting considerable effort to trying to dispute the widely reported fact that the degree of scientific consensus on anthropogenic climate change is about 97 percent. It’s a wasted effort.

Multiple independent studies, using different sources, methods, and questions, have arrived at the same conclusion. And the scientific consensus on climate change is not a mere reflection of popular sentiment or shared opinion among scientists. Rather, it is the product of evidence so abundant and diverse and robust as to compel agreement in the scientific community.

3. Heartland even disparages the well-respected, Nobel-Prize-winning, IPCC.

Not content to reject the extraordinary scientific consensus on climate change, the booklet downplays the process by which climate scientists regularly evaluate and report on the state of the evidence, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change or IPCC.

Few areas of science undergo the kind of rigorous and comprehensive review that the climate science community carries out every five years. It is a reflection of the seriousness with which world leaders take the challenge of climate change that they support this process and accept the conclusions arrived at by hundreds of generous, dedicated, and meticulous scientists.

4. Heartland’s material contradicts standards, textbooks, and curricula.

K–12 teachers are expected to teach in accordance with state science standards, state- or district-approved textbooks, and district-approved curricula, all of which undergo review by competent scientists and teachers, and thus generally attempt to present climate change in accordance with the scientific consensus. Heartland’s materials have not undergone such a review. And teachers who misguidedly use them in the classroom will be, at best, presenting mixed messages, running the risk of confusing their students about the scientific standing of anthropogenic climate change.

5. Heartland’s citations are shoddy and its tactics dishonest.

Many of the references in “Why Scientists Disagree About Global Warming” (sic) are to Heartland’s own publications, post on personal blogs, fake news sources, and low-quality journals—the sort of citations that a teacher wouldn’t accept on a science assignment.

The booklet itself is credited to the Nongovernmental International Panel on Climate Change, NIPCC—likely to be confused with the legitimate IPCC. And the envelope in which the mailing was sent reproduced a New York Times headline about “Climate Change Lies”—the same sort of lies, it turns out, that Heartland is concerned to promote.

In the end, the climate change deniers at the Heartland Institute have no scientifically credible evidence of their own, leaving them with no option but to lash out at the real scientific literature, contributing nothing except vitriol, achieving nothing except confusion. Science teachers know better—and science students deserve better.

Will Scott Gottlieb Comply with Industry Plea to Stall Added Sugar Label?

President Trump’s nominee to head the U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA), Scott Gottlieb, faced the Senate in his nomination hearing on Wednesday, during which he implied that delayed implementation of the science-based nutrition facts label revision would be possible if he is confirmed.

Yes, you read that right. The future chief of an agency dedicated to protecting public health is already hinting at his willingness to do industry’s bidding to push back enforcement of a rule based in solid science that would help us make informed food purchasing decisions to improve our health. But his alignment on industry talking points is not completely shocking. Mr. Gottlieb has a long list of ties to industry, including an extensive financial and professional relationship with several pharmaceutical companies that manufacture and sell opioids.

During the hearing, Senator Pat Roberts told Gottlieb that the deadline of summer 2018 was not enough time for industry to make the required label changes, including the new added sugar line, especially considering that companies will have to include biotechnology disclosures on labels soon as well. To the question of whether he would “work to ensure proper guidance is available and consider postponing the deadline for the Nutrition Facts Panel to help reduce regulatory burdens?” Gottlieb didn’t explicitly say he would postpone the deadline but might as well have:

“This is something that I do care about and I look forward to working on if I am confirmed,” Gottlieb said. He continued to explain that he is, “philosophically in favor of trying to make sure we do these things efficiently, not only because it imposes undue costs on manufacturers to constantly be updating their labels, but we also have to keep in mind it creates confusion for consumers if the labels are constantly changing…you want to try to consolidate the label changes when you are making [them] as a matter of public health so that the information is conveyed accurately and efficiently to the consumers.”

Why delay?

The delay tactic is often used by industry as a fallback plan, once they’ve failed altogether to stop a science-based policy that might impact their bottom line. This is old hat for the food industry. Back in December, I wrote about how the Food & Beverage Issue Alliance (a group made up of the biggest food and beverage trade associations, like the American Beverage Association and the Grocery Manufacturers Association) had written a letter to the acting HHS secretary and USDA secretaries asking to delay the implementation of the nutrition facts rule to coordinate with U.S. Department of Agriculture’s biotechnology disclosure rule. Some of the same players doubled-down on a similar letter in March, asking HHS Secretary Tom Price to delay the rule until May 2021 for the same reason. Scott Gottlieb’s remarks at his hearing closely resemble the sentiments contained in both of those letters.

Sound familiar? Time and time again we’ve seen science-based proposed rules never make it to the final stages, or those that are finalized but implementation is soon delayed. Just last week, EPA administrator, Scott Pruitt, issued a proposed rule that would delay implementation of the Risk Management Plan (RMP) amendments 20 months, until February 19, 2019. This move came after several petitions from the American Chemistry Council and a handful of other chemical manufacturing corporations, oil and gas companies, and trade organizations asked the agency to reconsider the rule.

And remember the silica rule? Although the science had been clear for over forty years, it took the Department of Labor longer than necessary to issue a final rule late last year which tightened the standard, thanks to opposition from the American Chemistry Council and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Just yesterday, the department announced that the rule’s enforcement would be delayed because the construction industry needs more time to educate its employees about the standard.

Industry’s reaction to rules that protect our public health makes it seem like government is blindsiding them. But it’s not like any of these rules were dropped without warning or without cause. These safeguards take years to gather information for and write, during which industry is given ample opportunity to be involved in the process. FDA first began its work to revise the nutrition facts label in 2004, and the proposed rule which included the added sugar line was issued in 2014. Not exactly rapid response. The fact is that science-based policies threaten business as usual, and therefore industry will use all resources at its disposal to stop or slow progress.

Industry’s excuses are wearing thin

Once again, with clear science on the public health consequences associated with excessive added sugar consumption, we have been waiting long enough for full added sugar disclosure on labels. While we wait, we’re missing out. The estimated benefit to consumers of the revisions to the nutrition facts label consumers would be $78 billion over 20 years, not to mention the less quantifiable benefits that come with the right to know how much added sugar is in the foods we buy and eat.

The majority of companies already have until 2019 to make the new changes to their labels and larger food companies like Mars, Inc. have said they could meet the July 2018 deadline just fine.

It’s clear that industry is turning this science-based decision into a political one, at the expense of Americans who will remain in the dark about how much added sugar is in their food for even longer. As National Public Health Week draws to a close, I can’t help but think about the urgent need for progress now, not in four years, if we’re to improve the health of this country, let alone become the healthiest nation by 2030. If Mr. Gottlieb secures the FDA secretary position, he must remember that he is beholden to our public health, not the pharmaceutical or food industry’s bottom line.

Here’s What the EPA Budget Cuts in a Leaked Memo Mean for Health and Environmental Justice

Recent news reports point to a leaked memo that provides more details about the Trump administration’s proposed deep cuts to the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA’s) budget. If the details are officially confirmed, it would clearly show that the administration is preparing to undermine health protections nationwide, and especially in low income and minority communities. The administration is also seeking to undercut the role of sound science at the agency.

Congress should refuse to allow these harmful cuts to go forward.

How the budget cuts hurt the EPA’s work

Here’s the big picture: If implemented, the deep budget and staffing cuts proposed by the Trump administration would undermine the core mission of the EPA to protect human health and the environment. There is simply no way for the agency to continue to do its job well while losing about a third of its overall budget, with even deeper cuts to many critical programs.

Here are just three of the many important aspects of the EPA’s work that are harmed by the proposed budget cuts outlined in the leaked memo:

1. Programs critical for public health, the environment and the economy of states.

The Trump administration is attempting to cut budgets and funding for programs that are critical for states. These include:

  • Cuts to grants for state, local and tribal management of air and water quality. These grants are critical for state and local authorities to monitor and enforce air and water pollution safeguards. UCS President Ken Kimmell, former Commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection, recently explained how states are in no position to make up for shortfalls that arise from EPA budget and staffing cuts. This will inevitably threaten public health protections.
  • Cuts to Children’s Health Program resources. The leaked memo says “This decision reduces Children’s Health program resources by $2,391K and 14.9 FTE to prioritize core environmental work.” Wow, that’s stunning! So protecting children’s health is NOT core work for the EPA? That would be news to the American public.
  • Total elimination or cuts to many EPA regional programs, including ones focused on the Chesapeake Bay, the Gulf of Mexico, the Great Lakes, South Florida, San Francisco Bay and Puget Sound. All these programs not only help reduce pollution, they are also vital for the regional economies. The Chesapeake Bay program, for example, is a collaborative effort between Delaware, Maryland, New York, Pennsylvania, Virginia, West Virginia, the District of Columbia, the Chesapeake Bay Commission and the EPA, focused on reducing the pollution load in the historically beleaguered Bay and thereby supporting local economies, fishing, swimming, tourism, and protecting drinking water sources (with benefits accruing in waterways well beyond the Bay itself.)
  • Major cuts to the budget of the Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance, including cuts to Civil and Criminal Enforcement and Compliance Monitoring. It’s really hard to see these cuts as anything but a sellout to polluting industries. Robust enforcement is what gives teeth to our nation’s pollution laws, including the Clean Water Act and the Clean Air Act.
  • Cuts to Superfund enforcement. Superfund sites are among the most polluted sites in the country and EPA works to help clean up hazardous waste and monitor these sites. Take a look at this map and see if you have one of the Superfund sites that made the National Priority List for clean-up near where you live. Just to give a sense around the country: Alaska has 10 Superfund sites, Tennessee has 28, Alabama has 18, California has 112, and Maine has 16. If you live in or near one of the sites that still need remediation, cuts to the EPA’s budget could directly affect you.
  • Cuts to programs that help reduce the risk of pesticides to human health and the environment. Administrator Pruitt has already set a bad precedent through his decision not to ban chlorpyrifos, a pesticide that poses a clear risk to children, farm workers, and rural drinking water users. Cuts to budgets for programs that limit pesticide risks would just continue down that misguided path.
2. Protections for environmental justice communities, especially low-income, minority and tribal communities

Because EPA’s core mission is the protection of public health, its activities are especially important for communities that bear a disproportionate burden of health impacts from pollution. Many of these environmental justice (EJ) communities are low-income, minority and tribal communities. Harms to these communities will be especially pronounced if the EPA’s overall budget is slashed.

As a quick reminder, here’s how the EPA defines environmental justice:

Environmental justice is the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income, with respect to the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies. 

The agency says this goal will be achieved for all communities and people when everyone enjoys:

  • the same degree of protection from environmental and health hazards, and
  • equal access to the decision-making process to have a healthy environment in which to live, learn, and work.

It’s hard to see who would be opposed to these fundamentally fair and commonsense goals, but it’s entirely in keeping with an administration that has shown itself to be hostile to concerns about racial justice across the board.

In addition to overarching budget cuts that will disproportionately hurt EJ communities, the administration is also proposing to cut specific EPA programs targeted at disadvantaged communities. That’s gratuitously cruel, especially given the small budgets associated with these programs.

Here’s a list of some of the most egregious cuts to EJ priorities: elimination of the EPA’s Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance’s Environmental Justice program (and its small grants program); cuts to budgets for compliance with Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, elimination of the lead risk reduction program and state grants for lead monitoring and enforcement; and cuts to the Brownfields program that helps remediate contaminated sites and revitalize communities.

Consider the cuts in funding for lead risk reduction programs. States and local jurisdictions simply do not have the funding or the expertise to make up for cuts in federal funding for these vital programs. According to the CDC, which maintains the latest county-level data for lead levels:

Today at least 4 million households have children living in them that are being exposed to high levels of lead. There are approximately half a million U.S. children ages 1-5 with blood lead levels above 5 micrograms per deciliter (µg/dL), the reference level at which CDC recommends public health actions be initiated.

Lead exposure has serious consequences for the health of children, and can result in behavior and learning problems, lower IQ and hyperactivity, slowed growth, hearing problems, and anemia. What’s more, according to the CDC, African American children are three times more likely than white children to have elevated blood-lead levels, amounting to a public health crisis in some places.

Or consider the work the EPA is doing to help address air quality concerns in tribal communities in Alaska. Pollution from diesel emissions, indoor air quality concerns, and emissions from burning solid waste and from wood-burning stoves are among the serious challenges these communities face.

Just last year the EPA provided grants totaling over $500,000 through the Brownfields program to Chattanooga and Knoxville, TN. These grants will help disadvantaged communities clean up and revitalize contaminated sites, which in turn will boost the local economy and improve public health. There are many Brownfields success stories around the country.

The recent resignation of Mustafa Ali, a key leader of the EPA’s environmental justice program, is a sad commentary on where this work is likely to be headed under Administrator Scott Pruitt. In his resignation letter addressed to Administrator Pruitt, Ali said:

“When I hear we are considering making cuts to grant programs like the EJ small grants or Collaborative Problem Solving programs, which have assisted over 1,400 communities, I wonder if our new leadership has had the opportunity to converse with those who need our help the most.”

3. Scientific research and data, most prominently climate science

Many aspects of the EPA’s scientific work are under attack, including all of its work related to climate change. Perhaps this is only to be expected under an administration that is peddling a new form of climate denial, but that doesn’t diminish how outrageous these actions are.

(In case you missed it, watch EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt’s widely-panned appearance on Fox News where he continued his dissembling on the “CO2 issue.” The relevant excerpt starts at the 5:08 mark.)

The Trump administration is aiming to eliminate the Office of Air and Radiation’s Climate Protection Program. This program works with state, local and tribal entities to provide expertise on climate solutions including energy efficiency, renewable energy and adaptation to climate impacts. At a time when the seriousness consequences of climate change are so clear, this type of help is sorely needed.

But that’s not all: Trump’s budget proposes to cut funding for the EPA’s Science Advisory Board (SAB), a source of independent peer review for the agency’s scientific and technical information and scientific advice for the EPA Administrator. Congress directed the EPA to set up the SAB in 1978 and it has served a very important role through multiple administrations to help ensure science-based policymaking. The leaked memo literally says that cuts to the funding and staffing for the SAB “reflect an anticipated lower number of peer reviews.” I suppose that means this administration has arbitrarily decided to deprioritize independent science and scientific oversight, a losing proposition for the American public.

In addition, the EPA’s Environmental Education and Regional Science and Technology programs are targeted for elimination. The RS&T program works together with a network of regional laboratories around the country to bring good science to bear on environmental protection measures.

My colleague Dave Cooke highlights other important harms related to potential loss of funding for the EPA Vehicle Lab. And Karen Perry Stillerman has written about the impacts of loss of funding for EPA’s work on clean water.

Congress must resist harmful cuts to the EPA budget 

Some of the broader details of the leaked memo accord with the budget blueprint released by the administration last month, which would indicate that these are likely to be real threats. Senators and Representatives should consider the destructive impacts on their constituents in their home states and speak out against the decimation of the EPA’s budget and staffing.

It’s especially important to elevate the concerns of communities that have historically been sidelined and face a disproportionate burden of pollution. Let’s not have another Flint water crisis, or Elk River chemical spill, or Kingston coal ash spill.

Mustafa Ali’s resignation letter, addressed to Administrator Pruitt, also says:

“I strongly encourage you and your team to continue promoting agency efforts to validate these communities’ concerns, and value their lives.”

Ultimately, that’s what this is about: Not just budget and staffing numbers at the EPA, but the impact on the lives and well-being of people around the country. Congress, which has the final say on the federal budget, must strenuously resist these cuts to the EPA’s budget.

Photo: EPA

The Trump Administration and Children’s Health: An Early Progress Report

Parents are used to getting progress reports on how their children are doing—from teachers at school and from health care providers who assess developmental milestones. Early indicators are important; they can identify problems early, trigger needed interventions, or provide welcome assurance that things are looking good.

The news has been full of what President Trump has been doing in the first 90 days of his administration. Let’s do a quick progress report on what he’s done for children’s health.

Big picture

One could start by thinking about what a repeal of the Affordable Care Act might have meant (or still might mean) for children’s health care, especially poor children. Or what Mr. Trump’s efforts to round up and deport undocumented people has meant for their health and well-being (shattering stories here and here). Or the many ways that Mr. Trump’s “2 for 1” executive order could impact children. Or how his agenda to roll back public protections (i.e., regulations) will affect the many determinants of health, like clean air, water, food. (Children are especially vulnerable to environmental conditions, as they take in more air, water, and food per pound than adults.)

And then, of course, there’s the administration’s efforts to sow doubt about climate science and roll back safeguards that limit harmful climate pollution. Here is what our nation’s pediatricians have to say about climate change and child health.

Closer look

These past two weeks give us another window into the administration’s stance on specific environmental threats to children’s health.

Strike one. Rejecting the conclusions of its own scientists, last week the EPA Administrator announced a “final agency action” that it would not ban a pesticide (chlorpyrifos) that poses a clear risk to child health. This after years of independent study and solid scientific evidence (here, here, here) that the pesticide poses a developmental risk to children. (In 2000, the EPA phased out its use around homes, schools, day care centers and other places where children might be exposed.)

And here’s the kicker: the next time the EPA is required to re-evaluate the safety of this pesticide is 2022! That means another five years of exposure to this widely-used pesticide that poses a clear risk to the developing brains of children.

Strike two: Last week, the EPA released its proposed budget for FY18, aligning its budget with President Trump’s war on the EPA. The proposal eliminates two agency programs that help protect children from exposure to lead, a potent neurotoxin. Not trim , not cut, but eliminate!

One program trains and certifies workers involved in lead abatement in buildings that may have lead-based paint. The other is a grant program to states and tribal jurisdictions that address lead-based paint. We can likely expect a groundswell of protest from the nation’s public health community, which well-understands the grave risks of lead exposure to children, and the singular value of primary prevention. They also recognize the important role that the EPA has played in protecting children’s health over the past two decades.

Strike three: Stand by. I fear it won’t be long.

The irony

I’m struck that I’m blogging about two well-recognized and highly researched environmental health threats to children during National Public Health Week, and at the same time that the Children’s Environmental Health Network (CEHN) is holding its 2017 research conference in Arlington, VA. Among other things addressed by these children’s health specialists: pesticides and lead!

What to do?

At the risk of repeating myself—(OK, I am)—we need to remember that our government, including Mr. Pruitt’s EPA, works for us. Our public health and the health of our children should override private interests. We have voice. We have science behind us. We need to speak up, show up, and let our leaders know that we are watching and that attempts to roll back public protections IS NOT ALL RIGHT.

UCS has tools and resources to help do that. Join us—and others—in this fight.

Photo: Petra Bensted/CC BY (Flickr)

Five Black Public Health Champions You Should Know

In honor of National Public Health Week, we’re paying tribute to some outstanding individuals in the public health field. But first—bear with me—a little historical context.

It’s no secret that here at UCS, we love science. It can help us define complex problems, identify the best methods to solve them, and (if we’ve done a good job) provide us with metrics for measuring the progress we’ve made.

Doctor injects subject with placebo as part of the Tuskegee Syphilis Study. Photo: National Archives and Records Administration.

But it would be both irresponsible and incredibly destructive to pretend that science operates in isolation from systems of deeply rooted racism and oppression that plague scientific, political, and cultural institutions in the United States—particularly when it comes to health. Such systems have been used to justify unfathomably cruel and inhumane medical experimentation performed on black bodies in slavery, which were only replaced in the Jim Crow era by pervasive medical mistreatment that resulted in untold fatalities. Racist medical practices were tolerated, if not explicitly condoned, by professional organizations such as the American Medical Association through the late 1960s. The government-funded Tuskegee Syphilis Study, which effectively denied syphilis treatment to nearly 400 black men over the course of 40 years, ended in 1972, but a formal apology was not issued for this deliberate violation of human rights until 1997. And still, in doctors’ offices and hospital rooms across the United States today, race remains a significant predictor of the quality of healthcare a person will receive.

This is, of course, deeply troubling. (And worthy of far deeper discussions than a blog post can provide—see a short list of book recommendations below.)

But perhaps just as troubling as the underpinnings of racism in science and medicine is its relative obscurity in the historical narratives propagated by dominant (read: white) culture. That modern medicine was built on the backs of marginalized populations is well understood and indeed has been lived by many, but it is far from being accepted as universal truth. Meanwhile, the contributions of black scientists, doctors, and health advocates have routinely been eclipsed by those of their white colleagues or are absent entirely from historical records. (At least until Hollywood spots a blockbuster.)

Public health advocates and practitioners have a responsibility both to understand this complex history of medical racism, if they have not already experienced it firsthand, and to thoroughly integrate its implications into their daily work. This includes acknowledging the tensions that may stem from deep distrust of the medical community by communities of color; considering the multiple ways in which implicit bias and institutional racism may impact social determinants of health, risk of chronic disease, access to care, and quality of treatment; applying a racial equity lens to policy and program decision-making; and, last but not least, giving credit where it’s due.

Today, my focus is on that last point. Though public health is not necessarily a discipline that generates fame or notoriety (it has been said, in fact, that public health is only discussed when it is in jeopardy), you should know the names of these five black public health champions. Some past, some present, some well-known and some less so, they are all powerful forces who have made significant contributions to this field.

Have other names we should know? Leave them in the comments.

1.  Dr. Regina Benjamin, former U.S. Surgeon General

Photo: United States Mission Geneva/CC BY SA (Flickr)

During the four-year term she served as the 18th U.S. Surgeon General (2009-2013), Regina Benjamin shifted the national focus on health from a treatment-based to a prevention-based perspective, highlighting the importance of lifestyle factors such as nutrition, physical activity, and stress management in the prevention of chronic disease. Other campaigns during Dr. Benjamin’s term targeted breastfeeding and baby-friendly hospitals, tobacco use prevention among youth and young adults, healthy housing conditions, and suicide prevention. Prior to serving as the Surgeon General, Dr. Benjamin established the Bayou La Batre Rural Health Clinic on the Gulf Coast of Louisiana, providing care for patients on a sliding payment scale and even covering some medical expenses out of her own pocket. Dr. Benjamin has been widely recognized for her determination and humanitarian spirit.

2.  Byllye Avery, founder of the Black Women’s Health Imperative and Avery Institute for Social Change

Despite the passage of Roe v Wade in 1973, access to abortions remained limited in the years thereafter, particularly for many black women. Byllye Avery began helping women travel to New York to obtain abortions in the early 1970s, and in 1974 co-founded the Gainesville Women’s Health Center to expand critical access to abortions and other health care services. In 1983, Avery founded the National Black Women’s Health Project (now called the Black Women’s Health Imperative), a national organization committed to “defining, promoting, and maintaining the physical, mental, and emotional wellbeing of black women and their families.” Avery has received numerous awards for her work, including the Dorothy I. Height Lifetime Achievement Award (1995), the Ruth Bader Ginsberg Impact Award from the Chicago Foundation for Women (2008), and the Audre Lorde Spirit of Fire Award from the Fenway Health Center in Boston (2010).

3.  Bobby Seale, co-founder of the Black Panther Party

Photo: Peizes/CC BY SA (Flickr)

Here’s a name you might know—and a story that might surprise you. While the Black Panther Party, co-founded by Bobby Seale and Huey Newton in 1966, is often remembered for its radical political activism, the black nationalist organization was also deeply engaged in public health work. True to their rallying call to “serve the people body and soul,” the Black Panthers established over a dozen free community health clinics nationwide and implemented a free breakfast program for children. This program, which served its first meal out of a church in Oakland, California in 1968, was one of the first organized school breakfast programs in the country and quickly became a cornerstone of the party. By 1969, the Black Panthers were serving breakfast to 20,000 children in 19 cities around the country. Though the government eventually dismantled the program along with the party itself, many believe it was a driving factor in the establishment of the School Breakfast Program in 1975.

4.  Dr. Camara Jones, former president of the American Public Health Association

As the immediate past president of the American Public Health Association, Dr. Camara Jones brought the impact of racism on health and well-being to the forefront of the public health agenda. She initiated a National Campaign Against Racism, with three strategic goals: naming racism as a driver of social determinants of health; identifying the ways in which racism drives current and past policies and practices; and facilitating conversation, research, and interventions to address racism and improve population health. Dr. Jones has also published various frameworks and allegories, perhaps the most famous of which is Levels of Racism: A Theoretic Framework and a Gardener’s Tale, to help facilitate an understanding of the nuance and layers of racism across the general population.

5.  Malik Yakini, founder of the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network

Photo: W.K. Kellogg Foundation/CC BY SA (Flickr)

Malik Yakini may not see himself as a public health advocate, but that hasn’t stopped him from receiving speaking requests from prominent public health institutions across the country. A native Detroiter, Yakini views the food system as a place where inequities play out at the hand of racism, capitalism, and class divisions. “There can be no food justice without social justice,” he said to an audience at the Bloomberg School of Public Health at Johns Hopkins. “In cities like Detroit where the population is predominantly African American, we are seen as markets for inferior goods.” Yakini founded the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network in 2006 to ensure that Detroit communities could exercise sovereignty and self-determination in producing and consuming affordable, nutritious, and culturally appropriate food. The organization operates the seven-acre D-Town Farm on Detroit’s east side and is now in the process of establishing the Detroit Food People’s Co-op.

Recommended Reads

Black Man in a White Coat by Dr. Damon Tweedy

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

Body and Soul: The Black Panther Party and the Fight against Medical Discrimination

 

The Importance of Public Funding for Earthquake Hazard Research in Cascadia

In 2015, the New Yorker published “The Really Big One”, a story that brought public awareness to the dangers posed by the Cascadia subduction zone. The Cascadia subduction zone is a large fault that lies underwater, just off the coasts of Washington, Oregon, and Northern California. As a scientist and professor who researches this fault and its dangers, I really appreciated the large impact this article had in raising awareness of the importance of preparing for the next large earthquake here, especially among the many residents who live in this region. The New Yorker article, and plenty of ongoing scientific research, suggests that we need to prepare for the possibility of a major earthquake in this region—but we also need more research to help with this preparation.

Weighing the probabilities of earthquakes—room for uncertainty

Loma Prieta Earthquake damage on the Bay Bridge in California, 1989. Credit: Joe Lewis https://www.flickr.com/photos/sanbeiji/220645446

The Cascadia subduction zone has the capacity for a magnitude 9.0 earthquake, the same size as the devastating Japanese earthquake that occurred in 2011. The 2011 Japan earthquake caused a large tsunami, widespread destruction, and an ongoing nuclear disaster. We expect the next great Cascadia earthquake will have similar effects, hopefully minus the nuclear disaster. This fault directly threatens the urban areas of Seattle, Washington and Portland, Oregon, in addition to the many more residents in rural and suburban areas of California, Oregon, and Washington. In a 2013 report, The Cascadia Region Working Group estimates that if a magnitude 9.0 earthquake were to happen in the near future in this region, “the number of deaths could exceed 10,000”, and “more than 30,000 people could be injured”, with economic losses “upwards of $70 billion”.

It is very difficult to predict when this next great Cascadia earthquake will occur. A recent report published by the U. S. Geologic Survey estimates the probability of a magnitude 9.0 earthquake at roughly 10% in the next 50 years. The probability of a somewhat smaller, but still very destructive earthquake in the southern section of Cascadia (located just offshore, stretching from Cape Mendocino, CA to Florence, OR) is roughly 40% over the same timeframe.  These probabilities are high enough to be scary—and to indicate the urgency of preparing for a a major earthquake disaster in this region.

These probability numbers represent decades of scientific progress and breakthroughs in studies of fault behavior, but they are not as useful as they could be. What the public and emergency managers want to know is “Will a destructive earthquake occur in the next 50 years, or not?”. The best answer we currently have is these probabilities. What that really means is, “we don’t know, so prepare just in case”.

While the New Yorker article raised awareness, over time this fades and people go about their usual lives. It is really difficult to maintain vigilance making sure you are personally prepared for a major earthquake at all times for the next 50 years, especially when there’s a good chance nothing will happen. Therefore, it would be really great to put some more certainty in those probabilities. If we can revise these probabilities closer to 0% (no chance of an earthquake) or 100% (definitely going to be an earthquake) we can reduce uncertainty when planning for the future.

The public depends on earthquake research

EarthScope infrastructure across the United States. Credit: Jeffrey Freymueller

Increased certainty can only come from increased scientific understanding of this fault, and the mechanics of faults in general, which is at best only partially understood. We are also monitoring this fault for long-term changes that might indicate a large earthquake is imminent.

Making progress improving earthquake forecasts for Cascadia is a multi-disciplinary research problem. Scientists like myself use techniques such as numerical models of friction on faults to study the rupture process, laboratory experiments to study fault behavior, field geology studies to look at the signatures of past earthquakes, and data-driven studies using multiple instruments planted all along the subduction zone.

The vast majority of these studies are publicly funded using federal funding from the U.S. Geological Survey and National Science Foundation. The instruments we use were placed as part of a major scientific initiative called Earthscope, which was featured by Popular Science as the #1 “Most Ambitious Experiment in the Universe Today”. Earthscope is funded completely by the National Science Foundation, and funding is scheduled to end soon. The future of the critical scientific instrumentation in Cascadia is currently uncertain. These instruments have been, and continue to be, vital in improving our understanding of the mechanics of the Cascadia subduction zone and the size and timing of the next large earthquake there.

Budget cuts and uncertainty have a large effect on this field. The U.S. Geological Survey, under the recently released Trump budget blueprint, is going to take a 15% cut. The National Science Foundation is not specifically mentioned in the blueprint, but the working assumption among scientists is a 10% cut. While the cuts certainly hinder our efforts to study the Cascadia subduction zone, even the uncertainty is a hindrance to this science, as funding proposals take 6 months or more to receive an answer because of budget uncertainty. For scientists to do our jobs and give emergency managers and the public the best available information, it is critical that we continue to receive federal research funding.

 

Noel M. Bartlow is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Geological Sciences at the University of Missouri. She is a geophysicist who studies slow earthquakes and frictional locking in subduction zones. She earned her Ph.D. in Geophysics from Stanford University in 2013, and completed a postdoctoral fellowship at the University of California–San Diego’s Scripps Institution of Oceanography before joining the University of Missouri faculty in 2016.  She is currently the principal investigator for the National Science Foundation funded project, “Collaborative Research: Improving models of interseismic locking and slow slip events in Cascadia and New Zealand.”

Science Network Voices gives Equation readers access to the depth of expertise and broad perspective on current issues that our Science Network members bring to UCS. The views expressed in Science Network posts are those of the author alone.

 

Why Senator Lankford’s “BEST Act” Is Really the Worst for Federal Science

A few weeks ago, Sen. James Lankford (OK) introduced legislation called the “Better Evaluation of Science and Technology Act,” or “BEST Act” for short. The proposal takes the scientific standards language from the recently updated Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) and applies it to the Administrative Procedures Act (which governs all federal rulemaking). Sen. Lankford claims the BEST Act would guarantee that federal agencies use the best available science to protect public health, safety, the environment, and more.

Nice sound bite, right?

In practice, though, this bill would cripple the ability of agencies like the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) to rely on scientific evidence to issue public health and safety safeguards. It’s just as radical as the numerous other bills that would enable politics to trump science, making all of us more vulnerable to public health and environmental threats.

How this works in the real world

How would it do that? It’s simple really. If you look at the bill language carefully, it consists of significant legal jargon and imprecise language that any lawyer worth his or her salt could use to shut down science-based decision making at federal agencies by tying up the rule-making process in endless challenges.

Let’s take a look at lead. The science is clear here. There is no safe blood level of lead. According to the EPA, lead poisoning can cause slowed growth, lower IQ, behavior and learning problems, and more. In the 1970s, it became increasingly clear that lead exposure resulted in negative health effects.

Science is a critical component of policymaking, but Senator Lankford's BEST Act is a solution in search of a problem.

Science is a critical component of policymaking, but Senator Lankford’s BEST Act is a solution in search of a problem.

Rather than accept the growing weight of this scientific evidence, the lead industry started to use manufactured counterfeit science to cast doubt on the impacts of lead exposure and the acceptable amount of lead in blood.

Now if the “BEST Act” had been the law of the land when the federal government began to regulate lead, the lead industry could have used this counterfeit science to challenge EPA regulations on the grounds of “degree of clarity” and “variability and uncertainty” (among other things), forcing the agency into endless litigation over settled science. This could have ultimately prevented the agency from limiting lead exposure, especially among vulnerable populations like children.

Likewise, the tobacco industry would have been able to cast doubt on the link between cigarettes and lung cancer.

The list goes on. Today, you can imagine the fossil fuel industry using the vague language to attack climate science as a justification for slowing down solutions that prevent global warming.

Heavy on problems, light on solutions

The ambiguity of the text should be enough to realize that this legislation is bad news for evidence-based decisionmaking. But there are several other issues with the legislation as well.

One major concern is subsection (h), which would result in an enormous resource drain for agencies at a time when budgets are decreasing. Agencies would be required to divert additional resources to make public a number of documents and information, which, as we know from our fight against the HONEST Act, costs time and money.

Another major issue is the fact that this legislation would freeze science standards the way they are right now, killing the innovation and flexibility that agencies have now to consider new forms of research in their decisionmaking. As agencies begin to regulate new technologies like autonomous vehicles, they need to have the ability to consider the most cutting-edge research out there, which might include new scientific methods and models.

More importantly for human health, as the EPA looks to implement the updated chemical safety law, it needs to have the ability to utilize the best and most up-to-date scientific and technical information without having to worry about being sued, which was the problem with the original TSCA bill. Under the original chemical safety law passed in the 1970s, the EPA could not even regulate asbestos, a known carcinogen, because industry kept suing the agency. If the BEST Act were to become law, we could expect more of the same.

A wasted opportunity

Agencies are already basing their policy decisions on the best available science. They have to. If an agency did not issue a public health protection or a worker safety standard based on strong evidence, then the agency would be challenged in court, and probably forced to vacate the regulation.

Instead of promoting legislation like the BEST Act, what Sen. Lankford could do to improve the use of science in policymaking is ensure that agencies like the EPA, CPSC, Department of Energy, and others, are well funded and have the resources necessary to fulfill their respective science-based missions.

There is no disagreement among anyone (well, almost anyone) that science has an important role to play in federal policymaking and that the decisions made by agencies to implement the Clean Air Act, the Endangered Species Act, the Consumer Product Safety Act, and others, all need to be rooted in the best scientific and technical information that is available. We all want science to help ensure that our health and safety are protected, that the drugs and medical devices we use are safe and effective, that the food we eat is free of disease, that our drinking water is clean, and more.

If anything, the BEST Act would take science out of the hands of scientists, and into the hands of politicians, lawyers, and judges. Sen. Lankford’s legislation is misguided and simply a solution in search of a problem. While there is always more to learn about a scientific issue, the ideas in this proposal should not be used as an excuse not to act and protect the public from public health, safety, and environmental threats.

Another Delay of Chemical Safety Rule Is Dangerous and Unwarranted

Last week was just chock full of setbacks and assaults on our public protections coming out of Washington. You’ve probably heard about President Trump’s all-out attack on climate policy; EPA Administrator Pruitt got right on it.  No surprise there.  Then there was EPA’s decision not to ban a pesticide clearly linked to serious and long-term developmental effects on children’s brains and cognitive function.  But you may not have noticed another harmful decision coming out of the EPA – this one about its Risk Management Program (RMP) rule.

Maybe you have been fortunate enough NOT to have to worry about an explosion, fire, or leak from the over 12,000 facilities that use or store toxic chemicals in the U.S.  But many of our families and communities—especially communities of color or low income communities — are not so lucky.

In the last decade nearly 60 people died, approximately 17,000 people were injured or sought medical treatment, and almost 500,000 people were evacuated or sheltered-in-place as a result of accidental releases at chemical plants. Over the past 10 years, more than 1,500 incidents were reported causing over $2 billion in property damage.  According to whom? The EPA.  And these data don’t begin to capture the daily worry and anxiety of those living or working close to one of those facilities.

One would think that enhancing safeguards to prevent, prepare for, respond to, and manage risks of chemical accidents and releases from our nation’s most hazardous facilities would be a no brainer.  It’s not like we haven’t seen or read about catastrophic chemical incidents.  Like the Chevron Richmond Refinery fire in 2012 that sent 15,000 people to the hospital for emergency treatment.  Or the deadly explosion at the West Fertilizer Company in West, Texas in 2013 that killed 15 people and injured 200 more. Or the 2014 chemical spill in West Virginia that left thousands of residents and businesses without clean water.

I suspect the American public assumes our government views reducing the risk of chemical disasters as a critical priority. And it was making some progress.

The good

For years, community groups, environmental organizations, and labor groups had pressed and petitioned the federal government to adopt stronger measures to prevent chemical disasters.  Finally, and in the wake of several high profile incidents, President Obama issued an Executive Order (EO 13650) in 2013 directing the federal agencies to reduce risks associated with such incidents and to enhance the safety of chemical facilities. Updating EPA’s Risk Management Program rule (under the Clean Air Act’s chemical disaster provision) emerged as one of the top priorities for improving the safety of these facilities.  The EPA then embarked on a multi-year and rigorous process of public outreach, stakeholder engagement, formal requests for information, and notice and comment periods.  The outcome: an updated Risk Management Program rule that includes some common-sense provisions for covered facilities.  For example,

  • Investigating incidents that resulted in or could have resulted in a catastrophic release
    (a so-called “near miss”), including a root cause analysis;
  • Coordinating local emergency response plans, roles, and responsibilities, and conducting emergency response exercises;
  • Improving public access to chemical hazard information;
  • Engaging an independent third-party after a reportable accident to audit compliance; and
  • For three industries with the most serious accident records (oil refineries, chemical manufacturers, and pulp and paper mills), conducting a safer technology and alternative analysis to identify and evaluate measures that could prevent disasters.

The enhanced rule was scheduled to go into effect on March 14, 2017, with longer compliance periods for some provisions (as far out as 2022).

The bad

 In March, the EPA issued a 90 day administrative stay – delaying implementation of the rule to June 19, 2017. This followed receipt of petitions by industry groups and several states requesting reconsideration of the rule.  Who were these petitioners?  Some pretty powerful stakeholders.  The RMP Coalition whose members are … wait for it… the American Chemistry Council, the American Forest & Paper Association, the American Fuel & Petrochemical Manufacturers, the American Petroleum Institute, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the National Association of Manufacturers, and the Utility Air Regulatory Group.  Another petition came in from the Chemical Safety Advocacy Group (CSAG) – comprised of companies in the refining, oil, and gas, chemicals, and general manufacturing sectors.  Then came a third petition from 11 states, including Texas and West Virginia.

The ugly

Stay it again.  Attentive to these industrial interests, Mr. Pruitt’s EPA last week proposed a further delay to the effective date of the RMP amendments to February 19, 2019.  So, having waited years for enhanced chemical safety and security safeguards, and after an already lengthy and extensive public process required for rule-making, communities and families at risk of chemical disasters will now have to wait almost another two years while the agency reviews and reconsiders the Risk Management Program amendments.  This delay essentially buys the agency more time to figure out how to redo it or repeal it completely. Call me crazy, but I just don’t see the delay resulting in a rule that gets stronger and further strengthens public safety.  The regulated community doesn’t want that to happen, and they have a bigger war chest and easier access to regulators and decision makers than public interest community does.

Unleashing the power of the (little) people

 But here’s what we, the people, do have.  We have voice. We have votes.  We have on-the-ground stories to tell.  We also have local leaders, emergency responders, workers, and school teachers who can attest to the dangers and the need.

The EPA is holding a public hearing as part of its reconsideration on April 19, 2017 in Washington, DC.  And it is taking written comments until May 19, 2017.   No comment or story is too short or too unimportant to tell.  And EPA has to consider all comments as it fashions its response. Tell them a further delay is dangerous, unnecessary, and unconscionable.

You can submit written comments electronically to Docket ID No. EPA-HQ-OEM-2015-0725 at http://www.regulations.gov.  These written comments can be accompanied by multi-media submissions, (i.e., video, audio, photos — like maybe of your kids?).  While you’re at it, send a copy of your comments to your federal representatives to let them know that you expect their support for strong chemical safety rules and resistance to any effort to roll-back these and other public protections.

One of the facilities in question may be in your neighborhood – or near those you love.  You might not even know. But even if you’re fortunate enough to be some distance away and relatively safe from a chemical explosion, fire, or spill disaster, we all have a stake in public safety and health.  And know that UCS will be there with you.

 

 

Scientific Integrity Policies Do Not Make Agencies the Fact Police

Recently, the Sierra Club filed a complaint with the EPA Inspector General alleging that EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt violated the agency’s scientific integrity policy by making false statements about climate change science. Reuters is reporting that the IG has referred the complaint to the agency’s scientific integrity official. But the EPA should proceed carefully in deciding whether to consider this as an issue that is subject to the agency’s scientific integrity standards.

Scientific integrity policies exist to prevent political interference in the process by which science informs decision making. They exist to protect the rights of scientists to communicate about their work and to prevent the manipulation and suppression of scientific evidence throughout the policymaking process.

The policies were not, however, created to fact check every statement made by a public official. They were developed in response to overt political interference in science that became common during the George W. Bush administration. Scientists were censored. Official scientific reports were altered by political appointees. Testing processes were changed to suggest that unsafe products were really safe after all. These are the types of actions that are most deserving of scrutiny.

It is tempting to want to punish public officials for lying about established science. But the scientific integrity policies do not serve this function, and for good reason. If scientific integrity officials were expected to become de facto fact police, they would spend all of their time looking at these kinds of allegations, and have little time left over to investigate actions that can have the most significant effects on science-based decision making.

To be clear, what Scott Pruitt said on CNBC was bananas. It’s unacceptable for the head of the Environmental Protection Agency to make such patently false statements. But attempting to punish the administrator under the scientific integrity policy isn’t the right approach, and could even distract public attention and agency investigative resources away from the real damage that the Trump administration is doing to our collective ability to meet the challenge of climate change and protect public health and safety.

Disregarding Science, Trump Administration Trades Kids’ Brains for Dow Profit

At the risk of exhausting you with more evidence of the Trump administration’s contempt for science and the public interest, here’s another assault. After years of study and deliberation by scientists at the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and elsewhere, new EPA head Scott Pruitt announced Wednesday night that he would not ban a pesticide that poses a clear risk to children, farm workers, and rural drinking water users.

In doing so, the administration made a 180-degree turn, handing a win to the pesticide’s maker, Dow AgroSciences (a subsidiary of the Dow Chemical Company) and a loss to pretty much everyone else.

An about-face on the science

Let’s be clear, the EPA doesn’t just regulate chemicals willy-nilly. It usually has to be pushed, sometimes hard. And in this case it was. Tom Philpott at Mother Jones has an excellent rundown of the years-long saga surrounding the nerve-damaging organophosphate insecticide chlorpyrifos at the EPA. Under a court order, EPA proposed in November 2015 to effectively ban this pesticide by revoking the agency’s “tolerances” (legal limits allowed in or on food) for the chemical:

At this time, the agency is unable to conclude that the risk from aggregate exposure from the use of chlorpyrifos meets the safety standard of section 408(b)(2) of the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (FFDCA). Accordingly, EPA is proposing to revoke all tolerances for chlorpyrifos.

When the EPA gets that close to banning a pesticide, you can bet the science is solid. So it’s shocking that, under another court-imposed deadline to finalize its decision this month, the agency’s new science-denier-in-chief abruptly backtracked, suggesting in his statement that the science of chlorpyrifos’s harmful effects isn’t settled.

That claim is disingenuous.

Chlorpyrifos poses a clear-cut risk to children, farmworkers, and rural residents

Chlorpyrifos has been studied extensively, and for years. Once the most commonly used pesticide in US homes, it has been increasingly regulated over the last two decades as scientific evidence of its harm has mounted. Almost all residential uses were eliminated in 2000 based on evidence of developmental neurotoxicity—that is, the chemical’s ability to damage the developing brains of fetuses and young children. Since then, many on-farm uses have also been restricted or banned.

But it’s not enough. The pesticide is still used on corn, soybeans, fruit and nut trees, certain vegetables including Brussels sprouts and broccoli, and other crops. And it’s still harming kids and workers.

Last year, researchers studying mothers and children living in the agricultural Salinas Valley of California documented that just living within a kilometer of farm fields where chlorpyrifos and other neurotoxic pesticides were used lowered IQs by more than two points in 7-year-old children, with corresponding impairment in verbal comprehension. Other studies have found that exposure in the womb is associated with changes in brain structure and function. Farm worker exposure is also a concern, as is exposure of rural residents through drinking water.

Which brings us back to the regulatory battle. Last fall, a coalition of environmental, labor, and health organizations petitioned the EPA to ban all remaining uses of chlorpyrifos, citing unacceptable risks to workers. In November, the EPA inched closer to a ban, revising its human health risk assessment and drinking water exposure assessment for chlorpyrifos. The agency summarized its conclusions this way:

This assessment shows dietary and drinking water risks for the current uses of chlorpyrifos. Based on current labeled uses, the revised analysis indicates that expected residues of chlorpyrifos on food crops exceed the safety standard under the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (FFDCA). In addition, the majority of estimated drinking water exposure from currently registered uses, including water exposure from non-food uses, continues to exceed safe levels, even taking into account more refined drinking water exposure. This assessment also shows risks to workers who mix, load and apply chlorpyrifos pesticide products. (emphasis added)

The proposed ban was supported by independent scientists and a coalition of Latino, labor, and health organizations including the United Farm Workers.

Oh yeah, and it was supported by the science and the federal law meant to protect children from toxic pesticides.

EPA is legally required to ban pesticides that threaten health

In 1993, the National Academy of Sciences released a landmark report titled Pesticides in the Diets of Infants and Children. Based on a five-year study, the report recommended major changes in the way EPA regulated pesticides in order to protect children’s health, noting that children are not “little adults.” Three years later, Congress acted on those scientific recommendations, passing the Food Quality Protection Act of 1996 unanimously (yes, I said unanimously, can you imagine?).

This breakthrough law mandated that the EPA go above and beyond what it had ever done before in considering the developmental susceptibility of infants and children, and their dietary habits, when making regulatory decisions about pesticides. The law built in a 10-fold “safety factor” to be sure kids would be protected.

Of course, children are only protected if the EPA follows the law and the science. And Dow kept the pressure on to ensure they wouldn’t. For now, Pruitt’s announcement represents “final agency action” on chlorpyrifos, and the EPA won’t be required to revisit the question of the pesticide’s safety until 2022. (Sorry, kids.)

How else might the Trump administration undermine science and children’s health?

This latest decision, along with the proposed slashing of EPA’s budget, leaves me wondering just how far the new administration will go in ignoring science and undoing children’s health protections. While the EPA budget cuts are getting a lot of attention, some health scientists are worried as well about the fate of the National Institute for Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) as well. In partnership with EPA, NIEHS operates a national network of research centers studying children’s environmental health and educating the public about risks. If funding for those centers is also cut, who will look out for the health of children?

I spent years back in the late 90s and early aughts pressing Congress and the EPA to tighten the rules on toxic chemicals. We’re still not where we need to be, but we’ve made progress. And now it looks like that progress is very much at risk.

 

Richard Leeming/Flickr

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