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We Surveyed Thousands of Federal Scientists. Here are Some Potential Reasons Why the Response Rate Was Lower than Usual

In February and March of this year, the Union of Concerned Scientists, in partnership with Iowa State University’s Center for Survey Statistics and Methodology, sent a survey to over 63,000 federal career staff across 16 federal agencies, offices, and bureaus. Our goal was to give scientists a voice on the state of science under the Trump administration as we had during previous administrations.

We worked diligently to maintain the anonymity of the federal scientists taking our survey, providing three different methods for participants to take the survey (online, phone, and a mail-in option). Scientists took advantage of all three methods.

We followed up with reminders nearly weekly. Some scientists who were invited to take the survey did reach out to confirm that UCS and Iowa State University were conducting a legitimate survey, and the link that we sent them was safe to click on. In addition, some agencies communicated to their staff that the survey was legitimate and that experts were free to take it on their own time.

And while we received enough responses for the results to be valid, the final overall response rate on this years’ federal scientists survey sits at 6.9%. Compared to response rates on prior surveys conducted by UCS over the past 13 years, which have typically ranged from 15-20%, this year’s rate is lower. Let’s unpack some potential reasons why, and what the impact may be on interpreting results.

Reasons Why the Response Rate was Low
  1. Fear

It is possible that federal scientists and scientific experts were fearful or reluctant to comment on the state of science under the Trump administration. This may be borne from some political appointees reprimanding career staff for speaking publicly about their work.

Additionally, it is possible that given the heightened threat of cyber-attacks in the modern era, scientists were afraid their information might be monitored or leaked. Survey respondents were given a unique identifier to ensure the integrity of the survey, and while these identifiers were deleted before the survey results were prepared for release, we heard reports that simply being associated with that unique identifier was too much of a barrier.

  1. Discouragement from Senior Leadership

At some offices within the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as well as at the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), senior leadership sent emails to employees that discouraged them from taking the 2018 UCS survey. FWS emails stated “Requests for service employees to participate in surveys, from both internal and external sources, must be approved in advance of the issuance of the survey.” But this is only true of surveys issued through the agency. Federal employees are not required to receive an ethics clearance to take an outside survey if they take it on their own time and with their own equipment. On the other hand, other offices within the EPA as well as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) sent emails reminding employees that they were welcome to take the survey given that they took it using their own time and equipment.

  1. Larger Survey Sample

This is the largest survey that UCS has ever conducted. Our prior surveys have been administered to up to 4 agencies, whereas we surveyed 16 agencies, offices, and bureaus this year. It may be easier to achieve higher response rates with smaller survey samples because it is possible for researchers to devote more time to working with the survey sample and building trust.

  1. Lack of Public Directory and/or Job Descriptions

UCS can survey federal scientists because their name, email address, and job title are publicly available, or at least they should be. For some agencies that we surveyed, like the National Highway Traffic and Safety Administration (NHTSA) and the Department of Energy (DOE) who do not have public directories available, we submitted Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests for this information (it’s been a year and half, and we still don’t have the directory from DOE). For other agencies, such as the EPA, a public directory was available but didn’t have complete information (e.g., job titles). Having the job title of the career staffer is important as it allows us to narrow down our survey sample to those who are likely to be a scientist or scientific expert. In the case of the EPA, Census Bureau, and DOE’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (EERE), we did not have this information, so we had to administer the survey to the entire agency, or to only offices that we assumed would do scientific work. This greatly increases the number of individuals in an agency sample such that response rates are likely skewed lower relative to other agencies.

Does this low response rate matter in the interpretation of survey results?

A low response rate can give rise to sampling bias, meaning that some individuals in our survey sample are less likely to be included than others (some suggest that only the most disgruntled employees would respond). However, there is a growing body of literature that suggests that this may not be the case. Counterintuitively, it’s possible that surveys with lower response rates may yield more accurate results compared to those with higher response rates. Another study showed that administering the same survey for only 5 days (achieving a 25% response rate) versus weeks (achieving a 50% response rate) largely did not result in statistically different results. Results that were significantly different across these surveys only differed between 4-8 percentage points.

Further, we have never suggested that the responses received at an agency represent the agency as a whole. Rather, the responses represent the experiences of those who chose to respond. And when hundreds or thousands of federal scientists report censorship, political influence on their work, or funding being distributed away from work just because the issue is viewed as politically contentious…well, we have a problem.

I’m very happy that we gave these scientists a voice, because they had a lot to say and it’s time that they’re heard.

Trump Administration Takes Aim at Public Health Protections

Photo: Daniels, Gene/ The U.S. National Archives

In a new regulatory effort, the Trump Administration’s Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) claims to be working to increase consistency and transparency in how it considers costs and benefits in the rulemaking process.

Don’t be fooled.

Under the cover of these anodyne goals, the agency is in fact trying to pursue something far more nefarious. Indeed, what the EPA is actually working to do is formalize a process whereby the decision of whether or not to go ahead with a rule is permanently tilted in industry’s favor. How? By slashing away at what the agency can count as “benefits,” resulting in a full-on broadside to public health.

EPA handcuffs itself to let industry roam free

Though it may seem obscure, the implications of this fiddling are anything but.

That’s because EPA regularly engages in what’s known as “cost-benefit analysis,” or a comparison of the costs of implementing a rule to the benefits that are expected to result. This doesn’t always shape how a standard gets set—for some air pollutants, for example, Congress actually requires the agency to specifically not develop standards based on cost, but rather based on health, to ensure that the public stays sufficiently protected. Other regulations weigh costs at varying levels of import, related to the specifics of the issue at hand.

Still, cost-benefit analysis is widely used, even when it describes rather than informs. The process lends context to rulemaking efforts, though it certainly isn’t perfect: cost-benefit analysis faces challenges, especially in quantifying those impacts that don’t lend themselves well to quantitative reductions. But on either side serious practitioners agree: this new effort by EPA is ill-conceived.

And the consequence of EPA’s proposed manipulations? Well, when the agency next goes to tally up the impacts of a rule, the traditionally towering benefits of its regulations could suddenly be cut way down in size. Not because public health is suddenly fixed, but just because it’s the only way to get the equation to solve in favor of industry time after time.

What’s more, alongside this effort EPA is simultaneously endeavoring to place untenable restrictions on the data and research the agency can consider in its rulemaking process, effectively hamstringing its own ability to fully and adequately evaluate impacts to public health.

Together, the net result would be a regulatory framework aggressively biased in industry’s favor, and a Trump Administration suddenly able to claim that public health protections are just not worth the cost.

To industry, with love

The good news is that this nascent proposal is incredibly hard to defend—on morals, and on merits.

The bad news is that the Trump Administration is highly motivated to do everything it can to find in favor of industry, so it’s still sure to be a fight.

Here, three key points to note:

  1. Ignoring co-benefits would permanently tilt the scales—and just does not make sense. One of the primary ways EPA is looking to shirk its regulatory responsibilities is by attempting to exclude the consideration of “co-benefits,” or those that arise as a result of a rule but not from the target pollutant itself, during its cost-benefit evaluations. Absurd. Although these indirect benefits—the avoided ER visits, the precluded asthma attacks, the workdays still in play—are just as real as indirect costs, under this proposal only the latter would continue to stay in the ledger.

 

  1. Requiring consistency across agency actions goes against EPA’s statutory requirements. The EPA is suggesting that cost-benefit methodologies should be applied uniformly across rulemaking efforts. This not only fails to recognize that not all protections should be evaluated in the same ways, but also that Congress itself outlined differences in how the agency should evaluate proposals depending on specific circumstances. As a result, the agency isn’t even allowed to do what it’s trying to do. And even worse than this nonsense standardization? The fact that the agency is trying to implement the requirement at the level least protective of public health.

 

  1. EPA already tried this out, and those efforts were roundly denounced. Prior to this proposal, EPA actually made a preliminary attempt at using a co-benefits-limited approach in its proposed repeal of the Clean Power Plan. There, it attempted to separate out and consider only the benefits that accrued from carbon dioxide emissions reductions, despite the billions of dollars of additional health benefits anticipated to come from indirect benefits of the rule. This action was taken alongside a slew of other discriminatory accounting maneuvers, revealing an agency desperately doing anything it could to deliver for industry, including by tipping the scales.

This regulatory effort was carefully constructed to conceal intentions and motivations, but it’s clear from the agency’s surrounding narrative and parallel policy initiatives that it is being advanced in strict pursuit of an industry-favored finding.

Where to next?

Let’s not forget the mission of the EPA: to protect human health and the environment.

From that frame, it’s hard to see what good this effort would do. It doesn’t bring EPA closer to an objective analytical truth, it doesn’t elevate and further that which is in the public’s interest, and it certainly doesn’t suggest an agency doing everything it can to advance its one core mission.

Instead, what we see is EPA displaying shockingly overt piety to industry over public, and in the process, failing to defend the very thing the agency was created to protect.

We’ve filed comments with EPA to call this rigged process out, and we’ll continue to stand up for the mission of the agency even when EPA lets it slide.

Because this demands a fight.

A fight for an agency that fights for the public, and a fight for a ledger that pulls people and places out of the red, not permanently cements them in it.

Photo: Daniels, Gene/ The U.S. National Archives

UCS Survey Shows Interior Department is Worse Than We Thought—And That’s Saying Something

Photo: US Geological Survey

Can scientific staff at the US Department of the Interior rest easy knowing that their colleagues at other agencies have it worse when it comes to political interference?

Survey says: Nope.

Today the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) released the results from their periodic survey of scientific professionals at federal agencies, and the results from the Department of Interior (DOI) are damning. Not only do the responses indicate plummeting morale, job satisfaction, and agency effectiveness, but politics is now being felt significantly at the US Geological Survey, a non-regulatory scientific bureau at DOI that has historically operated without substantial political interference. In all, concerns about political interference, censorship of politically contentious issues, and workforce reductions at DOI are higher than most other agencies.

The comments from the survey read like an organizational leadership seminar’s list of fatal flaws: Hostile workplace, check; fear of retaliation and discrimination, check; self-censorship, check; poor leadership, check; chronic understaffing, check. To make matters worse, the political leadership at Interior, led by Secretary Ryan Zinke, has a deserved reputation for barring career staff from decision-making processes.

In addition to the undue influence of political staff, the top concern from DOI scientific staff was lack of capacity. One respondent commented: “Many key positions remain unfulfilled, divisions are understaffed, and process has slowed to a crawl.”

As a former career civil servant at Interior I can attest to the plummeting morale at the agency—even before I resigned in October 2017 there was a pall over every office and bureau and career staff were feeling completely ignored by Trump administration officials. This led to some very bad decisions from Zinke, but that has not led to greater inclusion—in fact, team Zinke has continued to alienate career staff and seems to be betting that they will remain silent.

Some good investigative journalism and a lot of Freedom of Information Act disclosures have shown that only industry representatives get meetings with the top brass, decisions are made without input from career staff, censorship (especially of climate change related science) is on the upswing, science is routinely ignored or questioned, and expert advisory boards are being ignored, suspended, or disbanded.

All of this adds up to an agency that is being intentionally hollowed out, with consequences for American health and safety and for our nation’s treasured lands and wildlife. Americans are clamoring for more information on how their businesses, lands, and communities can address the climate impacts they see all year round—but DOI scientists responding to the survey pointed to how Zinke is slowly shutting down the Landscape Conservation Cooperatives (LCC) that deliver that information. Congress provided Zinke with the money to keep growing the LCC’s, but he continues to let them wither on the vine just as they are providing important and timely support for communities in need.

As the Federal Trustee for American Indians and Alaska Natives, Interior should be expected to support tribes and villages in need of resources and capacity for relocating or addressing dramatic climate change impacts, but Zinke is leaving them to fend for themselves despite a bipartisan call to get them out of harm’s way.

As the land manager for America’s most treasured landscapes, Interior is expected to be an effective steward of our National Parks and other areas dedicated to conservation, recreation, and the protection of wildlife habitat. Instead, Zinke ordered the largest reduction in conservation lands in our nation’s history when he shrunk Bears Ears National Monument by 85% and Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument by nearly half. Scientists responding to the survey referred to these decisions as lacking scientific justification. Thanks to recently disclosed documents and emails, we now know that science was pushed aside and the real reason for shrinking the Monuments was to encourage oil and gas extraction in those locations, despite Zinke’s emphatic statements to the contrary. The most damning evidence? The new maps for these shrunken Monuments match the maps that industry lobbyists provided for him. This is yet another insult to the American Indians for whom this area is sacred.

While this is consistent with the Administration’s goal of hobbling federal agencies and opening the door for industry donors, it is not consistent with the use of taxpayer dollars to protect national assets and address health and safety needs, and it is not consistent with the role of public servant. The UCS survey results are a damning indication of the depth of dysfunction that Ryan Zinke has fostered at Interior, and it is essential that Congress implement its important oversight role to prevent the rot from spreading still further.

Happy 10th Birthday to the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act!

Photo: Valentina Powers/CC BY 2.0 (Flickr)

Since the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act (CPSIA) became law, it has done a number of things to protect children from exposure to lead in toys and other items, improved the safety standards for cribs and other infant and toddler products, and created the saferproducts.gov database so that consumers have a place to go for research on certain products or reporting safety hazards and negative experiences. Today, along with a group of other consumer and public health advocacy organizations, we celebrate the 10th anniversary of the passage of this law. I am especially grateful that this act was passed a decade ago, as both a consumer advocate and an expecting mom.

Most of us might not realize it, but being a consumer now is a lot better than it would have been ten years ago.

When I sat down to begin the process of making a baby registry several months back, I didn’t know quite what to expect. With so many decisions to make about products that were going to be used by the person I already hold most dear in this world, I felt the anxiety begin to build. Perhaps I knew a little bit too much about how chemicals can slip through the regulatory cracks and end up on the market or how some companies deliberately manipulate the science in order to keep us in the dark about the safety of their products. But as I began to do research on children’s products, I ran into some pretty neat bits of information and have the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act to thank.

First, cribs all have to meet conformity standards that were developed by the CPSC in 2011. The rule requires that all crib manufacturers cannot sell drop-side cribs, and must strengthen crib slates and mattress supports, improve the quality of hardware, and require more rigorous testing of cribs before sale. This means if a crib is for sale anywhere in the US, it has been accredited by a CPSC-approved body and meets distinct safety requirements so that not only can your baby sleep safely but parents can sleep soundly (insert joke about parents and lack of sleep here). Between 2006-2008 and 2012-2014, the percentage of deaths associated with cribs attributed to crib integrity vs. hazardous crib surroundings has decreased from 32 percent to 10 percent.

This isn’t the only product type for which CPSC has created standards in the past 10 years. So far, CPSC has written rules for play yards, baby walkers, baby bath seats, children’s portable bed rails, strollers, toddler beds, infant swings, handheld infant carriers, soft infant carriers, framed infant carriers, bassinets, cradles, portable hook-on chairs, infant sling carriers, infant bouncer seats, high chairs, and most recently it approved standards for baby changing tables this summer.

Next, I can rest assured that no baby products contain dangerous levels of the reproductive toxins, phthalates, because of a provision in CPSIA that restricted a total of eight types of phthalates in children’s toys and child care articles to a very strict standard of 0.1% on a permanent basis. It also established a Chronic Hazard Advisory Panel of experts to review the science on phthalates that would eventually inform a CPSC final rule. that This rule was issued in October 2017 and became effective beginning in April 2018.

I can also be sure that the toys purchased for my child will not contain unsafe levels of the developmental toxin, lead, as long as they were tested and accredited by a CPSC-approved entity. As of 2011, the CPSIA limited the amount of lead that can be in children’s products to 100 ppm. And once we found that perfect paint color for the walls after hours of staring at violet swatches, I didn’t need to worry about its lead content considering that the CPSIA set the limit at 0.009 percent or 90 ppm for paint and some furniture that contains paint.

Finally, when in doubt, I discovered I can query the saferproducts.gov database to check whether there have been reports of a product’s hazard or head over to recalls.gov to double check that a product I’m planning on buying doesn’t have any recall notices on it.

There’s clearly been a lot of progress since the CPSIA was passed a decade ago, and I have to say, I feel fortunate that I’m beginning the parenting stage of my life as many of its provisions are being fully implemented. In all my reading on pregnancy and parenting, I’ve learned that there are only so many things you can control before your child arrives. The safety of my home is one of those things, so I’m thankful that the CPSIA has given me the ability to make informed decisions about the products with which I’m furnishing my child’s room.

And as I wear my Union of Concerned Scientists hat, I’m also encouraged that the CPSIA gave the agency the space to ensure that its scientists were able to do their work without fear of interference, including whistleblower protections. As the CPSC embarks upon its next ten years of ensuring the goals of the CPSIA are fully realized, we urge the agency to continue to enforce its safety standards, ensure that manufacturers of recalled products are held accountable, and educate the public about its product hazard database and other tools for reporting and researching harmful products. Unrelatedly, the agency should also continue to stay weird on twitter, because its memes bring joy to all. Case in point below.

Photo credit: twitter/US CPSC

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly: The Results of Our 2018 Federal Scientists Survey

Photo: Virginia State Parks/CC BY 2.0 (Flickr)

In February and March of this year, the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) conducted a survey of federal scientists to ask about the state of science over the past year, and the results are in. Scientists and their work are being hampered by political interference, workforce reductions, censorship, and other issues, but the federal scientific workforce is resilient and continuing to stand up for the use of science in policy decisions.

This survey was conducted in partnership with Iowa State University’s Center for Survey Statistics and Methodology building upon prior surveys conducted by UCS since 2005. However, this year’s survey is unique in that it is the largest that UCS has ever conducted to date (sent to over 63,000 federal employees across 16 federal agencies, offices, and bureaus), and it is the first survey to our knowledge to gauge employee’s perceptions of the Trump administration’s use of science in decisionmaking processes.

The Trump administration’s record on science on a number of issues in multiple agencies is abysmal. Anyone who has paid attention to the news even slightly will know this. Therefore, my expectations were that the surveyed scientists and scientific experts would report out that they were working in a hostile work environment, that they are encountering numerous barriers to doing and communicating science, and that too many scientists are leaving the federal workforce. And while many of the respondents reported out on these negative issues, many respondents also reported out a lot of good work that is happening.

To be certain, some agencies seem to be faring better than others. Respondents from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), Centers for Disease Control (CDC), and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) reported better working environments and leadership that were conducive to continuing science-based work that informs decisionmaking at their agencies. However, respondents from bureaus at the Department of Interior (DOI) as well as the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) seem to be having a difficult time with political interference, maintaining professional development, and censorship, to name a few issues illustrated by this survey. This agency-level variation, as well as variation in response rates  across surveyed agencies, should be considered when interpreting results across all agencies.

Below, I highlight some results of this year’s survey, but you can also find all of the results, methodology, quotes from surveyed scientists, and more at www.ucsusa.org/2018survey.

The Ugly: Political interference in science-based decisionmaking

The Trump administration has been no stranger to interfering with science-based processes at federal agencies. For example, both Ryan Zinke and Scott Pruitt changed the review processes of science-based grants such that they are critiqued based on how well they fit the administration’s political agenda instead of their intellectual merit. UCS also discovered through a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request that the White House interfered in the publication of a study about the health effects of a group of hazardous chemicals found in drinking water and household products throughout the United States.

Surveyed scientists and scientific experts in our 2018 survey noted that political interference is one of the greatest barriers to science-based decisionmaking at their agency. In a multiple response survey question in which respondents chose up to three barriers to decisionmaking, those ranked at the top were: Influence of political appointees in your agency or department, influence of the White House, limited staff capacity, delay in leadership making a decision, and absence of leadership with needed scientific expertise. This result was different as compared to our 2015 survey in which respondents reported that limited staff capacity and complexity of the scientific issue were the top barriers—influence of other agencies or the administration, as it was phrased in our 2015 survey, was not identified as a top barrier. One respondent from the EPA noted that political interference is undoing scientific processes: “…efforts are being made at the highest levels to unwind the good work that has been done, using scientifically questionable approaches to get answers that will support the outcomes desired by top agency leadership.”

Many respondents also reported issues of censorship, especially in regard to climate change science. In total, 631 respondents reported that they have been asked or told to omit the phrase “climate change” from their work. A total of 703 respondents reported that they had avoided working on climate change or using the phrase “climate change” without explicit orders to do so. But it is not only climate change—over 1,000 responding scientists and scientific experts reported that they have been asked or told to omit certain words in their scientific work because they are viewed as politically contentious. One respondent from the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) noted that scientists studying pollinator health are being scrutinized: “We have scientists at my location that deal with insect pollinator issues, and there appears to be some suppression of work on that topic, in that supervisors question the contents of manuscripts, involvement in certain types of research, and participation in public presentation of the research. It has not eliminated the work of those scientists, but their involvement in those areas is highly scrutinized.”

The Bad: The scientific workforce is likely dwindling

Nearly 80% of respondents (3,266 respondents in total) noticed workforce reductions either due to staff departures, hiring freezes, and/or retirement buyouts. Of those respondents who noticed workforce reductions, nearly 90% (2,852 respondents in total) reported that these reductions make it difficult for them to fulfill their agency’s science-based missions. A respondent from the Fish and Wildlife Service summed up the issue: “Many key positions remain unfulfilled, divisions are understaffed, and process has slowed to a crawl.”

As of June 2018, the 18th month of his administration, President Trump had filled 25 of the 83 government posts that the National Academy of Sciences designates as “scientist appointees.” Maybe now that President Trump has nominated meteorologist Kelvin Droegemeier to lead the White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy, we will see other scientific appointments as well. For now, agencies that are understaffed and that do not have leadership with needed scientific expertise will likely continue to have a difficult time getting their scientific work completed.

The Good:  The scientific workforce is resilient

While 38% of those surveyed (1628 respondents in total) reported that the effectiveness of their division or offices has decreased over the past year, 15% reported an increase in effectiveness (643 respondents total) and 38% (1567 respondents total) reported no change in effectiveness over the past year. It is still not a good sign that over 1,000 scientists and scientific experts are reporting that the effectiveness of their office/division has decreased under the Trump administration, but it is also good to see that there are still a number of scientists and scientific experts being able to continue to do their important work.

Further, a majority of respondents (64%; 2452 respondents in total) reported that their agencies are adhering to their scientific integrity policies and that they are receiving adequate training on them. While those surveyed reported on barriers to science-based decisionmaking such as those described above and more that fall outside of the scope of these policies, it is still a step forward to see that the federal scientific workforce knows about the policies and perceives them to be followed. Many responding scientists reported that they are doing the best work they can under this administration. As one respondent from the US Geological Survey (USGS) said, “USGS scientific integrity guidelines are among the best in the federal service. They are robust and followed by the agency. What happens at the political level is another story.”

There is still work to do

Some scientists are continuing to get their work done and others are having a difficult time. Many scientists see their leadership as a barrier to their science-based work, whereas some scientists think their leadership recognizes the importance of science to their agency’s mission.

However, when hundreds to thousands of scientists are reporting that there is political interference in their work, that they fear using certain terms like “climate change,” or that they are seeing funds being distributed away from work viewed as politically contentious – this is an ugly side of this administration’s treatment of science. Those numbers should be as close to zero as possible because when science takes a back seat to political whims, the health and safety of the American people loses.

Science Prevails in the Courts as Chlorpyrifos Ban Becomes Likely

Photo: Will Fuller/CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 (Flickr)

Today, children, farmworkers, and the rest of us won big in the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, as the court ordered EPA to finalize its proposed ban of the insecticide chlorpyrifos. Ultimately, the judge determined that EPA’s 2017 decision to refuse to ban the chemical was unlawful because it failed to justify keeping chlorpyrifos on the market, while the scientific evidence very clearly pointed to the link between chlorpyrifos exposure and neurodevelopmental damage to children, and further risks to farmworkers and users of rural drinking water.

Under the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (FFDCA), the EPA is required to remove pesticide tolerances (effectively banning them) when it cannot find they are safe with a “reasonable certainty.” The judge found that when former Administrator Pruitt’s refused to ban the chemical, he contradicted the work of the agency’s own scientists, who found the chemical posed extensive health risks to children. His failure to act accordingly violated the agency’s mandate under the FFDCA.

This attack on science was fueled by close relationships that Scott Pruitt and President Trump have with Dow Chemical Company, which makes chlorpyrifos. Unfortunately, this was just one of many recent EPA actions that not only lack justification and supporting analysis, but actively undermine the agency’s ability to protect public health—and in this case specifically, the health of children. Acting Administrator Wheeler should learn from this particular case that EPA’s decisions must be grounded in evidence, and that the public will continue to watch and demand as much.

The petition was filed by a coalition of environmental, labor, and health organizations. The EPA now has 60 days to ban chlorpyrifos.

Photo: Will Fuller/CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 (Flickr)

As States Target University Students for Voter Suppression, Student Groups are Fighting Back

Photo: KOMUnews/Flickr

As the 2018 general midterm election approaches, college student voting rights are under attack.  Students are being specifically targeted for voter suppression in a number of states by excluding student identification as an acceptable form of voter identification, tightening up residency requirements, and selectively spreading misinformation. Fortunately, in several states, campus-wide and student-led movements are organizing and mobilizing college voters in a recognition of the historic role that students have played in the civil and voting rights movements in the United States and abroad.

New hurdles for students

Many states still do not allow absentee voting, often preventing students from outside of their birth states from casting a ballot.  More specifically, and more frequently since the Supreme Court overturned sections of the 1965 Voting Rights Act in 2013, dozens of states have implemented voter identification requirements, some of which either exclude student identification as a valid form of ID, or require proof of residency with forms (electric bills, etc.) that students living on campus are less likely to have.  A University of Michigan study has demonstrated the recent decline of drivers’ license ownership among college students, a form of identification frequently used in states with strict voter ID laws.

Perhaps most notoriously, the state of New Hampshire recently legislated the equivalent of a poll tax on out-of-state students, a residency requirement that includes registering one’s vehicle with the state and getting a New Hampshire driver’s license, which can cost several hundred dollars.  New Hampshire students have one chance , this November, to overturn the law: because it does not go into effect until 2019, they have an opportunity to mobilize and change the leadership in the legislature, a legislature that intentionally targeted them.

Direct, intentional targeting of students to suppress their votes in not solely the province of legislatures.  For example, in 2016, campuses in Maine were targeted with flyers providing false information about voting and registration requirements, and past elections have seen campuses targeted by organizations that fraudulently register students without completing their registration.

Nevertheless, students organizing to protect voting rights  in other states have achieved significant victories.  North Carolina’s strict voter ID law, which excluded student IDs as valid, was struck down in 2016 before the general election, after a group of college students, along with the Department of Justice, the North Carolina NAACP, the ACLU, and the League of Women Voters filed lawsuits against the state of North Carolina.  Just this month, U.S. District Judge Mark Walker sided with students and struck down Florida’s ban on early voting sites on college campuses as “facially discriminatory on account of age.”

Of course, the struggle continues.  A newly refurbished voter ID law is actually back on the ballot this November in North Carolina, with no mention of whether student IDs would be a valid form of identification.

Voter ID is also back on the ballot in Arkansas, and restrictive election laws already on the books weaken electoral integrity and threaten to disenfranchise voters across the United States.

Student organizing brings ballot access

For decades, student movements have been critical to expanding and defending ballot access throughout the United States. We need students to fulfill their historic role as agents of change in the expansion and protection of voting rights, from the Women’s Suffrage movement to Selma, where the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) had been organizing since 1963.

Organizing is already under way.  Across the country, campaigns like The Big Ten Voting Challenge are working to increase the number of eligible registered students across the country, through an extension of the Turbo Vote Challenge.  Student groups like Turn Up Turnout have a straightforward, non-partisan approach to political action: sign students onto Turbovote; organize turnout initiatives; administer workshops to explain the importance and effectiveness of voting, especially in midterm and local elections; and provide workshop materials that other campuses can use to develop their own initiatives.  The goal is not just to increase on-campus voting, but “that students should vote where they want—at home or at school—that it should be their choice” according to professor Edie Goldberg, who helped initiate the group at the University of Michigan.

The freedom to choose.  That is ultimately what students are fighting for this election cycle.  Not just for the right to free, fair and competitive elections, but for the ultimate ends of political action: the health of their communities, the health of the planet, as well as the academic means, the science that supports the sorts of policy that will get us there.  Science Rising is one such effort, a coalition of scientists, students, and activists fighting to ensure that knowledge generated for the public good continues to play a central role in policymaking, despite recent attacks on science and the scientific community.

Organizers and activists are creating windows of opportunity this election season. Opportunities to ensure that our democracy has an adequate supply of its two basic components: the energy of citizens, equally empowered to associate and express their collective goals; and the knowledge required to make informed, ethical and humane choices about what those goals are.  Ultimately, democracy depends on “strong people” in the words of SNCC organizer, advisor, and mentor Ella Baker; “Strong people don’t need leaders…we were strong people.  We did strong things.”

Preliminary data look promising. Record turnout among young people in Virginia helped to unseat dozens of incumbent state lawmakers in 2017.  While Millennials are still less likely to register than older Americans, their share among newly registered voters indicates a significant increase, especially in battleground states.  Additionally, the number of young people running for office is surging across the country at every level of government. But we won’t know until November, just how many students are stepping up to take on their historic responsibility as agents of change, and showing it at the ballot box.

Photo: KOMUnews/Flickr

At Long Last, President Trump is Expected to Appoint a Science Adviser

Multiple outlets (Nature, Science, the Washington Post) are reporting that President Trump is set to appoint meteorologist Kelvin Droegemeier to lead the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP). He is an experienced scientist with an impressive record of public service. When the appointment happens, the Senate should move quickly to vet and consider his nomination so that the vacuum of science advice within the White House can begin to be filled.

Importantly, the OSTP director has typically also served as the science advisor to the president, reporting directly to the president (except during the George W. Bush administration, when the science advisor was demoted to report to the White House chief of staff). If you want to go deep on presidential science advice, here’s one book for you.

Presumed science adviser nominee Kelvin Droegemeier could be a moderating force within the White House. Photo: Oklahoma State University

Direct access to the president matters. Just think of all of the issues the president deals with that have a science and technological component: pandemics, disaster response, economic competitiveness, health care, drug abuse, energy, food systems, resource extraction and more. Imagine how much better prepared the president could have been in talks with North Korea with a trusted advisor on the nation’s nuclear capacity.

Dr. Droegemeier is an extreme weather expert, a knowledge base that is becoming more and more important with climate change loading the dice as extreme weather becomes more prevalent, costly, and deadly. Science advisors can be moderating forces by providing road maps and showing what is possible, and working behind the scenes to stop dangerous proposals from moving forward.

Hopefully, Dr. Droegemeier would help the president and his advisors make decisions that are more scientifically justifiable and reflective of scientific evidence. He would also serve the country well by supporting efforts that protect federal scientists from political interference in their work.

Some will doubt that the president will have any inclination to listen to science advice and incorporate it into his erratic behavior. But not all policy comes from the mouth of the president, and at this point any mainstream scientific presence in the White House should be considered a step forward.

Federal Health Study on Drinking Water Contaminants Calls into Question Safety of Nation’s Drinking Water Supply

The public water supply in Hyannis, Massachusetts, one of the communities currently dealing PFAS contamination. Photo: A. Fox. Courtesy of STEEP

On a late June evening in a high school auditorium in Exeter, NH, dozens of people stepped up to the microphone to tell EPA about contaminated drinking water in their communities. They described unexplained illnesses in their families, expressed frustration about inadequate government response, and shared their guilt and fear about their children’s exposures to toxics and the possible long-term effects. “Years before becoming pregnant, I was educating people on how to eliminate environmental toxics from their personal care products and food. That’s why this was so devastating,” said Alayna Davis, co-founder of a local community group called Testing for Pease. “I could not prevent this water from contaminating my son’s body.” 

This event was the first in a series of community listening sessions that EPA will host nationwide on a class of chemicals called PFASs, or per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances—toxic chemicals that, in recent years, have been detected in drinking water supplies across the country serving millions of Americans. A new federal report on PFAS health effects suggests that drinking water guidelines developed by EPA are not protective enough and should be lower. Scientists, environmental organizations, and community groups are urging the agency to take strong steps to address the problem. How the agency will respond is unclear at this point. What we do know, however, is that regardless of EPA action, the problem will not go away anytime soon unless we reduce our reliance on these chemicals and invest in safer alternatives.

A wake-up call

PFASs are ubiquitous. They’re used in stain-repellent furniture and carpets, waterproof clothing, nonstick cookware, and even some fast food packaging and dental floss. They can also end up in drinking water through waste released from chemical manufacturing sites as well as military bases and airports where PFAS-containing firefighting foams have been used. Due to their extreme persistence, these chemicals have been dubbed “forever chemicals.” PFASs are found in all of our bodies, and have been linked to cancers, developmental and reproductive toxicity, thyroid disease, immune system toxicity, and other effects.

In May, there was public outcry over efforts by the White House and EPA to delay the release of a federal health study on PFASs. The study was conducted by the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR), part of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). According to internal EPA emails obtained by the Union of Concerned Scientists, officials were looking to avoid a “public relations nightmare.” Advocacy groups circulated online petitions and launched social media campaigns, pressing the government to release the report. On June 20, after much anticipation and controversy, ATSDR finally released a draft of the study, which found health risks associated with exposure to PFASs at levels much lower than the threshold levels estimated by EPA.

Weighing the evidence

Weighing in at 852 pages, the report is a comprehensive review of dozens of published studies on the toxicity of PFASs in humans and laboratory animals. While there are at least 4,700 PFASs on the global market, the report looked at just 14 types—ones the CDC monitors in the general population. Of these, ATSDR found it only had enough information on four—PFOA, PFOS, PFHxS, and PFNA—to generate what are called minimal risk levels, or MRLs.

An MRL is essentially a measure of how much of a chemical a person can be exposed to each day without it causing health effects. MRLs encompass exposures from all sources, including drinking water, food, and consumer products. To calculate an MRL, scientists identify the lowest levels of exposure shown to cause harmful effects in humans or laboratory animals. They further reduce these levels by building in various safety factors to ensure that MRLs are protective for even the most vulnerable populations, such as pregnant women and children.

Safety in numbers

What got the attention of EPA officials earlier this year was that ATSDR’s new MRLs for PFOA and PFOS (the two most prevalent PFASs) are 6.7 and 10 times lower, respectively, than comparable values developed by EPA, which are known as reference doses (RfDs).

Although MRLs and RfDs are more or less the same thing, in this case, there were some differences in the way the two agencies generated their numbers. For PFOS, ATSDR and EPA both based their values on the same study that showed developmental effects in rats. However, in calculating its MRL, ATSDR lowered its value by a factor of 10 to account for additional studies showing effects on the immune system at low levels of exposure. In the case of PFOA, ATSDR and EPA relied on different studies altogether for their calculations.

What does this mean for our drinking water?

In May 2016, EPA issued a non-enforceable drinking water health advisory of 70 parts per trillion (ppt) for PFOA and PFOS, individually or combined. Dozens of public water supplies across the U.S. scrambled to meet this new advisory by shutting off polluted water sources and installing new treatment. For instance, on Cape Cod, where I have been studying unregulated drinking water contaminants including PFASs since 2010, the Hyannis Water System issued a temporary do-not-drink advisory to its customers. It has since spent millions of dollars to install large carbon filters to remove PFOS and PFOA from polluted wells.

The EPA develops its drinking water health advisories based on its RfDs, and includes assumptions about how much water people drink and how much of people’s exposure comes from other sources. Using the same methods and assumptions as EPA, when we translate ATSDR’s MRLs into drinking water guidelines, we get equivalent levels in drinking water of 7 ppt for PFOS and 11 ppt for PFOA—7 to 10 times lower than EPA’s. These values are also similar to those developed by New Jersey’s Drinking Water Quality Institute, which recommends limits of 13 ppt for PFOS and 14 ppt for PFOA.

What’s next?

The public comment period for ATSDR’s report ends on August 20, and anyone can submit comments online. Meanwhile, back in New Hampshire, officials from EPA’s Washington DC and Boston offices have pledged to take action on PFASs in drinking water. Following a federal PFAS summit in May, EPA identified four areas for future action, including developing enforceable drinking water standards and groundwater cleanup recommendations to speed up remediation at contaminated sites.

These are good first steps. EPA should also consider ATSDR’s recent report and additional evidence of health effects at low levels of exposure. For instance, a study led by Harvard researcher Philippe Grandjean concluded that drinking water guidelines for PFOS and PFOA should be closer to 1 ppt based on immune system effects in children. In addition, studies in laboratory animals have found that low levels of PFOA exposure can impair mammary gland development. This is concerning because research shows that altered mammary gland development may increase breast cancer susceptibility later in life.

While PFOS and PFOA have received the most attention, it’s important to remember that PFASs are a broad group of chemicals, each with its own unique structure but united in their persistence. Although manufacturers have moved away from PFOS and PFOA, new alternative PFASs have emerged to fill their place, and these too raise concerns about effects in the environment and in people. Efforts to limit PFASs as a class rather than one at a time, such as Washington State’s recent ban on PFASs in food packaging and firefighting foam, are an important step in the right direction. Residents of affected communities across the U.S. are demanding action, and EPA needs to follow up on its promises by taking strong steps to protect public health.

 

Dr. Laurel Schaider is a research scientist at Silent Spring Institute in Newton, Mass. Her current research focuses on PFASs in drinking water and consumer products, including fast food packaging, and on septic systems as sources of unregulated drinking water contaminants. She is a researcher on the Sources, Transport, Exposure and Effects of PFASs (STEEP) Superfund Research Program at the University of Rhode Island and is a technical advisor to ATSDR’s Community Assistance Panel at the Pease Tradeport, a site of PFAS drinking water contamination. Find her on Twitter @laurelschaider.

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.

Courtesy of STEEP, photo by A. Fox.

If You Smell Something, Say Something: Identifying Local Natural Gas Leaks

Photo: W.carter/Wikimedia Commons

Walking my dog around my neighborhood one day, I caught a whiff of something very clearly – gas. At first, I noted the smell but assumed it was a fleeting odor and chalked it up to urban living. But soon I realized there was nothing fleeting about it.  I take the same route each day, and it became clear that specific locations  persistently smelled strongly of gas. Internal alarm bells went off in my head as I calculated the amount of gas necessary to be detected outside, in open air, uncontained. I asked my neighbors and the local utility company about the leaks – surely, I was not the only one who had noticed the smell, which led to my next question, what was being done about it? I was surprised to find that my neighbors had actually been smelling the leaks and alerting the utility companies for years. YEARS. I was shocked, and I wanted to know more.

Boston is leaking gas, and we are not alone

Click to enlarge.

I quickly learned Massachusetts depends heavily on natural gas and unfortunately has very old (and thus leak-prone) gas infrastructure. Natural gas leaks are associated with a host of negative impacts to our health, our environment, and our wallets. Methane, the main chemical released in a natural gas leak, is toxic and has been known to aggravate asthma and other respiratory diseases. Leaks are damaging to local flora as methane displaces the oxygen in the soil, essentially suffocating plants and trees. Additionally, methane is a potent greenhouse gas (GHG), and the amount released from natural gas is affecting the climate at an alarming rate. Currently there is no law that requires utilities to pay for gas that is wasted and released into the atmosphere; instead companies build that cost into consumers’ bills. Most consumers are neither aware of the extent of the leaks nor that they are footing the bill. Through the UCS Science Network Mentor Program, I was connected with Dr. Nathan Phillips at Boston University who led a study in 2013 which quantified the location and concentration of leaks in Boston. This study identified more than 3,000 leaks, many of which had methane concentrations well above expected background levels. With miles and miles of aging infrastructure, this leaking problem is pervasive throughout the natural gas industry and is not unique to Boston.

 

Many small leaks = one big problem; many voices = one big solution 

Click to enlarge.

When combined, the thousands of natural gas leaks in Massachusetts account for a 10% increase in the state’s annual GHG footprint. Furthermore, just 7% of leaks are responsible for 50% of total methane emissions. Yet, methane from natural gas systems is not accounted for when tallying citywide GHG emissions in Boston’s climate action plan. As a citizen, it is easy for me to view a problem of this size as insurmountable, but as a scientist I know there is much to be gained from analyzing the data and sharing the results. For instance, the work outlined above prompted legislation requiring utilities to report the locations of leaks to the MA Department of Public Utilities. Subsequently, the nonprofit Home Energy Efficiency Team (HEET), took it upon themselves to map utility-reported gas leaks and make this information clear and available to the public. Making science accessible for people to use to improve their community is a fundamental step forward. So far I have accomplished this in my community by holding information sessions and sharing the locations of leaks in Roxbury. Scientists and experts can make valuable contributions to advancing solutions in many ways and it all starts by joining the conversation.

 

Sarah Salois (@Sarah_Salois) is a Ph.D. candidate in Ecology, Evolution and Marine Biology with a focus on theoretical ecology at the Marine Science Center of Northeastern University in Nahant MA. Her dissertation work focuses on the assembly and dynamics of ecological metacommunities. She is passionate about understanding the vulnerabilities of ecosystems to a changing climate and other anthropogenic pressures.

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.

Photo: W.carter/Wikimedia Commons

Trump’s EPA Puts Our Health at Risk

It’s common sense: the environment matters to our health.

Ask parents, teachers, nurses, and community leaders, and they get it. They know that air and water pollution, contaminated land, and chemical exposures in their homes, schools, workplaces, and communities can cause serious health effects – both acute and chronic. Families and communities across the country value a clean environment and rely on strong public standards, based in science, to give them the protection they need, expect, and deserve.

That’s why the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was created. It is a critical public health agency whose primary mission is to “protect human health and the environment.” Unfortunately, its track record over the last year-and-a-half has not been good. We have seen the agency sideline science and run in the opposite direction—delaying, weakening, and rolling back public health protections and ignoring the advice of its own scientific experts and advisors. Whether considering pesticides and toxic air emissions or the safety of chemical facilities, the EPA has been stepping back from its primary mission and putting public health at risk.

Now the agency plans to go one step further. It’s proposing a rule to ensure it doesn’t have to use the best available science to make public health and environmental decisions. Next week (July 17), EPA will hold its only public hearing on the proposed rule called “Strengthening Transparency in Regulatory Science.” That sounds like a good thing, but it is a deceptive title and a threat to our health. It turns out that this proposal is really an effort to allow EPA to restrict the science it uses for decision making.

In examining the relationship between public health and environmental pollution, EPA is proposing to eliminate consideration of scientific studies unless the raw study data are made publicly available — possibly including participants’ personal, confidential, and private information — data that may be subject to legal, ethical, and human subject research protections.

This requirement would eliminate human health studies that use integral medical, lifestyle, and geographic data, as well as studies that include confidential business information, such as information from studies conducted by industry to demonstrate safety of a pesticide or other toxic chemical. It could also eliminate consideration of older studies for which data are no longer available or accessible, even if the data have been reanalyzed and the studies have been validated, replicated, reproduced, and undergone rigorous and independent peer review.

Far from using the best available science for EPA decision-making, the proposal would severely limit the studies and scientific evidence the agency would use to fulfill is statutory mission to protect human health and the environment. This is not a new idea. It is the result of a decades-long campaign to undercut reliance on groundbreaking research that definitively linked exposure to fine particulate matter (PM) to premature death and prompted the first regulation of PM under the Clean Air Act. For example, Harvard University’s “Six Cities study has been anathema to lobbyists in regulated industries for a long time.

EPA provides no analysis of the need for or the potential impacts of the proposed rule. The agency did not consult with critical stakeholders, including scientists and health professionals in developing the proposal. It did not consult with the prestigious National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine or even its own hand-picked Scientific Advisory Board (SAB), whose members found out about the proposed rule via a press event, news articles, and an announcement in the Federal Register. In its June 28, 2018, letter to then EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, the SAB chair urged the agency to request, receive, and review scientific advice from SAB before revising the proposed rule.

Science organizations, scientists, public health, and medical professionals from across the country have urged the EPA to withdraw the proposed rule. The editors of major scientific journals issued a joint statement opposing and objecting to EPA’s claim that the rule is consistent with scientific community norms.

In its joint letter of June 1, 2018, the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists wrote that “The proposed rule would drastically and incorrectly limit the types of scientific data that EPA can use when making substantial regulatory changes. Implementing this rule will harm the health of children and pregnant women by causing EPA to disregard some of the best available scientific studies examining the effects on these vulnerable populations from lead, harmful chemicals, fine particle pollution, and contaminants.”

The American Public Health Association, Physicians for Social Responsibility, and a host of other public interest organizations jointly called on the agency to withdraw the rule, noting that it “significantly departs from long-standing policy at EPA and is inconsistent with well-established practices used throughout the scientific community.”

And in a May 8, 2018, letter, 300 public health scientists and professionals noted that “If finalized, the proposed rule could place unprecedented limits on the use of scientific evidence by EPA. These limits will in turn shape the development of evidence-based public health policies including air pollution standards, drinking water regulations, pesticide tolerances, worker protections, and more.”

As public health professionals with years of experience in academia, government, and the non-profit sector, we have witnessed political interference and shifting tides on core policy issues across both Democratic and Republican administrations. But EPA’s newly proposed restrictions on the body of scientific evidence it will consider in its regulatory decision making is a fundamental threat to public health, and it will seriously erode the agency’s ability and responsibility to protect it.

Make your voice heard by submitting comments on the proposed rule via Regulations.gov to docket EPA-HQ-2018-0259 by August 16, 2018. This proposal is a dangerous threat to your health.

This post originally appeared in Scientific American.  It was co-authored by Kathleen Rest, PhD, executive director of the Union of Concerned Scientists, and Georges C. Benjamin, MD, executive director of the American Public Health Association

Watching Wheeler: 9 Critical Actions the New EPA Chief Should Take

EPA Acting Administrator Andrew Wheeler. Photo: Alamy

The people’s Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has a new leader. Acting Administrator Andrew Wheeler took the helm of the agency on July 9 following the resignation of Scott Pruitt. And now Wheeler has the opportunity to move past his predecessor’s scandals and return the agency to its science-based mission of protecting human health and the environment.

Like many other Trump administration department and agency heads, Mr. Wheeler is there to implement President Trump’s anti-regulatory, industry-first agenda—and he has clearly indicated his intention to do so. Yet in his address last week to a whipsawed and often demoralized EPA staff, he also acknowledged the agency’s “collective goal of protecting public health and the environment on behalf of the American people.”

If Wheeler is truly sincere about returning the EPA to its core mission, here are nine critical actions he will need to take to achieve that goal.

1. Abandon efforts to restrict the agency from using the best available science to protect public health

Former Administrator Pruitt pushed forward a dangerous proposal that would effectively restrict the types of science that can be used in policymaking. Under this proposal to restrict science, the EPA would be unable to use a range of public health research that relies on personal medical records and other information that must be kept confidential to protect individual and patient privacy rights.

Developed by political appointees with no input from scientific organizations, the proposal is a key part of the administration’s real goal: weaken air pollution rules that protect the quality of the air we breathe.

There is not a single mainstream scientific organization that supports the proposalPublic health organizations and experts have expressed significant concern about it. Dozens of scientists and advocates testified against the proposal at a public hearing in Washington, D.C. on July 17.

If the new acting administrator is serious about listening to science and scientists and to protecting public health, he will immediately withdraw the proposal to restrict science at the EPA.

2. Halt rollbacks of vehicle standards and close the “glider” truck loophole

The evidence is clear. Efficiency and emissions standards for vehicles are working, across the country, to cut emissions that impact our health, while saving families money at the pump. But former Administrator Pruitt willfully ignored the evidence, disavowing years of work by his own agency, and declared his intention to roll back these standards and effectively end the progress we’ve made on delivering cleaner cars of every size.

The administration has not yet issued a new proposed rule, which gives Wheeler the opportunity to listen to the evidence and change course. A growing number of states support strong standards, and we have the technology to continue to improve efficiency and cut emissions in a cost-effective way. Wheeler should halt efforts to roll back these successful standards.

In addition, Scott Pruitt’s final action in office was to announce that the agency would not enforce pollution rules for “glider” trucks, which often use higher-polluting older engines. The EPA’s own research shows that closing the loophole that allowed glider trucks to use old engines would save 1,600 lives every year by cutting dangerous pollution. The choice is clear: Mr. Wheeler must keep enforcing rules that keep high-pollution “glider” trucks from endangering hundreds of lives every year.

3. Improve transparency

In his address to EPA staff last week, Wheeler vowed to be more transparent about his actions than his predecessor. But to greatly improve transparency at the agency, he will need to go beyond ditching Scott Pruitt’s soundproof booth, unlocking access to the administrator’s office area, and making his public calendar actually public (some of which is now online). It will mean allowing reporters full and unfettered access to EPA scientists; affirming the rights of scientists to communicate the science publicly without first asking for permission; and fully complying with Freedom of Information Act requests.

It also means fully detailing how the many political appointees with current or former financial ties to industries that the EPA regulates—including Wheeler himself—will recuse themselves from decisions that affect their former employers and clients.

4. Support the facts on climate change

Unlike his predecessor, Wheeler acknowledged the facts on climate change in a recent interview, saying that “I do believe climate change is real. I do believe that people have an impact on the climate.”

That is encouraging to hear. But Wheeler should show leadership by more clearly and frequently articulating the urgent need to cut carbon emissions to limit the harmful effects of climate change, as well as highlighting the key role his agency must play in that effort.

To address the growing threat of climate change, the EPA can and should set strong standards to cut heat-trapping emissions from the power sector, the transportation sector, and from industrial sources.  To support those efforts, it is also essential that Wheeler restores science to its rightful place at the EPA and removes all implicit or explicit barriers for staff working on issues related to climate change.

Last week, Wheeler noted the importance of communicating risks and related information to communities and the public, including the need to improve risk communication to lower income communities that are often most impacted by environmental threats. It is critical that his clearly articulated priority on risk communication also extends to the science, the risks, and the impacts of climate change to public health and the environment.  An easy first step would be restoring the web pages on climate change that were taken down or buried on the EPA website under his predecessor.

5. Stop efforts to weaken and delay the Clean Power Plan

Under Pruitt, the EPA began efforts to dismantle the Clean Power Plan—the nation’s first-ever standards to limit power plant carbon emissions—and replace it with a substantially weaker standard.  

It makes no sense to turn back the clock on the nation’s transition to clean energy, especially when the nation is facing worsening climate impacts—including flooding, heat waves, and wildfires—and the renewable energy industry is providing one of the fastest-growing sources of employment. What’s more, cutting carbon emissions from power plants will also decrease air and water pollution, which will bring significant public health benefits to communities around the country. 

Mr. Wheeler must know that, despite the administration’s claims, undoing the Clean Power Plan will not bring back coal. Indeed, a recent analysis shows that many operating coal units in the country are increasingly uneconomic relative to cleaner generation sources. If the administration truly cared about coal miners and coal communities, it would work with Congress to pass legislation to help with transition assistance, worker training, and the creation of new economic opportunities in these communities. 

Wheeler knows that the EPA is legally bound to act to limit carbon emissions under the Clean Air Act because they are a threat to public health. Rather than looking for ways to limit EPA’s role in addressing climate change, as he has indicated in recent interviews, he needs to make good on the agency’s legal obligations and deliver a strong power plant carbon standard without delay.  

6. Acknowledge and account for the health benefits of improved air and water quality

The EPA recently issued an Advanced Notice of Proposed Rulemaking signaling its plan to substantially change the way the agency accounts for the benefits of pollution standards that improve public health.

The proposed rule would essentially use a deceptive approach that reduces or eliminates the way these substantial health benefits are accounted for in formulating new policies. And then use that as a back-door way to weaken rules that protect air and water quality. For example, the EPA’s 2017 proposal to repeal the Clean Power Plan used this type of crooked math to artificially lower the benefits of the pollution reductions that the standard would have brought. In particular, the EPA failed to account for the fact that actions to cut carbon emissions also pay large dividends by reducing other forms of harmful pollution like soot and smog.

If implemented, this proposed rule would have far-reaching consequences for the public’s health and well-being. Wheeler should halt this blatant attempt to fudge the numbers at the expense of the public’s health.

7. Require chemical companies to tell communities and first responders about the potential risks they face

 In early 2017, the EPA finalized changes to the Risk Management Program that would have provided the public and our nation’s first responders with more information about hazardous chemicals at industrial facilities in their neighborhoods. Beyond supporting and advancing the agency’s community-right-to-know responsibilities, providing this information is just plain common sense for planning and preparing.

Under Pruitt, the EPA delayed implementation of these changes and then proposed a new rule that would roll back these improvements. In his speech to agency staff, Wheeler said that he wanted to improve risk communication, especially for low-income communities and communities of color. Reversing course on this rollback will demonstrate his sincerity, his leadership, and his willingness to put public health and safety ahead of chemical industry pushback.

8. Work with independent stakeholders

To ensure the EPA is upholding its fundamental mission to protect human health and the environment, the agency must be informed by the best available science and ensure that the well-being of communities affected by pollution are prioritized.

Wheeler’s predecessor, however, focused almost exclusively on engaging with business interests. He failed to engage with other stakeholders, including scientists and affected communities. Regulated industries are important stakeholders as well, but is it in the best interests of public health and the health of our economy for the EPA’s decisions to be informed almost exclusively by this narrow perspective? I don’t think so.

To ensure a broader airing of perspectives, issues, and concerns, Wheeler should commit to engaging with a wider set of stakeholders. This includes scientists with relevant expertise, environmental justice and other community groups, and public health professionals. Wheeler must elevate the mission of the agency above the interests of the regulated of industry groups. It also means rescinding a ban on science advice from the very scientists whose work the EPA has found most promising.

Wheeler must also provide adequate opportunities for public hearings and comments—and clearly demonstrate his commitment to serving the American public first and foremost.

9. Fight to protect and increase the budget of the EPA so it has the resources needed to do its job

President Trump and former Administrator Pruitt repeatedly proposed sweeping budget cuts to the EPA, threatening the ability of the agency to carry out its mission. In 2017, President Trump and then-Administrator Pruitt proposed cutting the spending by nearly a third, which would have taken the agency to the lowest level in 40 years. The administration followed up in 2018 with proposed budget cuts of over 25%.

These proposed cuts—which Congress ultimately rejected—would have had severe implications for the health and safety of the American public. As just one example, as I’ve written about before, such budget cuts would have gutted EPA clean air programs that allow EPA staff to monitor air quality levels, estimate population exposure to air pollutants, and provide tools and guidance to states that help ensure that Americans can breathe clean air.

The EPA needs a leader who sees the critical value of the work and the staff of the agency and will fight to protect—and actually increase—its budget so that the agency can carry out its mission and protect the health and safety of the American public. It makes no sense to hobble the agency’s ability to deal with current threats, let alone anticipate and plan for the future risks which are sure to come.

Waiting…and watching

Over the coming weeks and months, we will be watching how Wheeler lives into his new role. Will he take the steps needed to put human health and the environment first and foremost in agency policy and decision-making? Will he stand up and ensure that the agency is guided by independent, unconflicted science in what it does and what it says? Will he restore agency morale—and integrity, trust, and credibility in the eyes of the public he is duty-bound to protect?

While the Trump administration’s track record gives us ample reason to be skeptical, Wheeler now has the opportunity to put duty to the public and to the country first.

There will be ample opportunities to encourage and insist that he do so in the months ahead. And we will be there with you to hold him accountable for his actions.

Science Citizenship: Making Science Actionable

Photo: InTeGrate, Science Education Resource Center at Carleton College

I decided to pursue a career in science in part because my high school chemistry teacher believed in me and sent me on a glacier expedition. My research as a Masters and PhD candidate brought me to remote corners of the earth, exploring glaciers at all latitudes. At otherworldly sites, I sampled the chemistry of snow and glacier melt. Most of my work was based in Antarctica’s McMurdo Dry Valleys, earth’s analogue to Mars. It was just 100 years after the first explorers set foot on these lands and numerous programs funded scientific research in extreme ecosystems, such as the McMurdo Long Term Ecological Research Program, which enabled scientists to study and understand trends through time.

During my 2006 field season, a helicopter of twelve national political leaders descended on our camp to learn about polar science. I spent ten minutes talking to Senator John McCain, who had recently tried to pass legislation on global warming with Senator Joe Lieberman. After the policymakers flew off, I returned to the field, energized by science and optimistic that climate policy was on its way.

Connecting students to local issues

InTeGrate, Science Education Resource Center at Carleton College

In 2011, I began my career at Wittenberg University in Springfield, Ohio. In Springfield, one in four elementary school children needs food assistance. Water quality is threatened by combined sewage overflow, which is amplified by aging infrastructure and climate inaction. While there were nominal resources to address these issues, the community response and rallying around this issue highlighted to me how important social capital is to problem-solving. Access to food and water for Springfield residents was at stake.

My experiences in Springfield and dismay at the lack of national climate policy impressed upon me that my students needed to learn about more than how earth and environmental systems work; they needed to know how their work connected to community and political decisions. Millennials are the largest block of voting aged citizens, but are the least likely to vote. They are inundated by partisan media but are able to quickly search for information for everyday decision making. As a whole, our recent graduates have discussed the big issues we face as a society, but have not reflected on how those issues manifest in their communities. Helping students see and realize their personal and local power is central to justice.

Each of my classes focuses on addressing major justice issues in our community. I see my introductory courses as science citizenship classes where students gain skills in evaluating the science they read and gain insight into the perspectives involved in local issue decision making. Our program features partnerships and working on community solutions-centered projects. Students evaluate carbon sequestration opportunities in vacant lots, soil health improvement strategies in places suffering from housing blight and soil lead contamination, and water quality solutions. Key to this work is having students reflect on their individual roles and what they have learned from community perspectives that informs next action steps.

Small changes in curricula can have a big impact

InTeGrate, Science Education Resource Center at Carleton College

During my sabbatical I’ve reflected deeply, reviewed resources on teaching to support democracy, and created and compiled teaching resources that help science faculty interested in designing their courses and activities to support democracy. These include design prompts for identifying civic activities that fit the current roles and interests of faculty and resources to design courses around local issues and build student civic agency, or consider how you, as an invited speaker or host of a seminar series might help students think about their future roles as scientists or constituents.

Are you helping your students understand how to form a science supported-opinion? Are you teaching your students how to evaluate and communicate using science? Are you showing them the complexity of scientific problem-solving and the views incorporated or missed in political decision-making? Some teaching activities that help build these skills appear here. While some of the specific examples relate to teaching geology and environmental science, these strategies apply to any science faculty interested in making connections between their discipline and positive societal transformation.

I encourage other faculty to join me in building science literacy, agency, and designing curriculum to support informed, equitable, and just decisions. If you are just getting started, start by making one change, such as including an example of local or student-relevant science in your class, or including an op-ed writing or social media assignment. If you want to learn more about your community, consider inviting local experts as guest speakers, or exploring locally-relevant data. This may be especially important in small towns that sometimes lack fact sheets on climate change, water, or other resource trends. Finally, you might directly show your students how to take action by hosting a science literacy or advocacy event in your class through campus programming. Faculty play an important role in making science actionable.

 

Sarah Fortner, Ph.D., (@erthsarah) serves as the Geological Society of America Scholar in Residence for the American Geosciences Institute. She is an Associate Professor of Geology and Environmental Science at Wittenberg University. Both programs are recognized for civic excellence by the Association of American Colleges & Universities.

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.

The Endangered Species Act is Itself Endangered

The endangered margay. Photo: Proyecto Asis/Flickr

In the last two weeks, both the Senate and House have introduced bills proposing damaging amendments to the Endangered Species Act (ESA), the leading piece of science-based legislation used to protect and recover biodiversity in the United States. Notably, Senator John Barrasso, chairman of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works (EPW) and long-time critic of the Act, released a discussion draft of the bill he’s been working on entitled, “the Endangered Species Act Amendments of 2018.” The changes to the Act would introduce more routes for political interference under the guise of increased transparency, while relegating science to an afterthought instead of the basis upon which Endangered Species Act decisions are made. An EPW hearing is scheduled for tomorrow morning, where representatives from Wyoming, Colorado, and Virginia will testify before the committee on the proposed changes to the Act.

Here are some of the most concerning pieces of the misguided Barrasso proposal and what you need to know:

Section 109: State feedback regarding United States Fish and Wildlife Service employees

This section requires State agencies working with the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) on species conservation, management, and recovery or other interactions relating to implementation of the ESA, to provide annual performance feedback to the FWS Director regarding the responsiveness and effectiveness of the individual FWS employee(s) to state and local authorities and various other stakeholders.  This is nothing more than an intimidation tactic that could lead to scientists either being punished for saying things others don’t want to hear, or self-censoring for fear of putting their jobs in jeopardy. It opens the possibility for states hostile to conservation work to give negative feedback unfairly, or to simply bring allegations against employees to undermine their work, with no mechanism to refute or respond on behalf of the federal public servants. Ultimately, this limits the ability of FWS scientists to independently assess the science and make evidence-based recommendations to protect imperiled species, therefore rendering the Endangered Species Act less effective.

Section 301: Policy relating to best scientific and commercial data available

This section gives a green light to the politicization of the science-based determination of whether a species needs protections. It establishes a policy where the Secretary of the Interior, not a scientific expert, could assign greater weight to some data. The goal of this section is to automatically give State, Tribal, and local information greater weight regardless of its scope or quality.  Of course, such data is currently considered, but it should not be given undue consideration. In the event the Secretary finds the State, Tribal, or local data inconsistent with the “best scientific and commercial data available”, he or she will be required to provide a written explanation to the State, Tribal, or local government as well as Congress, and include it in the administrative record. This could discourage the agency from saying that the information is weak because of the political cost of doing so.

Section 302: Transparency of information

In an effort to slow the species listing process, this section would require all raw data be released on the listing. Furthermore, any state or local information used for listing decisions must be approved by said state or local government before publishing.  Again, this would lead to FWS or the states censoring the scientific information used to determine if a species needs protections.  And it would increase the procedural requirements for assembling the scientific information, slowing the process.

This section is a deliberate misinterpretation of the process we have now and will succeed only in making the Endangered Species Act process more difficult. It has been drafted under the false premise that FWS does not already heavily involve or communicate with all stakeholders, including state, local, and tribal governments.  And it implies with no justification that the federal agencies are “hiding something,” which further politicizes the process.

The Endangered Species Act has prevented 99% of species listed under the law from going extinct. The decisions on whether species need protection are based solely on the best available science. Giving greater authority to states that often lack the resources, political will, and national perspective to protect species is, to put it simply, a bad idea. Statutes like the Endangered Species Act are in place to set a national commitment, in this case for saving endangered or threatened wildlife from extinction by focusing first on science. But the changes proposed by Senator Barrasso would politicize the process and add undue procedural burdens, putting wildlife at risk for short-term political gains.

As both the House and Senate try to rush through changes to the Endangered Species Act, call your member of Congress to tell them that a law meant to protect our precious wildlife resources and habitats should not be politicized.  These endangered species and all of our natural resources depend upon stopping species extinctions.

Photo: Proyecto Asis

The EPA Should Not Restrict The Science They Use To Protect Us

EPA office building with agency flag

On Tuesday morning, the Environmental Protection Agency is holding their only hearing on their proposed rule that would restrict the science that the agency is allowed to consider in developing health and safety protections. My colleagues and I have written extensively about this proposal. On Tuesday, I will have the opportunity to speak directly to the agency about this proposal. I will have five minutes. Here is what I intend to say:

“Good morning. I am Dr. Andrew Rosenberg, Director of the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists. We advocate for the role of science in public policy. I am here today to ask that you rescind this proposed rule because it would only restrict EPA’s ability to use the best available science to fulfill its mission of protecting public health and the environment, while doing nothing to improve transparency in decision-making.

First and foremost, this proposal is fatally flawed because it provides almost no justification or analysis of the impacts of the proposed change in policy. There is no cost benefit analysis of the rule with respect to the agency and external researchers, nor how it would affect EPA’s mission-critical work. Additionally, the proposal would effectively prevent the EPA from using many kinds of scientific studies vital to its decision-making. This includes, but is not limited to, studies that rely on personal health data, confidential business information, intellectual property, or older studies where the authors or data sources may not be accessible. Without the ability to use this scientific information, EPA would be unable to meet its mission and statutory obligations. This proposal would make it significantly harder for EPA to use the best available science to protect the public, including from:

  • Harmful emissions of hazardous air pollutants, particulate matter and ozone
  • Exposure to dangerous chemicals in commerce
  • Drinking water contaminated with toxic chemicals such as PFAS or lead

Further, CBO has calculated that such restrictions would substantially increase costs and burdens to an agency that is already experiencing budget cuts, reorganizations, and understaffing, thus undermining the ability of EPA to make decisions based on science.

The proposed rule could also prevent the agency from addressing the impacts of dangerous chemicals at low concentrations where direct measurements are very difficult. This would have the effect of leaving Americans unprotected even when there was clear indication of harms to human health.

I have over 30 years of experience in government service, academia, and non-profit leadership. I have authored or reviewed 100s of peer reviewed scientific papers. As part of my government service, I worked as a scientist and in a policy position at a regulatory agency. In universities as a faculty member and dean. I understand how agencies use science in policymaking, how research at universities is conducted, and how these entities incorporate best practices of transparency into their scientific work. As a frequent peer reviewer I do not review the raw data for studies, since that would tell me little. I review the research questions, the methods, the summarized data, the results and conclusions in order to assess the quality of the work. EPA’s proposed rule would do nothing to improve transparency for scientists, policy-makers or the public. Crafting the rule without consulting with the scientific community is a fatal error for this proposal. Even the agency’s own Science Advisory Board has noted the need to consult with scientists in any further development of this proposal.

A further fatal flaw is that the proposed rule would replace scientific evidence with political judgement. The rule would grant the EPA administrator broad authority to exclude individual studies or entire decisions from being subject to its provisions. Decisions on what science to rely on should be made by the agency’s scientific experts based on established criteria for best available science.

Five minutes is not enough time to cover all of the problems with this proposal. At best, this proposed rule is a misguided attempt at transparency. At worst, it is a backdoor attempt to prevent EPA from protecting public health.

UCS supports real transparency reforms. We support scientific integrity policies that prevent political interference in scientific analyses and reporting. We do not believe researchers should be put in the absurd position of choosing between protecting study participant privacy or informing the EPA ‘s efforts to protect public health and safety.

On behalf of the Union of Concerned Scientists and our 500,000 supporters I urge the EPA not to move forward with this rulemaking and to continue to allow the agency’s scientists and policy analysts to use the best science available to inform their work.”

Intimidation, Disinformation, the Formula Industry and the Next Dietary Guidelines

Photo: Bradley Gordon/Flickr

It’s nearly time for the federal government to update its Dietary Guidelines for the public, and this time around the recommendations will include legally mandated dietary guidance for pregnant women, infants, and toddlers (from birth to age 24 months). With that in mind, my colleagues and I were troubled to read of a dust-up over infant formula that occurred at the World Health Organization this past spring.

According to attendees of the World Health Assembly in Geneva, the United States advocated for industry positions as it negotiated a draft resolution on infant and young child feeding, threatening countries with trade retaliation if they introduced the resolution as written. This led to Ecuador who had originally drafted the resolution to pull out from introducing it. Fortunately, Russia stepped in to reintroduce it and member countries worked together to ensure the passage of a version with strong language in support of breastfeeding over breast milk substitute therein, however the final version was missing some important provisions, including one that would give member countries the ability to ask the WHO director general for support in “implementation, mobilization of financial resources, monitoring and assessment” and legal and regulatory enforcement of the code and those countries seeking to halt “inappropriate promotion of foods for infants and children.”

This type of inappropriate interference from the infant formula industry and the willingness of the US to aggressively push for its positions by employing threats of trade restrictions does not bode well for the what lies ahead for the Dietary Guidelines, the process for which kicked off this year. Like with all science-based processes in federal policymaking, there is an opportunity for undue influence to occur to obscure the facts in order to achieve outcomes that maintain the status quo. And undue industry influence is not a stranger to this process. For example, in the 2015 guidelines, the final recommendations failed to incorporate all of the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee’s  (DGAC’s) evidence-based recommendations that food system sustainability be incorporated into the guidelines, after the big food industry players, most notably the meat industry, opposed the scientific conclusion. Already, the Infant Nutrition Council of America has been actively engaged in the start of the Dietary Guidelines 2020 process, and has lobbied the USDA and HHS on the issue this year. While it makes sense that they’re weighing in on this process, there is no room for inappropriate influence and false characterization of the science.

The formula industry’s long, sordid history spreading misinformation

Three companies dominate the infant formula market: Nestle, Abbott Laboratories, and Mead Johnson. They are members of the Infant Nutrition Council of America, the trade association representing the infant formula industry. There’s a long history of the infant formula and baby food manufacturers pushing back against science-based policies that would limit their ability to make health claims on or sell their products to limited demographics. As a result, we’ve seen delays to evidence-based added sugar labels, missed opportunities to tighten the language on health claims in children’s foods, and even the language in government breastfeeding campaigns toned down.

The infant formula industry used this same disinformation playbook tactic as in the recent WHO proceedings decades ago. In 1977, there was a massive boycott of major formula maker Nestle that urged participants not to buy Nestle products until the company stopped misleading advertising that favored bottle-feeding over breastfeeding. The company then ardently fought against a WHO/UNICEF Code of Marketing of Breast-Milk Substitutes which, once passed in 1981, prevented formula companies from targeting mothers and health care providers with promotions and health claims on packaging. When it passed, 118 countries voted to approve. The United States was absent from that list of countries, presumably because of industry sway.

Breaking down the science on breastfeeding

Leading scientific authorities on maternal and children’s health at The American Academy of Pediatrics, The American Public Health Association, and the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists all promote exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months of life as the preferred method of infant feeding due to the health benefits for both mother and child. The literature on breastfeeding has revealed its association with a variety of beneficial health outcomes including decreased risk of asthma, obesity, type 1 and 2 diabetes, sudden infant death syndrome, and respiratory tract infections for the infant and decreased risk of type 2 diabetes and breast and ovarian cancers for the mother. Not only is it healthful, but it is cost-effective. A 2013 Lancet series on maternal and child nutrition estimates that universal breastfeeding would prevent the deaths of over 800,000 children and 20,000 mothers, saving $300 billion globally each year. According to researchers at Harvard Medical School, in the United States alone, if 90% of families breastfed exclusively for 6 months, it would save $13 billion per year in healthcare costs and prevent 911 deaths.

It’s imperative that moms are supported in breastfeeding as an option, some moms are unable to for a variety of reasons and formula is the best alternative. Having breast milk substitutes as alternatives is crucial, but spreading misleading information about the benefits of formula over breastfeeding and marketing accordingly to certain demographic groups is completely irresponsible.

Despite what President Trump and others might argue about the need for infant formula for poor women in developing countries, the data has shown that it may actually be more feasible for women to produce healthy breast milk than to have access to clean water to mix with powdered infant formula to feed their infants. A 2018 National Bureau of Economic Research study found that the availability of formula actually increased infant mortality by 9.4 per 1,000 births and estimated that, as a result, 66,000 infants died in low- and middle-income countries just in 1981.

The 2020 Dietary Guidelines must preserve scientific integrity

UCS submitted comments to HHS and USDA in April on the Dietary Guidelines process urging the agencies to “maintain a high degree of integrity, autonomy, and transparency to ensure that the guidelines represent the best available science and avoid any bias that could work against the interests of public health.” In other words, the US government cannot allow the makers of infant formula to pressure them into weaker dietary guidelines that go against the best available science. Ultimately, we need access to accurate information so that we can make dietary decisions that help us achieve optimal health through nutrition, and we are counting on our government to rely on evidence, not industry talking points on matters of our children’s health. We will continue to monitor this process as the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee is formed in the coming months to ensure that scientific integrity at the agencies is upheld.

 

Photo: Bradley Gordon

Monsanto Drags IARC Into the Depths of Its Disinformation Campaign on Glyphosate

Photo: Kennydu69/CC BY-SA 3.0 (Wikimedia)

Industry lobbyists have learned that a tried and true way to delay or block unwanted policy proposals is to attack the science supporting those policies and the integrity of the institutions that have conducted the science. We’ve seen this time and time again as plays in the disinformation playbook.

Language from the House of Representatives’ draft HHS fiscal year 2019 appropriations bill.

One of these examples is continuing to play out right now. Monsanto and the American Chemistry Council have launched a full-throttle attack on the international scientific body, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), after it issued a review of the scientific literature in 2015 that concluded that the herbicide, glyphosate, is a probable carcinogen. The latest development in this years-long effort? A rider on the House version of the HHS appropriations bill that would prevent the National Institutes of Health from lending any financial support to IARC unless it agrees to push for reforms at IARC that have been called for by Lamar Smith and the House Science Committee at the bequest of the chemical industry.

So why all the fuss about IARC and its glyphosate review?

IARC is an arm of the World Health Organization and funded by 24 governments, and predominantly by the NIH National Cancer Institute. It has been reviewing the evidence on potentially carcinogenic agents for over four decades and has been continually improving its process to maintain rigor, objectivity, and transparency.

Enter glyphosate. Glyphosate is the active ingredient in Monsanto’s best-selling weedkiller, Roundup, and is used on the majority of commodity crops in the United States because it is effective at controlling a variety of weed types. Any change in the safety determination of this chemical would shake up the messaging that the company has used for years. Monsanto got to work quickly using several plays in the disinformation playbook to control the science and the narrative.

Monsanto’s campaign to tarnish IARC’s credibility

IARC’s monograph volume 112 evaluated glyphosate and four other herbicides by reviewing the published, peer-reviewed scientific literature available and classifying it as a “probable carcinogen.” It was published in March 2015.  A complex campaign to challenge the IARC study and IARC itself had also begun from Monsanto even before the monograph came out since they were tipped off by a former EPA employee on the document’s conclusions months beforehand. Documents released in 2017 revealed that as a part of their plan, they would “get someone like Jerry Rice (ex-IARC) to publish paper on IARC: how it was formed, how it works, hasn’t evolved over time, they are archaic and not needed now.” They would try to form “crop protection advisory groups,” conduct scientific papers on animal carcinogenicity for which “majority of writing can be done by Monsanto” to keep costs down. Monsanto even ghostwrote at least one opinion piece about IARC that was published in Forbes.

In early 2017, the American Chemistry Council (of which Monsanto is a member) started an organization called the Campaign for Accuracy in Public Health Research aimed at setting the record straight on cancer determinations for certain items, including glyphosate, red meat, and cell phones by promoting “credible, unbiased, and transparent science as the basis for public policy decisions.” On its website, there are several pieces that attack IARC’s process. This appeared to be almost directly a response to the IARC’s 2015 classification as glyphosate as a probable carcinogen.

Not only was an assault launched on the institution, but the scientists at the helm of IARC and those who composed the glyphosate workgroup have been harassed and their integrity challenged. The conservative advocacy group and known FOIA abusers, Energy and Environment Legal Institute (E and E Legal) filed a series of open record requests to IARC panelists asking for deliberative documents about the glyphosate monograph, to which IARC has told scientists not to release the documents because IARC is the owner of those materials, seeking to defend panelists’ right to debate evidence openly and critically which does not need to be subject to public scrutiny.

The House of Representatives Science Committee, led by the fossil fuel and chemical industry’s favorite champion Lamar Smith, has sent multiple letters to IARC Director, Christopher Wild, questioning the integrity of glyphosate workgroup to which he has responded (in November 2017 and January 2018) and defended both the participating scientists and the institution and its process as upholding the “highest principles of transparency, independence, and scientific integrity.”

This whole campaign is eerily similar to the Sugar Association’s effort to derail a World Health Organization (WHO) report that recommended a 10 percent limit on calorie intake from added sugars back in 2003. The report, produced by the WHO and the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) in consultation with 30 health experts, reviewed the scientific literature and concluded that added sugars “threaten the nutritional quality of diets” and that limiting sugar intake would be “likely to contribute to reducing the risk of unhealthy weight gain.” In a letter to the WHO, the president and chief executive officer (CEO) of the Sugar Association demanded that the report be removed from WHO websites, arguing that “taxpayer dollars should not be used to support misguided, non-science-based reports.” The letter also threatened the suspension of U.S. funding to the WHO, warning, “We will exercise every avenue available to expose the dubious nature of [the report] including asking Congressional appropriators to challenge future funding” to the WHO. In addition to attacking the WHO directly, the Sugar Association, along with six other industry trade associations wrote a letter to the secretary of HHS Tommy Thompson asking for his “personal intervention” in removing the WHO/FAO report from the WHO website and challenging the report’s recommended sugar intake limit. Unfortunately, this effort was effective in limiting the report’s influence on health policy. The World Health Assembly—the WHO’s decisionmaking body and the world’s highest health-policy-setting entity—issued a global health strategy on diet and health the following year, and the strategy contained no reference to the comprehensive WHO/FAO report.

IARC must be protected

We need more independent bodies conducting scientific reviews of the chemicals that we are exposed to on a daily basis, not fewer. And we certainly need to hang on to the institutions that currently provide us with this much-needed service. Over one hundred scientists and health professionals from US and international institutions published a paper in 2015 evaluating IARC’s role over the course of the past 40 years, outlining its role in identifying carcinogenic substances and informing important public health policy decisions.  They push back against recent criticisms, writing, “We are concerned…that the criticisms expressed by a vocal minority regarding the evaluations of a few agents may promote the denigration of a process that has served the public and public health well for many decades for reasons that are not supported by data.” They further write, “disagreement with the conclusions in an IARC Monograph for an individual agent is not evidence for a failed or biased approach.” Indeed, Monsanto doesn’t have grounds to question the integrity of an entire institution just because its findings are inconvenient.

This most recent attempt to use the appropriations process to cut funding to this scientific body is a glaring example of the way in which the disinformation playbook is employed in sometimes more subtle ways that can have dramatic impacts. Funding of our agencies should not be bogged down by ideological and political riders that can have dramatic impacts on science-based policymaking and the future of international science institutions. The language requiring NIH to restrict IARC funding if certain terms aren’t met should be stripped from the HHS funding bill and IARC should continue to receive US funding to help support all of its important work reviewing the cancer risk of environmental contaminants to inform safety thresholds across the globe.

President Trump’s Supreme Court Pick: What’s at Stake for Science and the Environment?

Photo: Lorie Shaull/Wikimedia Commons

Battle lines over President Trump’s nominee for a new US Supreme Court justice are now being drawn, as they should be, over crucial issues such as a woman’s right to choose, health care, immigration, civil rights, and criminal justice. In past nomination fights, little attention has been paid to the court’s role in shaping environmental law and science-based regulation. But it would be a major mistake to overlook these issues now. The Supreme Court has an enormous impact on how US environmental laws are interpreted and enforced, and a new justice could tip the balance against science-based rules on climate change, clean air, and clean water.

This threat is especially potent now because the current court is composed of four conservative and four liberal justices who typically vote in their respective blocks, with retiring Justice Anthony Kennedy in the middle. Mr. Trump’s nominee is highly likely to align with the conservative block, and therefore to create a five-justice majority to take the court in a sharply rightward direction for decades to come. To get a sense of how much hangs in the balance for the environment, consider three cases decided in the past decade on 5-4 (or 5-3) votes in which Justice Kennedy sided with the majority.

EPA’s duty to address global warming

In 2007, the US Supreme Court issued a decision in Massachusetts v. EPA that many consider the most important environmental decision in its history. The court ruled that the term “pollutant” in the Clean Air Act included the heat-trapping gases that cause global warming. This ruling, which sounds obvious now, was momentous then; it required EPA to make a determination about whether these heat trapping gases threatened health and the environment, and if so, to regulate them under the Clean Air Act. The ruling was the legal foundation for the bulk of the climate action plan issued by President Obama in 2013, and the key regulations to implement that plan (limits on carbon dioxide from power plants, controls on methane leaks from oil and gas operations, and EPA fuel economy standards for cars and trucks). The ruling enabled President Obama to offer an ambitious US emissions reduction pledge to the world which, in turn, made possible the Paris climate agreement.

This case was decided on a 5-4 vote, with Justice Kennedy joining four liberal justices. Justice Kennedy’s “swing vote” was therefore a lynchpin to the federal government’s necessary push to address climate change.

Three of the four the dissenters to that ruling (Roberts, Alito and Thomas) are still on the court, and the fourth dissenter (Scalia) has been replaced by the like-minded Neil Gorsuch. If President Trump picks a Supreme Court nominee aligned with the four dissenters, as seems highly likely, that decision—and with it EPA’s authority to address climate change—stands at risk, either of being overruled directly, or chipped away at via subsequent court decisions. In other words, a newly constituted court could damage the federal government’s fledgling efforts to address climate change at least as seriously as the EPA under Scott Pruitt tried to do—and that is saying a lot.

The role of science in water protection

In the key 2006 Supreme Court case Rapanos v. United States, a landowner was sued by the federal government for filling a wetland, but contended that the government did not have jurisdiction over his land under the Clean Water Act. The case raised a recurring question—does the Clean Water Act apply only to standing bodies of water such as rivers, perennial streams, ponds and lakes, or does it also protect upstream wetlands and intermittent tributaries? The court’s decision was complex and confusing, as four conservative justices opted for a restrictive test for federal jurisdiction and four liberal justice supported a more expansive test. Justice Kennedy issued a concurring opinion that eschewed the jurisdiction line that the four conservative justices promoted, noting that wetlands and intermittent tributaries can have significant effect on downstream water bodies. His opinion was a paean to good science; he reasoned that to exclude these lands would conflict with the overall purpose of the Clean Water Act. As he wrote:

Important public interests are served by the Clean Water Act in general and by the protection of wetlands in particular. To give just one example…nutrient-rich runoff from the Mississippi River has created a hypoxic, or oxygen-depleted, “dead zone” in the Gulf of Mexico that at times approaches the size of Massachusetts and New Jersey [and] scientific evidence indicates that wetlands play a critical role in controlling and filtering runoff.

In Justice Kennedy’s view, upstream wetlands and tributaries could be regulated, if they had a “significant nexus” to the downstream waters. Ultimately, science, and not arbitrary lines, would determine the issue of jurisdiction.

Unfortunately, the question of federal jurisdiction has not been settled. The Obama administration issued a rule that tried to clarify the question, but that rule was put on hold by the courts and is slated for repeal. So, more litigation is likely, possibly before the Supreme Court, and the question is this: Will a replacement justice demonstrate the same respect for science when considering the issue? If not, we could be left with a highly restrictive interpretation of the Clean Water Act that does not do justice to the complex science involved and fails to ensure clean water.

Drawing the line on governmental compensation for environmental regulations

The constitution provides that government may not take private property unless there is a lawful purpose and the government pays compensation to the landowner. The provision was put place to prevent physical seizures of property, but it has long been understood that sometimes a government regulation can be deemed a “taking” if it “goes too far” by leaving the landowner with no viable use of the property.

This was the issue in the Supreme Court tackled in the 2017 case Murr v. Wisconsin. In the case, a landowner who owned two adjacent riverfront lots claimed that environmental restrictions prevented him from developing the lots and wanted the government to compensate him for “taking” one of the lots even though the landowner could combine the two undersized lots into one larger, buildable one.

In that case, the court decided that it did not need to treat the two lots as separate, but instead would look at the value of the property with the lots combined. The court then ruled that the state had not “taken” the landowner’s property, because the owner still had viable use of it by combining the two lots.

Here again, the court split in a 5-3 decision, with Justices Alito, Thomas and Roberts dissenting, and Gorsuch not participating (presumably because he joined the court too late to do so). The case is important because, for those who favor radical deregulation, the takings clause could be a potent weapon when applied expansively. As the former Supreme Court justice Oliver Wendell Holmes once said: “Government hardly could go on if, to some extent, values incident to property could not be diminished without paying for every such change in the general law.”

What’s next?

These three cases illustrate the importance of the Supreme Court in environmental law, the court’s deep division on ideological grounds, and the key role Justice Kennedy’s independent vote has played. A new conservative justice is highly likely to tip this very delicate balance in ways that threaten continued progress on climate, clean air, and clean water. In addition to undermining the fragile decisions in the case above, the court will likely rule on many new cases of major environmental import. In the next term, for example, the court will take up the authority of the Fish and Wildlife service to designate “critical habitat” areas on private land to protect endangered species. Further down the road, if the Trump administration follows through on its threat to try to take away the right of California and other states to establish their own global warming emissions standards for cars and trucks, no doubt the court will be asked to weigh in on this crucial question.

Given how much is at stake, the public debate over the next nominee needs to include these issues. Just as nominees should be thoroughly questioned on a woman’s right to choose and civil rights issues, the nominee’s record on matters of science and environmental regulation deserves careful scrutiny. Senators should be prepared to ask probing questions, such as whether the nominee considers Mass. v. EPA to be “settled law” and therefore disfavored from being overruled under the doctrine of stare decisis. More generally, a robust discussion about whether the nominee accepts the scientific consensus on climate science, and whether and how a judge should consider scientific evidence in statutory interpretation, is needed. If this scrutiny reveals the nominee to be hostile to science-based regulation, this should establish a bright line which senators should refuse to cross.

 

Photo: Lorie Shaull

How Dangerous is New EPA Chief Andrew Wheeler? Very. Here’s Why.

Photo: Senate EPW

With Scott Pruitt’s resignation as administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency amid a slew of ethics scandals, environmentalists who long campaigned for his ouster should be careful what they wished for.

That is because the acting administrator of the EPA is now Andrew Wheeler, formerly the agency’s second-in-command. Nominated by President Trump and narrowly confirmed in April by the Senate, Wheeler came into the job as the polar opposite of the EPA’s stated mission “to protect human health and the environment.”

Andrew Wheeler: Coal lobbyist

Andrew Wheeler comes to the top EPA post as an unabashed inside man for major polluters on Capitol Hill. Wheeler lobbied for coal giant Murray Energy, serving as a captain in that company’s bitter war against President Obama’s efforts to cut global warming emissions and enact more stringent clean air and clean water rules.

When Pruitt sued the EPA 14 times as Oklahoma attorney general between 2011 and 2017 on behalf of polluting industries, a top petitioner and co-petitioner in half those cases was coal giant Murray Energy. Wheeler was its lobbyist from 2009 until last year.

Notably, Wheeler accompanied Murray Energy’s CEO, Robert Murray, to the now-notorious meeting last year with Energy Secretary Rick Perry, the one in which Murray handed Perry a 16-point action plan ostensibly designed to “help in getting America’s coal miners back to work.” That plan ultimately became the framework of a proposal by Perry to bail out struggling coal and nuclear power plants (Wheeler was also a nuclear industry lobbyist).

That particular proposal was shot down by federal regulators, but with Pruitt’s help, the Trump administration has made inroads on most of that plan’s 16 points, with devastating consequences to the environment—including the US pullout from the Paris climate accords, the rejection of Obama’s Clean Power Plan, and slashing the staff of the EPA down to a level not seen since the 1980s attacks on the agency by President Reagan.

Wheeler has denied helping Murray draw up that document, but he certainly shares its sentiments, telling a coal conference in 2016, “We’ve never seen one industry under siege by so many different regulations from so many different federal agencies at one time. This is unprecedented. Nobody has ever faced this in the history of the regulatory agenda.”

Andrew Wheeler: Longtime Inhofe aide

If it weren’t enough that a top coal lobbyist is now at the helm of the agency charged with protecting the nation’s environmental health, it bears noting that Wheeler’s vigorous lobbying career came after serving as a longtime aide to the Senate’s most vocal climate change denier, Oklahoma’s James Inhofe.

After the Trump administration announced Wheeler’s nomination to the agency in April, Inhofe hailed Wheeler as a “close friend.” That closeness was evident last year when Wheeler held a fundraiser for Inhofe, as well as for Senator John Barrasso of Wyoming, chair of the Senate Environment and Public Works committee, which advanced Wheeler’s nomination by a party-line 11-10 vote. The Intercept online news service reported that Wheeler held the fundraisers even after press accounts revealed that he was under consideration to be Pruitt’s second in command.

Up until now, Wheeler has largely managed to escape the harsh scrutiny that has forced the withdrawal of some Trump appointees—such as Michael Dourson, whose close ties to industry doomed his nomination to oversee chemical safety at EPA, or Kathleen Hartnett White, who spectacularly flamed out with her blatant skepticism about the sources of climate change, once calling carbon dioxide, a key greenhouse gas, the “gas of life.”

In contrast to these colleagues, Wheeler has so far stuck to slickly dry, brief statements that climate change is real, while agreeing with Trump’s pullout of global climate change accords. He even tried to play the good Boy Scout. After Tom Carper of Delaware recited Scouting’s commitment to conservation, Wheeler said, “I agree with you that we have a responsibility in the stewardship of the planet to leave it in better shape than we found it for our children, grandchildren, and nephews.”

Wheeler’s long track record of lobbying suggests precisely the opposite. But Pruitt’s reign was so mercifully short that many of his efforts to roll back critical vehicle emissions standards and the Clean Power Plan, and end full scrutiny of toxic chemicals common in household products, were only in beginning stages. When Wheeler was a lobbyist behind the scenes, it was easy for him to help industry erode the EPA’s science-based mission of protecting public health and the environment.

As the face of an EPA roiling with disillusion and dissent among its scientists, he will not find it so easy to do the bidding of his former masters. This is his chance to act like an administrator for the people, not an abdicator on behalf of industry.

Note: This post is adapted from an earlier version that appeared April 6, 2018, when Andrew Wheeler was nominated to be deputy administrator for the Environmental Protection Agency.

Keep Your Paws Off: Three Ways Congress is Preying on Endangered Species Protections

The endangered marbled murrelet.The endangered marbled murrelet. Photo: R. Lowe/USFWS

It seems there is a doggedly persistent contingent of lawmakers in Congress whose life goals include defunding, weakening, ignoring, and overhauling endangered species protections. Their tactics are varied: sidelining science in favor of industry interests, attaching harmful riders to “must-pass” spending bills, and introducing legislation whose insidious intentions are masked by semantics. Here is a quick rundown of current endangered species attacks:

  • Last week, the Union of Concerned Scientists sent a letter to the House Conference Committee for the National Defense Authorization (NDAA) asking them to oppose Utah Representative Rob Bishop’s anti-science rider from being included in the NDAA for Fiscal Year 2019. The amendment arbitrarily blocks federal Endangered Species Act (ESA) protections for the endangered or threatened American burying beetle, sage grouse, and lesser prairie chicken. In this case, decisions to assign protective measures to vulnerable wildlife are determined at the behest of short-term political interests (i.e. oil and gas development), thereby violating the science-based process by which the ESA successfully operates.
  • This past Monday, Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Chairman Senator John Barrasso introduced draft legislation to “strengthen” and “modernize” the Endangered Species Act. It moves to allow states greater authority over endangered species decisions, including listing, delisting, species recovery plans, and habitat conservation. Why is this a bad move? State resource constraints, insufficient laws, lack of political will, and final veto power over scientific decisions are among the most notable concerns. Considering that Senator Barrasso had the support of the Western Governors’ Association, it isn’t a stretch to be worried about states taking concerted efforts to dismiss species protections in the name of development.
  • The House Interior and Environment and House Energy & Water appropriations bills for Fiscal Year 2019 both contain poison-pill riders that would prohibit the listing of the imperiled greater sage grouse and remove protections for red wolves and Mexican gray wolves.

The Fish and Wildlife Service has prevented the extinction of 99 percent of the species listed since its inception in 1973. Despite the Endangered Species Act’s many successes over the years, there are those who have trouble seeing past their own immediate interests. These attacks on the Endangered Species Act are not new, but they are as urgent as ever. Please tell your members of Congress to oppose any anti-science riders affecting endangered species. If you are a scientist, consider joining almost 1500 other scientists in signing on to our letter to Congress.

I would like to acknowledge and thank my colleague Amy Gutierrez, legislative associate for the Center, for her legislative research and input. 

Photo: US Fish and Wildlife Service

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