Catalyst Fall 2018

UCS Helps Expose Threat Posed by Toxic Compounds

Photo: Ken Wright/US Air Force

This spring, documents obtained by the Union of Concerned Scientists through the Freedom of Information Act revealed that Trump administration officials at the White House and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) had blocked the release of a draft government toxicology report on a specific class of chemical compounds over fears of the public health concerns it would raise. As one administration official privately warned in an email, the report’s release could lead to a “public relations nightmare.”

Highly fluorinated chemicals—known as a group as PFAS (perfluoroalkyl substances)—are human-made chemicals used in products ranging from firefighting foam and nonstick cookware to stain-resistant carpets and microwave popcorn packaging. Desired for their ability to repel oil, grease, and water, their molecular strength makes them so long-lasting in the environment that they have even been dubbed “forever chemicals.”

Partially as a result, they have now been found in measurable levels in many drinking water supplies and most Americans are believed to carry trace amounts in their bodies. Although PFAS have largely escaped environmental regulation to date, they have been linked to cancers, developmental and reproductive toxicity, thyroid disease, immune system toxicity, and other effects.

The revelation by UCS of the Trump administration’s suppression of the information, followed by bipartisan congressional pressure, forced the administration’s hand. The 852-page draft toxicology report, released in June from a branch of the Department of Health and Human Services, analyzed the relevant peer-reviewed scientific data on 14 of the most common variants of PFAS and determined that the safe level of exposure in drinking water should be 7 to 10 times lower than what the EPA currently recommends.

Bad News for Military Families

Given the new report’s conclusion that these chemicals are more dangerous than previously recognized, a UCS team studied how widespread a contamination threat they pose. They found that PFAS are remarkably widespread in the United States’ drinking water, sometimes at alarmingly high concentrations, especially on and near US military installations (where firefighting foams are heavily used). At the former England Air Force Base in Alexandria, Louisiana, PFAS compounds were found in concentrations roughly 1 million times higher than the new suggested safety threshold.

All told, UCS mapped 132 active and formerly active US military sites and found that every site but one exceeded the new safety threshold. At 88 sites—roughly two-thirds of those studied—PFAS concentrations were more than 100 times higher than the new threshold.

UCS is calling for an immediate, nationwide government effort to control the distribution and disposal of PFAS, and to clean up the contamination that has already occurred. A top priority should be notifying military personnel, their families, and surrounding communities about the risks and protecting them from potential exposure. More information is available on the report's web page.

Underwater Report Makes Waves with New Audiences

Rachel Cleetus (second from right) joined climate, mortgage, and policy experts for a September briefing of the report to congressional and federal agency staff.
Photo: Anusha Narayanan/UCS

In June, UCS released Underwater: Rising Seas, Chronic Floods, and the Implications for US Coastal Real Estate, a report on the financial risks facing residents of coastal communities as sea levels continue to rise. With this clear-eyed assessment of the potential economic losses ahead for business owners, current homeowners, prospective home buyers, renters, and city and town governments, the team behind the report intended to reach audiences UCS had not previously targeted, including the real estate, insurance, and finance sectors.

So far, the report has been widely cited, garnering more than 1,250 media mentions across more than 35 states—including ABC, CNN, The Guardian, USA Today, the Washington Post, and many local news outlets in coastal states. The report’s webpage has been viewed 45,000 times, and its interactive mapping tool that allows people to explore the report’s findings down to the zip code level has received more than 165,000 views. The report has also drawn attention from trade journalists at CBS MoneyWatch, Building Design and Construction, and Insurance Journal. On the airwaves, an episode of the UCS podcast Got Science? featuring one of the coauthors has been listened to more than 5,000 times and picked up by 15 community radio stations.

UCS has already met with Texas Senator Ted Cruz’s office, the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, and the Mortgage Bankers Association, among others, and our analytic team has produced fact sheets with information specific to each of the 132 coastal congressional districts in the continental United States, which we will use to engage with their respective legislators. Visit the report's web page to view the full suite of information, including a guide for prospective home buyers, Spanish-language materials, and insights from market experts.

Science Rising Grows to Include More Than 100 Events

Photo: Omari Spears/UCS

To help galvanize science-loving voters in the run-up to the midterm elections, UCS and its partners launched Science Rising, a nationwide community engagement effort. Science Rising is a clearinghouse of local activities, events, and actions organized by many different groups, with the shared goal of ensuring science is central to the decisionmaking processes that affect us all—and to fight back against efforts that sideline science from that crucial role in our democracy.

By summer’s end, Science Rising had logged more than 125 events with 118 groups, including informational sessions on renewable energy, a public forum featuring indigenous women climate activists, Twitter chats on diversity and representation in the STEM fields, a workshop in Puerto Rico that trained local scientists to get involved in policymaking decisions, lobbying days, rallies, webinars, and trainings designed to help scientists take action on the issues they care about.

Science Rising will continue offering support and guidance to groups around the United States who are organizing activities and trainings for science and science supporters even after the midterm elections. Find an event near you, or resources to organize your own event, on the Science Rising website.

ExxonMobil Quits ALEC

Photo: Bloomberg

Yielding to pressure from its shareholders and UCS, ExxonMobil announced in July it had ended its longtime affiliation with the American Legislative Exchange Council, a climate change–denying lobbying group. On top of its annual dues, the company gave ALEC nearly $1.93 million from 1998 to 2017.

ALEC conferences have routinely featured speakers who reject climate science, and the group has supplied state lawmakers with a range of fossil fuel industry–drafted legislation for members to sponsor, including bills that would restrict investment in renewable energy, eliminate incentives for electric vehicles, and hamper the solar industry’s ability to sell electricity directly to customers.

Since 2012, more than 100 corporations including BP, ConocoPhillips, and Royal Dutch Shell have quit ALEC, in many cases because of its regressive policy positions.

Kathryn Mulvey, director of the UCS climate accountability campaign, called on ExxonMobil to leave ALEC in a statement she read at the company’s annual shareholder meeting in 2016, noting that more than 26,000 UCS supporters had sent messages to the company demanding that it stop funding ALEC. Later that year, UCS released its inaugural Climate Accountability Scorecard, and ExxonMobil was rated “egregious” for continuing to spread climate disinformation, partly through its leadership role in ALEC.

Some ExxonMobil shareholders have long been concerned about inconsistencies between the company’s statements acknowledging the need to confront climate change and its lobbying against climate solutions. More than a quarter of shareholders supported a resolution in 2016, 2017, and again this year calling on the company to file detailed reports on its lobbying expenditures. Each resolution specifically referenced the company’s ties to ALEC.

A few months before ExxonMobil finally broke those ties, the company sent another signal of possible change for the better when it opposed a draft resolution sponsored by the Heartland Institute calling on the EPA to reconsider its “flawed” conclusion that climate change threatens human health. This so-called endangerment finding requires the EPA to regulate carbon dioxide and other global warming emissions as hazardous pollutants under the Clean Air Act.

Has ExxonMobil truly changed its ways? Not quite. The company is still financing think tanks and trade groups that denigrate any and all climate solutions, providing cover for Congress and the Trump administration to do nothing. UCS will press the company to break its ties with these groups as well, and align its lobbying with its stated support for climate action.

UCS Wins Court Victory on Safety at Chemical Facilities

Photo: Josh Edelson/Reuters

In August, a federal court ruled that the EPA must immediately implement the Chemical Disaster Rule, calling the Trump administration’s attempts since March 2017 to delay implementation arbitrary and illegal. UCS and coalition partners had filed a lawsuit to compel the administration to enforce the law, which had been developed during the Obama administration to keep communities safer from toxic disasters, to increase transparency about potential chemical threats, and to improve coordination with emergency responders.

Andrew Rosenberg, director of the Center for Science and Democracy at UCS, hailed the court’s verdict, saying, “This is a victory first and foremost for the neighborhoods most susceptible to dangerous and toxic chemical releases. Families who live under the shadow of chemical facilities deserve safer practices to prevent future disasters.”

However, the EPA has proposed a new rule that would gut many provisions of the Chemical Disaster Rule, such as eliminating the requirement that facilities handling potentially dangerous chemicals provide more information to first responders and neighboring communities. UCS is fighting this proposal and recently released a white paper titled The Impact of Chemical Facilities on Environmental Justice Communities that explains how, by removing preventive measures, the Trump administration’s proposed changes make chemical releases to neighboring communities more likely to occur. More information is available online.

Scientific Article by UCS-Led Team Gets Noticed

A pathbreaking peer-reviewed article coauthored by UCS Director of Climate Science and Senior Scientist Brenda Ekwurzel and UCS Chief Scientist Peter Frumhoff in the September 2017 edition of the journal Climatic Change has been downloaded an impressive 55,000 times. Articles in this journal more often tally downloads in the low hundreds.

The article quantifies how much of the increases in global temperature and sea level rise can be attributed to the carbon emissions from fossil fuels sold by major oil and gas companies. Building on recent findings that nearly two-thirds of all industrial carbon emissions can be traced to just 90 major oil and gas producers, the authors determined that the emissions traced to these 90 companies are responsible for roughly 57 percent of the observed rise in atmospheric carbon dioxide; between 42 and 50 percent of the rise in global mean surface temperature; and between 26 and 32 percent of global sea level rise since 1880.

These findings set the stage for future studies that could link emissions from industrial carbon producers to specific damages from climate change, and encourage further scientific and policy consideration of these companies’ legal and financial responsibilities. In a sure sign that the research is getting noticed, the article now ranks in the top 5 percent among the 8 million academic publications tracked by Altmetric.