When Science is Neglected, Who’s Hurt Most?

Published Jan 21, 2020

Research scientist Anita Desikan digs into the data to uncover the communities most at risk from the Trump administration ignoring science.

In this episode:

In this episode:
  • Anita helps Colleen get familiar with scientific safeguards
  • Who gets hurt when the government turns its back on science? Anita lets us know that and more
  • We go over particularly egregious attacks on science
Timing and cues
  • Opener (0:00-0:34)
  • Intro (0:34-2:31)
  • Interview part 1(2:31-10:23)
  • Break (10:23-11:21)
  • Interview part 2 (11:21-23:34)
  • This Week in Science History Throw (23:34-23:39)
  • This Week in Science History (23:39-26:51)
  • Outro (26:51-28:00)
Related content
Show credits

Editing: Omari Spears
Music: Brian Middleton
Research and writing: Jiayu Liang and Pamela Worth
Executive producer: Rich Hayes
Host: Colleen MacDonald

Full transcript

Recently I was reminiscing with a friend of mine--reminiscing about how dirty the air was when we were kids, though she had it a lot worse having grown up in LA. This was in the late 60s, before the Clean Air Act had passed. She remembers not being allowed to run at recess because the air quality was so bad, taking a deep breath literally hurt.

Then, starting in 1970, the country decided “enough is enough”, and passed a flood of new environmental legislation, including the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, and a ban on DDT, an insecticide that was decimating populations of endangered bird species like the bald eagle.

Laws like these showed America’s commitment to using the best available scientific information to reduce environmental harm and risks to human health. And we all started breathing a little easier. Thanks to these science-based protections, human and environmental health have improved by leaps and bounds since I was a kid.

But what happens when the government stops using scientific evidence to design these protections? Or dismantles the protections entirely?

In the fall of 2019, the Union of Concerned Scientists released a report that answered these questions. The researchers found that everyone’s health is put in danger... but marginalized communities are harmed most of all.

To unpack these findings, I sat down with Anita Desikan, author of the report and research analyst here at UCS. We talked about how she did her research, why the EPA stopped doing its job, and what the consequences have been. But Anita also shares the hopeful stories of communities that are fighting back and explained how scientists and non-scientists can be very powerful partners in these efforts.

Colleen: Anita, welcome to the podcast.

Anita: Thank you for having me.

Colleen: It's great to be here with you. So you co-authored a report called "Abandoned Science, Broken Promises" that looked at an increased environmental threat to marginalized communities under the Trump administration. How did you approach the analysis?

Anita: The way we approached it was we wanted to do three types of methodology, the case study methodology on these attacks on science, quantitative data analyses, and three, to find stories from our community partners. I'll give you an example of one of these data analyses that we did. It was to look... and it's a good way to tie how attacks on science hurt everyone and are disproportionately hurting marginalized communities. So there's this chemical called PFAS. Unfortunately, it's omnipresent right now in the environment. It's in your blood, it's in my blood right now.

And the more you have it, the worse your symptoms are. There was a report by the CDC in 2018 that talked about just how dangerous this particular chemical or I should say a class of chemicals are. And the Trump administration, they buried the report calling it a political relations nightmare. Now public outcry caused the report to be eventually published and it's just shown how bad this particular chemical is. So our data analysis was to look at whether this chemical has an equity component, whether marginalized communities are more affected by it.

So we looked at surface of water, groundwater contamination, really contaminated sites all across the U.S. and kind of drew a five-mile radius around it. What are the communities living within these five miles of very, very contaminated sites? The communities tend to be, unfortunately, communities of color and low-income communities. We found that 40,000 more low-income households are located in this 5-mile range as compared...more than you'd expect as compared to the U.S. average. And for people of color, it's 300,000, or I should say just a little under 300,000 more people of color than expected based on the U.S. Census.

Colleen: How should the administration deal with a situation like this? What would the ideal way to handle that be?

Anita: Well, the ideal way is honestly to prioritize science-based decision-making. When policies are not based on science, when policy is unhinged from science, it means that special interest can take precedence, special interest can take that void. Now, scientific evidence is one of the best ways we have to determine ways to set health and safety measures. And it saves people's lives. So the fact that our administration is devaluing science on so many levels, devaluing standards that protect us from air pollution, and therefore we can't have policies or have fewer policies that protect us that controls air pollution. And of course, this is disproportionately affecting marginalized communities.

Colleen: When you say deprioritizing, what exactly does that mean? I mean, the EPA has a mission and they're supposed to be keeping checks and balances on this. So like what specifically happens that they're not doing that job?

Anita: It occurs in a variety of ways. Take enforcement, for example, the EPA is required by law to enforce certain environmental laws, Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, for instance. Now, we did an analysis to determine whether the EPA is actually doing that under this administration and the unfortunate answer is no. We looked at criminal polluters, these are people who are breaking the laws in terms of these environmental laws. If you compare the Trump administration's ability to go after these criminals, it's decreased by 34% to 47%, if you compare it to the prior two administrations at the same time point. Science is a tool that we should be using to help people. Science is behind things like the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act and we're not using that science to literally help people from criminals that are polluting our air and water and land.

Colleen: So if I work at the EPA and my job is to do water quality or air quality testing, that's what I come in in the morning to do, how is that not happening? Is it because those people aren't there, that these scientists haven't been hired?

Anita: In some respects, you're right, it is a lack of capacity. We actually have seen that in previous analyses, talking to federal scientists and they're saying, "There's not people here to do those jobs." And that's also why enforcement is down as well. I'll take it in another vein, though. At the EPA, there are programs that are specifically designed to help marginalized communities. I'm gonna highlight the Office of Environmental Justice. They have incredible grants that are given to community activists trying to stop environmental justice issues occurring in their own backyard.

And when we did an analysis on this, what we found was that there's a 70% to 79% decrease in the number of grants issued to community groups to literally help themselves if you compare it to the prior 2 administrations. That's incorrigible. It's not just there's a lack of capacity to even do the air testing and to do the water quality testing, it's the fact that even agencies in the EPA that have been designed to help our underserved communities, that is their purpose, even they're getting sidelined and dismantled and they're just getting...unable to do their jobs.

Colleen: How did you define underserved communities in the analysis?

Anita: We looked at communities, three different types of communities, communities of color, low-income communities, and indigenous communities, communities that have been sidelined, that have been ignored, honestly, since the founding of our nation. You could even argue that the founding of our nation was based on systematic discrimination towards these groups. So we wanted to see, again, when science is taken out of the policymaking process if there's disproportionate impacts. And it angers me so much that that is what is occurring under the Trump administration. It angers me that something that's been going on for 200-plus years of our country's history is getting worse and worse day by day.

Colleen: So let's talk for a minute about previous administrations. This isn't new in the Trump administration. So how does this administration compare to others?

Anita: That's an excellent question because these concerns aren't new. Environmental justice advocates, they know the harms that have been occurring in their communities. I'll give an example. In Portland, Oregon, there's an area that's been a traditionally black community for almost all of the 20th century. And this community has a congregation of industrial facilities nearby, places that undoubtedly pollute the air and the water and it gets concentrated in the black community. So in the '70s, the community activists said, "Can you please, please put zoning permits there to prevent industrial facilities setting up shop right next door?" And they were absolutely ignored and the area continues to be polluted. So it's not just the Trump administration that's causing...that's the be all and end all of these pollution harms. It's been happening for a very, very long time.


Anita: Another example of the harms that are occurring in marginalized communities because of the Trump administration's attacks on science is something like SNAP. So SNAP is...it was formerly called food stamps. And this is a program that has been designed to give low-income individuals the ability to eat food. I feel like everyone should be wanting this and cheering for such an amazing program. And the program, according to the science, has shown its success tenfold, a hundredfold. The children who are under this program are less likely to be born with low birth rates. The people under this program take fewer sick days. It uplifts people out of poverty.

Now the Trump administration instead has put work requirements onto SNAP which will almost, by definition, push people off SNAP. According to one estimate, according to their own estimate actually, it's about 750,000 people over the course of 3 years. So again, this is the administration deciding to devalue and ignore marginalized communities, communities that are...it's just literally food for low-income individuals.

Colleen: Another example you found is that the administration isn’t allowing data to be collected on certain issues.

Anita: So this is the most insidious of this. When you don't have data to show the effects that are occurring in marginalized communities, you can't find out that there's even a problem and you can't manage that problem.

Colleen: You can't make a case for it if you don't have anything.

Anita: Exactly. If there's no data, if there's no research, the issue is not even visible to anyone, to any policymaker. I'll give one example when data collection was not allowed by the administration. And it occurred in Houston, Texas. If you remember in 2017, Hurricane Harvey hit and caused immense damages to the chemical facilities in the area, huge amounts of hazardous air was spewing very...just horrible chemicals into the air. And what we would want to do is find out where are the hotspots occurring, how can we protect the communities that are next door, which again, are mainly marginalized community members.

So NASA scientists happened to be watching, like, literally just kind of turning on their TVs and noticing this is occurring or reading the newspapers and they were horrified. And so this particular group of NASA scientists had a tool called the DC-8. It's a type of airplane that's considered the world's most sophisticated way to measure air pollution. It can measure about 400 species of air pollutants. It's an incredible device. And so they talked to their bosses, they got all the approvals they needed and they said...they diverted the plane from an already scheduled mission and they said, "You know what," they told the EPA, they told Texas authorities, "we are gonna come and help. We are gonna provide, again, really incredible data collection that will show where the hotspots are occurring and help protect people."

Instead, the EPA and Texas authorities said, "Absolutely not." They called a second data analysis "confusing," confusing because they already had an analysis that showed it wasn't that much of a problem. But again, more data shouldn't be disparaged or shouldn't be forbidden when it's being offered by scientists who wanna do good in the world. So I have to admit that things like that are incredibly scary to me as a scientist because when scientists are told do not do your science, when scientists are forbidden to offer their services to literally help people, to save the lives of people, it's a very chilling message.

And the impacts are occurring, again, disproportionately on marginalized groups. That means the concerns that they're seeing every day, every single day, the peoples whose lives they're seeing perish, they are not able to get the proper scientific data to show that this is occurring due to a pollution source next door. And that is chilling.

Colleen: You mentioned in the report that some communities are fighting back and having some success. Tell me about some of those communities.

Anita: So we worked with two community partners for the report, t.e.j.a.s, which is doing great work in Houston, Texas and Clean Power Lake County, which is doing great work in Illinois. So I'll take t.e.j.a.s first. So t.e.j.a.s has been looking at...has been trying to mobilize and help communities that are living next door to chemical facilities. And these communities are mostly low-income individuals and people of color. We actually previously worked with t.e.j.a.s to show that acute and chronic exposures are occurring in primarily these types of marginalized communities. Now, t.e.j.a.s has been fighting back against the EPA in a variety of different areas when they try to roll back chemical safety protections.

So I'll give you, a recent example is called the RMP rule, the risk management program rule. And this is one that just says when an emergency happens in a chemical facility, there should be a plan in place. Information about the dangerous chemical storage should be known to or should be available to communities and other members of the public, very, very common sense sort of things.

Colleen: I would wanna know that.

Anita: Exactly, right? And so this rule is delayed by over a year by the Trump administration for implementation. T.e.j.a.s has been actively fighting against that delay. And unfortunately, the administration very recently rolled back... did a partial rollback of this rule. Now communities can't find out what chemicals are literally next door to them in these giant facilities and there are less chances for analyses when something goes wrong. There's less requirements for the companies to analyze when things go wrong. So again, there's mobilization, there's continued mobilization, there’s strengthening of these rules.

The administration is gonna continue to do bad things but I have a lot of hope in community groups like t.e.j.a.s that help their community say, "Hey, there's a bad air pollution day, please go indoors, shelter, and space," that talk to our congressional representatives, that talk to our state and local representatives and say, "Okay, the administration is not on our side, please help us."

Clean Power Lake County is also doing work that's in the same vein. Again, this is where my hope is coming in from community groups. They're fighting the good fight and I want to support them so much. So in Lake County, this is an area that's traditionally Spanish-speaking, that has a lot of people of color and low-income individuals in the area and there are chemical facilities that are spewing a variety different gases in the air and I'll focus in on one, which is ethylene oxide. It's a cancer-causing gas. They've highlighted that there's an inequity going on here. The EPA is protecting and helping advocates from wealthy and affluent communities battling the same cancer-causing gas but are less willing to do things for the community that's, well, not in that demographic.

So that's what Clean Power Lake County is fighting against and they've been doing a great job at it. So in terms of where I find a lot of hope, it's in terms of people fighting and fighting and fighting.

Colleen: So they're fighting and they're making incremental progress and they have to keep fighting?

Anita: Yeah.

Colleen: Which is sad in some ways that you can't live your life the way other people do, that you have to be fighting all the time.

Anita: That's exactly true. And that's why it's important for all of us to be allies to community groups that are doing such good work. Honestly for everyone on this podcast, you can vote and your vote makes a huge difference in helping communities. By voting, you elect representatives that care about these issues, that care about environmental justice because when we don't have officials that consider scientific integrity, environmental justice, issues like this, then they either won't enact laws or regulations or other types of protections for marginalized communities or they might even actively dismantle the protections already in place.

The people you vote for make a difference. And I'll also give a pitch to the scientists that are listening to this podcast here. Scientists, you have an incredible position to help marginalized communities by working with them, by partnering with them, by doing research in community groups. So the science is an incredible tool for communities to advocate for. If they have a scientific study in front of them that says, "The scientists corroborate what I've been telling you for years, the asthma that I'm getting, that my family is getting, that my neighbors are getting are, according to the science, are associated with the industrial facility next door," that is a very, very powerful thing to tell to their decision-makers.

And scientists have the ability to provide that type of technical training and service that can help communities figure out what are the right datasets to go to, what are the right methodologies to think about, how does science work in terms of looking at associations between an environmental exposure and the health effect. Scientists can play a role with partnering with community groups and helping them in their advocacy efforts to stop these situations that are occurring, to stop these polluting, horrible situations that are occurring.

Colleen: And I think, one thing that you mentioned that I think is really important is asking scientists to work with community partners to find out what it is that they need that's gonna help their community

Anita: That is a major concern sometimes. If scientists have already figured out all the methodologies, all the ways that they're collecting the data, and then just expect for the community groups to allow them, it's not a true partnership, it's not equitable. And I think we want science to be more equitable. So to give an example of an equitable relationship, Yvette Ariano from t.e.j.a.s has told us that there are gas flarings that can occur at odd times of the day like in wee hours of the morning kind of thing. So if scientists were to go to that community and test the air pollution in the area, they might not be recording the air pollution times at, let's say, 3:00 in the morning.

So without that knowledge from a community member who can literally tell you how to make your science better, it's something that we should be pursuing. We should be acknowledging that community members have incredible knowledge and when we do science in their area, they need to be not only consulted but...not only consulted and informed but brought into the process in an equitable manner that helps all of us.

Colleen: Well, Anita, thanks for joining me. Let's go through your two things that you said earlier that people, you can vote. That will really make a difference.

Anita: Yes, yes.

Colleen: And scientists, you can partner with communities and listen to them and help with the science that you do.

Anita: Exactly. Despite the current administration's obviously anti-science policies, there are things that we as people, we as scientists can do. We can help. We can aid community efforts to prevent these terrible things.

Colleen: Well, thank you, Anita.

Anita: Thank you very much.

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