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By Anabelle Farnham, Communications Intern
October 13, 2021
Ever since I can remember, I enjoyed science in school because it helped me to explain the world with concrete answers. It was a way of illuminating universal truths, and providing objective views of the world….right?
Though I have abandoned all hope of becoming a STEM major, since coming to college I have classes that challenge the ways I think about science and the weight I put into the answers “science” provides.
Most recently, I learned about something called the Threshold Theory that made me think of CHEJ. The Threshold Theory originates from Earle B. Phelps and H. W. Streeter, two engineers who developed this theory while working in the Ohio River and published it in 1958. The theory goes like this: nature, in this case a river or body of water, has the ability to absorb contamination up to a certain point. It is after this tipping point that we consider harm is being done and the “contamination” become “pollution.” This tipping point, the point when water/nature is unable to purify itself and the contamination we are putting into it becomes harmful, has been coined “assimilative capacity.”
I had not realized until reading about this theory how much I used the assumption of assimilative capacity in my life. It can not only apply to the way we consider land, but also how we consider our bodies. The EPA has set limits on many chemicals and the concentrations at which they can be released into the environment, operating under the assumption that both the environment and people’s bodies can absorb toxicity up until a certain point.
Under this theory, the question we ask is: what is this tipping point of chemicals at which we are causing harm? However, this question assumes that all chemicals follow the same model of the Threshold Theory when this theory cannot be universally applied.
For example, certain chemicals, such as those categorized as “endocrine disruptors” do not fit into the Threshold Theory. These chemicals can mimic our hormones, which constitute a delicate balance in our body, and can send big signals with small changes. In the case of these chemicals, a small amount can be more harmful than a large one because our body is unable to detect the difference between an endocrine disruptor or a hormone. Chemicals like these defy the Threshold Theory.
Learning about the Threshold Theory has made me reflect more on what truths I take as givens and when these assumptions might be blinding me to something bigger. It’s not that I used to think all science is good and now I think all science is flawed; it’s that I know more clearly that the questions we ask are going to determine the answers we find. Science is a tool that we can use to help each other live healthy, full, abundant lives, but the assumptions we bring into our scientific studies will create limits for how useful science can be. It really comes down to a very basic but powerful question: What stories will we use science to help us tell?
Inspiration for this blog comes from Max Liboiron’s book Pollution is Colonialism, which I highly recommend if you are interested in thinking more about the way methodologies in science have the power to create or minimize harm and violence in the world.
See also A Study of the Pollution and Natural Purification of the Ohio River by Streeter and Phelps for more on the origins of the Threshold Theory
Photo Credit: David Howell/Quebec Science. Max Liboiron is an indigenous Canadian scientist who does work on plastics pollution on the island of Newfoundland.
Living among fracking wells is linked to higher rates of hospitalizations and deaths due to heart attacks, according to a new study.
The study, published in the Journal of Environmental Research, compared heart attack rates in Pennsylvania counties with fracking to demographically similar counties in New York where fracking is banned.
“There’s a large body of literature linking air pollution with poor cardiovascular health and heart attacks, but this is really the first study to look at this from a population level related to fracking,” Elaine Hill, a researcher at the University of Rochester Medical Center and one of the study’s co-authors, told EHN.
Photo Credit: Mark Schmerling/FracTracker Alliance
“We all had to deal with it. I know at least every person I grew up with within this area,” Kashmere Garden’s resident Nakia Osbourne said. “I’m 44 right now, almost 45. Half of them have a child that has a disability.”
Osbourne’s son, Charlie, was one of them. He was born with autism and severe intellectual disabilities. He died in 2014 at the age of 13 from a burn accident, but Osbourne said his life proves what everyone already knows. Creosote, once used at the Union Pacific facility, hit the community hard.
“They destroyed a lot of people’s lives,” Osburne said. “Because people were dying from cancer. Mothers were dying from cancer like crazy. And now the kids. Now it’s trickling down to the kids. The great-grandkids.”
Photo Credit: Lucio Vasquez/Houston Public Media
Ben Chavis was driving on a lonely road through rolling tobacco fields when he looked in his rearview mirror and saw the state trooper.
Chavis knew he was a marked man. Protests had erupted over North Carolina’s decision to dump 40,000 cubic yards of soil contaminated with cancer-causing chemicals in a poor Black farming community in Warren County, and Chavis was a leader of the revolt. The trooper pulled him over.
“What did I do, officer?” Chavis asked that day in 1982. The answer shocked him.
“He told me that I was driving too slow.”
Chavis was arrested and thrown in jail. When the cell door slammed shut, he gripped the metal bars and declared: “This is racism. This is environmental racism.”
The term stuck, and now — nearly 40 years after Chavis spoke the words that have come to define decisions by governments and corporations to place toxic pollution in communities of color — the issue has risen from the fringes of the American conservation movement to the heart of President Biden’s environmental agenda.
Photo Credit: Ricky Stilley
Political officials at EPA have overruled the agency’s career scientists to weaken a major health assessment for a toxic chemical contaminating the drinking water of an estimated 860,000 Americans, according to four sources with knowledge of the changes.
The changes to the safety assessment for the chemical PFBS, part of a class of “forever chemicals” called PFAS, is the latest example of the Trump administration’s tailoring of science to align with its political agenda, and another in a series of eleventh-hour steps the administration has taken to hamstring President-elect Joe Biden’s ability to support aggressive environmental regulations.
Photo Credit: Getty Images
Rick Snyder, the former governor of Michigan who oversaw the state when a water crisis devastated the city of Flint, has been charged with two counts of willful neglect of duty, according to court records.
The charges are misdemeanors punishable by imprisonment of up to one year or a maximum fine of $1,000.
Prosecutors in Michigan will report their findings in a wide-ranging investigation into the water crisis on Thursday, officials said, a long-awaited announcement that is also expected to include charges against several other officials and top advisers to Mr. Snyder.
Photo credit: Brittany Greeson for The New York Times