Backyard Talk

The Rachel Carson Amendment

Our colleague and friend Lou Zeller at the Blue Ridge Environmental League (BREDL) shared an article he wrote a few years back about the great pioneer Rachel Carson who wrote in her epic 1962 classic Silent Spring that “If the Bill of Rights contains no guarantee that a citizen shall be secure against lethal poisons distributed either by private individuals or by public officials, it is surely only because our forefathers despite their considerable wisdom and foresight, could conceive of no such problem.”
Lou continued. “The public outcry created by Silent Spring led to a ban on DDT from agricultural use in 1972. However, today the industrial use of poisonous substances continues almost unabated, based on regulatory risk assessments and legally acceptable death rates. For example, retail shops are still permitted to dry-clean cloths with perchloroethylene, a carcinogenic solvent, even though non-toxic alternatives are available. Household hand cleaners laced with toxic Triclosan contaminate wastewater and sewage sludge deposited on farm fields as fertilizer. Nuclear power plants routinely spew radioactive Tritium into the air and water. And chemical giant Monsanto sells the weed-killer Roundup to farmers and homeowners—components of which are carcinogenic and known to damage the liver, kidney, brain and lungs. The list goes on.
“How can it be that after the passage of two generations we have let this continue?  Worse, a new natural gas extraction industry—cracking underground rock with high-pressure chemicals and water—exempts itself from the few environmental, public health and safety laws still on the books. It is indeed a strange blight creeping over the land.
“The Fifth Amendment to the US Constitution states, ‘No person shall…be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.’  The Fourteenth Amendment adds that the States may not, ‘deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.’ Rachel Carson’s Fable for Tomorrow painted a grim picture, but it was meant to prompt action.  In part, she succeeded.  But it remains to us to ensure that the next forty years complete the changes necessary so our legacy to future generations is not a silent spring.  Either the fundamental principles established under the Constitution mean what they say, or Rachel Carson’s admonition should become the 28th Amendment to the Constitution.”
I think Lou is onto something. What do you think?

Backyard Talk

Limiting Science in Government

Just before the Thanksgiving Holiday, the New York Times ran a story about EPA’s plan to limit the studies and information that would be used by the agency in evaluating public health risks when setting regulations. The original proposal called, Strengthening Transparency in Regulatory Science, was proposed in April of 2018 and would require scientists and researchers to disclose their raw data including confidential medical records before the agency would consider a study’s conclusions. The findings of researchers who did not comply with this rule would be not be considered by EPA when reviewing and setting standards.
The original proposal released during Scott Pruitt’s term as administrator at EPA, was met with huge outcry from the scientific and medical community. According to the Times article, nearly 600,000 comments were submitted, the vast majority of which opposed the proposal including some of the leading scientific organizations in the country such as the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS).
The prime opposition to the proposed requirements is that many studies linking disease outcomes with pollution and chemical exposures are based on personal health information protected by confidentiality agreements. For example, a critically important study linking mortality and premature deaths to exposure to particulates in the air of urban areas relied on personal health information provided by people who signed confidentiality agreements. The researchers would not have been able to do this study without obtaining these agreements. This research design is standard accepted procedure that has been in place in the scientific community for many years. Under the proposed rule, the results of studies involving the use of personal health information would not be considered by EPA when setting related rules and regulations unless the researchers were willing to break their confidentiality agreements.
Despite enormous opposition from some of the leading scientific and medical organizations and institutions in the country, EPA seems bent on going forward with this plan. In a scathing rebuttal to the Times article, the agency stated that it “still intends to issue a final rule in 2020.
This incredibly bad proposal is consistent with the Trump Administration’s efforts to undermine and ignore standard science that does not meet political objectives. If finalized, many legitimate scientific findings will be ignored for political advantage and that’s not only bad science, but it’s bad policy.


Report Examines the Trump Administration’s Neglect on Science

The Union for Concerned Scientists has released a report examining the Trump administrations neglect on science based policy. In partnership with the Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services (TEJAS) and Clean Power Lake County, the report focuses on the dangers communities of color and low income communities have been put in as a response to the administration’s attack on science based policies. Read More.
Read the full report here.
The Union for Concerned Scientists hosted a congressional meeting this morning (October 30, 2019) to discuss the report and the effect neglecting science in policy has on marginalized communities. A link to view the congressional meeting can be found here.


Record Breaking Heat for October

As we start to settle into the cooler Fall temperatures, the Washington Post reflects on the record breaking heat that took over the first week of October. Weather stations with data that date back 40 years show that nearly 30 states along the eastern side of the country experienced record high temperatures for October. Some stations established that the early October numbers were higher than temperatures some states had received all year. Read More.

Backyard Talk

Is EPA Stifling Science on Chemical Toxicity Reports?

This is the question that journalist Jim Daley raised recently in an article published in Scientific American. According to the article, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is substantially changing the program that evaluates the toxicity of chemicals by shifting staff and program emphasis from the Integrated Risk Information System (IRIS) to duties related to implementation of the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA). Daley writes that “Former EPA officials contend that the shake-up takes chemical assessments out of the hands of career scientists, potentially to the detriment of public health.”
As evidence of this shift, Daley writes that that the agency has reduced the number of its ongoing chemical toxicity assessments from twenty to three.
The IRIS Program began in 1985 to support EPA’s mission to protect human health and the environment by identifying and characterizing the health hazards of chemicals found in the environment. The IRIS program has become the most respected scientific program in the agency. Its health assessments are the backbone of EPA risk analysis work and is the preferred source of toxicity information used by EPA to determine public health risks. It is also an important source of toxicity information used by state and local health agencies, other federal agencies, and international health organizations.
The TSCA program on the other has a much narrower focus which is primarily on reporting, record-keeping and testing requirements, and restrictions relating to chemical substances and/or mixtures, according to EPA’s website. Certain substances are not covered by TSCA including food, drugs, cosmetics and pesticides. While the 2016 amendment to TSCA greatly improved this regulation, it did not address its narrow focus. This shift began with the leadership of Andrew Wheeler who took over for a beleaguered Scott Pruitt as administrator of EPA in July 2018.
One EPA official who declined to be identified was quoted in the Daley article saying that IRIS and TSCA are “very different” in their approaches to evaluating the public health risks posed by exposure to chemicals. “One could make the argument that this is political interference, in that high-level people are saying which methodology we should be using to assess the safety of a chemical. “And the policy’s pretty clear that they’re not supposed to do that.”
Bernard Goldstein, Professor Emeritus at the University of Pittsburgh School of Public Health, who served as EPA Assistant Administrator of the Office of Research and Development (ORD) from 1983 to 1985, summed it up this way in the Daley article, “I really see this as part of a restructuring of EPA in such a way that science will have very little to do with what EPA is basing its regulation on, and that we will end up with much weaker regulations in terms of protecting public health. “It’s troubling, in large part because it’s very consistent with an overall approach – a very astute approach – to take out the inconvenient facts.”  Also cited in the same article was a comment by Thomas Burke from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, a former EPA lead scientist adviser and Deputy Administrator of ORD from 2015 to 2017, “’any  reduction’ of the number of IRIS chemical assessments ‘is a loss for public health and, unfortunately, puts populations who are exposed at risk.’”
Read the full article here.

Backyard Talk

The Role of Science and Information in Environmental Health

We get calls from community leaders seeking information that they think will convince their state or local officials to take action. I wish I had a dollar for every person that told me over the years that if they could just get the right information in the hands of the politicians or government officials that those decision makers would do the right thing. If only that were true.
As a scientist, I provide technical assistance to grassroots community groups. People send me testing data to review,  whether it’s the chemicals found in their drinking water, the air behind their child’s school, or the soil in the park where their children play. They ask me to do this primarily because they want to know what the test results mean. But they also believe that information is where they will find answers to the many questions about the contamination in their community.
To be clear, science and information is important. People need to understand the facts, to know what they can about a situation, and to use information as the basis for their arguments or their demands. But equally important is understanding the limitations of the information and recognizing the fine line between facts and opinion. Science and information are critically important, but it is not enough to convince the decision makers to take action. It’s not the information by itself but rather what you do with it that matters.
Just gathering data and sharing information no matter how important or impactful will not likely change a bureaucrat’s or a politician’s mind. But if you use the information as part of a strategic plan, it can make all the difference in the world. If you use the information to educate your community and then go to the bureaucrats and politicians with a set of demands that meet the needs of your community, you have a much greater chance of success.
So, don’t get trapped into believing you can win over the bureaucrats or your politicians by just gathering information, or become frozen into inaction until you gather every little bit of information. Science and information alone will not solve your problems. What really matters is what you do with the information you have and how it fits strategically into your organizing plan. Don’t hesitate to reach out to CHEJ to further discuss this.

Homepage News Archive

Our People Are Being Hurt and We Won’t be Silent Anymore

Michigan Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival To Kick Off Six Weeks of Non-Violent Direct Action Monday in Lansing 
Protests Planned in over 30 State Capitals, Washington, D.C.
Movement Demands Sweeping Overhaul of Nation’s Voting Rights Laws, Policies to Address Poverty, Ecological Devastation, War Economy
LANSING, MI —The Michigan Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival will kick off a six-week season of nonviolent direct action Monday in Lansing, demanding a massive overhaul of the nation’s voting rights laws, new programs to lift up the 140 million Americans living in poverty, immediate attention to ecological devastation and measures to curb militarism and the war economy.
The rally in Lansing is one of over 30 actions across the country Monday by poor and disenfranchised people, clergy and advocates, who will engage in 40 days of nonviolent direct action and voter mobilization, among other activities, as a movement aimed at transforming the nation’s political, economic and moral structures takes off—building on the work of the original Poor People’s Campaign 50 years ago.
Protests and other activities during this first week will focus on child poverty, women in poverty and people with disabilities. Subsequent weeks will focus on systemic racism, veterans and the war economy, ecological devastation, inequality, and our nation’s distorted moral narrative.
At the conclusion of the 40 days, on June 23, poor people, clergy and advocates from Michigan and coast to coast will join together for a mass mobilization at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C. They’ll then return to their states to continue building the campaign, which is expected to be a multi-year effort.
WHO: Poor and disenfranchised people, moral leaders and advocates from Michigan
WHAT: Protest at Michigan statehouse demanding sweeping overhaul of nation’s voting rights laws, policies to address poverty, ecological devastation, war economy
WHERE: 100 N Capitol Ave, Lansing, MI 48933
WHEN:  Monday, May 14 at 2PM
BACKGROUND: The Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival is co-organized by Repairers of the Breach, a social justice organization founded by the Rev. Barber; the Kairos Center for Religions, Rights and Social Justice at Union Theological Seminary; and hundreds of local and national grassroots groups across the country.
The campaign is building a broad and deep national moral movement – rooted in the leadership of poor people and reflecting the great moral teachings – to unite our country from the bottom up. Coalitions have formed in 39 states and Washington, D.C. to challenge extremism locally and at the federal level and to demand a moral agenda for the common good.
Over the past two years, leaders of the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival have carried out a listening tour in dozens of states across this nation, meeting with tens of thousands of people from El Paso, Texas to Marks, Mississippi to South Charleston, West Virginia. Led by the Revs. Barber and Theoharis, the campaign has gathered testimonies from hundreds of poor people and listened to their demands for a better society.
A Poor People’s Campaign Moral Agenda, announced last month, was drawn from this listening tour, while an audit of America conducted with allied organizations, including the Institute for Policy Studies and the Urban Institute, showed that, in many ways, we are worse off than we were in 1968.
The Moral Agenda, which will guide the 40 days of actions, calls for major changes to address systemic racism, poverty, ecological devastation, the war economy and our distorted moral narrative, including repeal of the 2017 federal tax law, implementation of federal and state living wage laws, universal single-payer health care, and clean water for all.
Earlier this year, poor people, clergy and advocates traveled to statehouses all over the country and the U.S. Capitol  to serve notice on lawmakers that their failure to address the enmeshed evils of systemic racism, poverty, the war economy, ecological devastation and America’s distorted national morality would be met this spring with six weeks of nonviolent moral fusion direct action.
The Campaign draws on the unfinished work of the 1968 Poor People’s Campaign, reigniting the effort led by civil rights organizations, labor union and tenant unions, farm workers, Native American elders and grassroots organizers to foster a moral revolution of values. Despite real political wins in 1968 and beyond, the original Poor People’s Campaign was tragically cut short, both by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination and by the subversion of the coalition that sustained it. Still, the original vision and many of its followers did not go away.

Backyard Talk

Climate Scientists to EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt: Not so Fast

Climate scientists are fighting back. They had heard enough when EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt claimed in written Senate comments following his confirmation hearing as administrator of EPA that “over the past two decades satellite data indicates there has been a leveling off of warming.” They decided to respond, not with reactionary rhetoric, but with science, with facts.
A team of scientists led by researchers at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in Livermore, CA and from MIT in Cambridge, MA examined temperature data from three satellite data sets going back to 1979 and calculated temperature trends for each 20-year period, and then determined whether the observed trends were significantly larger than the 20-year trends arising from natural processes internal to the climate system. The researchers concluded that the scientific data “do not support the recent claim of a ‘leveling off of warming’ over the past two decades.” The analysis was published in the scientific journal Nature. The conclusion directly refutes the statement on climate change made by EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt.
The researchers led by Benjamin Santer, a world renown climate scientist, were clear that the reason they did the research was to refute the statement made by Pruitt. Santer told the Washington Post in an interview, “In my opinion, when incorrect science is elevated to the level of formal congressional testimony and makes its way into the official congressional record, climate scientists have some responsibility to test specific claims that were made, determine whether those claims are correct or not, and publish the results.”
The statement made by Pruitt has been echoed by other climate doubters. The main argument has been that temperature data collected at higher altitudes in the atmosphere show different trends than temperature data collected at the surface. Climate doubters argue that temperature data collected at higher altitudes (troposphere) show no global warming trend or that warming has slowed down in recent years in contrast to temperature trend data collected at the surface which show a clear warming trend.
While climate doubters will continue to cherry pick data to make their points, a growing number of scientists, whether in climate research or not, are standing up to the false statements and lies being perpetuated by this presidential administration. Scientists will continue to use hard data and a scientific approach to provide the best data and analysis available to draw conclusions.

Backyard Talk

Why Do You March?

Millions of people will come together in the next few weeks, as they have since the start of the new administration, to take part in several marches. Two of which are: the March for Science (April 22, 2017) and the People’s Climate March (April 29, 2017). Although the marches will be held in the nation’s capital of Washington, D.C., both marches (or shall we say movements) have generated such a following that satellite marches are being held around the country, and even around the world, on those days as well.
The goals for the March for Science:

  • Humanize science by showing that it is conducted, applied, and supported by a diverse body of people.
  • Partner with the public by joining together both scientists and supporters of science, as progress [fusion_builder_container hundred_percent=”yes” overflow=”visible”][fusion_builder_row][fusion_builder_column type=”1_1″ background_position=”left top” background_color=”” border_size=”” border_color=”” border_style=”solid” spacing=”yes” background_image=”” background_repeat=”no-repeat” padding=”” margin_top=”0px” margin_bottom=”0px” class=”” id=”” animation_type=”” animation_speed=”0.3″ animation_direction=”left” hide_on_mobile=”no” center_content=”no” min_height=”none”][in science and research] can only be made by mutual respect.
  • Advocate for open, inclusive, and accessible science by including in conversation and valuing the voices of all members of the global community.
  • Support scientists
  • Affirm science as a democratic value

The People’s Climate March Platform:

  • Directly and rapidly reduce greenhouse gas and toxic pollution to successfully combat climate change and improve public health
  • Mandate a transition to an equitable and sustainable New Energy and Economic Future that limits the temperature increase to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels.
  • Provide a Just Transition for communities and workers negatively impacted by the shift to a New Energy and Economic Future that includes targeted economic opportunity and provides a stable income, health care, and education.
  • Demand that every job pays a wage of at least $15 an hour, protects workers, and provides a good standard of living, pathways out of poverty , and a right to organize.
  • Ensure that investments are targeted to create pathways for low-income people and people of color to access good jobs and improve the lives of communities of color, indigenous peoples, low-income people, small farmers, women, and workers.
  • Make bold investments in the resilience of states, cities, tribes, and communities that are threatened by climate change; including massive investments in infrastructure systems from water, transportation, and solid waste to the electrical grid and safe, green building and increasing energy efficiency that will also create millions of jobs in the public and private sector.
  • Reinvest in a domestic industrial base that drives towards an equitable and sustainable New Energy and Economic Future, and fight back against the corporate trade-induced global race to the bottom.
  • Market- and policy-based mechanisms must protect human rights and critical, native ecosystems and reduce pollution at source

In Stephen’s blog from last week, it was easy for him to explain a scientists’ reasoning behind the March for Science. As a newcomer in the field with much less experience than he, it took me a while to come up with a personal connection to support my reasoning behind these movements. But after thinking about it, I realized that my only reasoning is because truly care about the issues, & that’s okay. I take inspiration from people my age who are making their voices heard and standing up for what they believe in, day after day.
I do it for a sense of community and understanding that we’re fighting for something greater than ourselves. I do it for the people who are, unfortunately affected every day by things they cannot control. On these days, I will be marching for the generations before me who had a stronger connection with the Earth – who took care of it and respected it. I will be marching for the generations after me who will only be able to live healthy lives and enjoy this Earth so long as we do everything we can now to preserve and care for it. I will be marching for little, 5-year-old me, who visited family in the Philippines and could not understand why she, in extremely hot, humid weather, had to pump water from the ground and then boil it before drinking so she wouldn’t get sick…
To think that other environmental factors, global warming, and climate change has made situations much worse over the years (and will continue get worse if change is not made) is truly terrifying.

As a verb, the word “march” means:

  • Walk quickly with determination
  • Walk along public rods in an organized procession as a form of protest

As a noun, it means:

  • The steady and inevitable development or progress of something

Progress. That’s all we need. A little push in the right direction is still a major win, and that’s what these movements are aiming to do.
Without strong belief in scientific evidence, without environmental regulations that protect our health, without a care for the environment and the world we live in, future generations will surely suffer.
Sure, there will be people who criticize these movements- only because they feel they have no reason to stand behind them. Find your reason. March with us.
March for Science (April 22, 2017)
People’s Climate March (April 29, 2017)[/fusion_builder_column][/fusion_builder_row][/fusion_builder_container]

Backyard Talk

March for Science

As a scientist, it’s not unusual to experience people not understanding the jargon and complexity of science. Part of what we’re trained to do is explain and interpret what we do. What’s much harder to understand is the total dismissal of scientific information and consensus around issues. While science does not have many critical answers for people exposed to toxic chemicals, it is nonetheless the foundation of what we do know. It can tell us what chemicals people are exposed to, the concentration of those chemicals, and the risks these exposures pose. We often don’t know how long a person was exposed, what interactions/synergistic effects might result if exposed to more than one chemical, or what specific health outcomes a person can expect or anticipate.
There are clear limitations in what we know, but that does not mean we ignore the science altogether. This what Donald Trump is proposing to do with climate change, ignore what the vast majority of scientific researchers who devote their life to studying this issue have  coming to agree on – that human behavior is influencing the earth’s climate in a dangerous way that cannot be ignored.
This is why the scientific community is stepping out of its comfort zone and organizing a march on Washington to protest the dismissal of worldwide scientific consensus on the issue of global climate change. As described on its website the “March for Science is a celebration of science. It’s not only about scientists and politicians; it’s about the very real role that science plays in each of our lives and the need to respect and encourage research that gives us insight into the world.”
There’s a lot of push back coming from within the scientific community that generally shuns public involvement in politics. But this is an unusual time. Not only has the President of the United States called global warming a “hoax” … “created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive,” but there is an alarming tend towards dismissing scientific facts and consensus, and an illogical attack on research funding that threatens our basic world understanding. These threats have left scientists with little choice but to come together and speak out.
This is an unparalleled opportunity to highlight the value of science and show your opposition to the war on science. Join the March for Science on April 22nd in Washington, DC. For more information, see