The Planetary News Radio – Episode 15: Scientific Suppression Case Study: TOXMAP

Welcome to the Planetary News Radio, Episode number 15 with your host Bryan White and I’m here today outside in Corvallis and it is raining out. It’s very dark, and in order to avoid the rain, I’m actually under a bridge. So there’s some background noise from cars. That’s just the setting that I’m in. I had a [complaint, well I don’t want to call it a complaint], but a criticism recently that I’ll respond to about the show. What was mentioned is that the show is recorded outside. And yes, the show’s recorded outside in different settings. Sometimes it’s hiking, which might be a quiet setting, and sometimes it’s in the city, and I think that’s that’s part of the show, because it’s dynamic. And so I want to be true to the art of presenting science, and the setting is part of that. So occasionally there are times when there will be background noise. I won’t say too much more about that. And my goal is not to respond to all criticism, but just to give listeners, you know, some insight into why I’m doing [the show this way]. Yes, I could record in a quiet studio, but then it wouldn’t be the “planetary news”, it would be the “indoor quiet studio news”. 

Continuing on, the topic for today is about suppression in science, scientific suppression. And this has always been a problem. Historically, the United States has a major history of scientific suppression, going back into the sixties and the seventies with pollution and climate science. And now we’re finding out things like ExxonMobil knew for 40 years what oil use could do to the environment, and covered that up, similar to the way that tobacco companies initially tried to hide what could happen from tobacco use and nicotine use. And so we see, that same thing persisted in America and now we’re at this strange dichotomy where the science is overwhelming [in favor of anthropogenic climate change]. ExxonMobil can’t deny that they know that climate change is real. In other words, they can’t conduct and do all the science that they do in their industry, because oil extraction is an extremely scientific industry that makes use of geology and hydrogeology. And so they can’t claim to be scientifically extracting oil from the Earth and know all this geoscience, and also then deny that climate change is happening and that it’s caused by carbon emissions from humans.

So now we’re at this rare transition period where you might see British Petroleum (BP) or ExxonMobil actually accepting that climate change is real and doing things to mitigate carbon emissions [because the scientific evidence is overwhelming]. But how did we get to this point? How did we get to the point where, our greatest minds as scientists were able to create all these oil extraction technologies, while on the political side, the implications of [burning fossil fuels] were hidden? And that’s why understanding scientific suppression is important. Recently, the Trump administration [has been] overtly doing this for the first time [in a way that can be recorded]. So it’s always been a kind of a hidden thing that we knew was going on in America, but we couldn’t really put our finger on it. But now with the Trump administration silencing civilian science, social media accounts, and basically putting a gag order on [scientists] in 2017 when his administration started taking over the EPA, Department of the Interior, and all the [federal] government organizations related to science and national parks, we saw this huge, almost national gag order put out. 

In response to that, Columbia University began what they call a “Silencing Science Tracker” and the website for this is http://www.climate.law.columbia.com, [which is a part of] the Columbia Law School Center for Climate Change Law and the Climate Science Legal Defense Fund (https://www.csldf.org/). And so, the silencing science tracker is tracking overt (provable/documentable) instances where science has been suppressed in or by the United States government. And to this day, which is January 4th 2020, there have been 385 instances of over scientific silencing tracked and logged in the Columbia Science silence in silence structure.

A couple of examples here that they have the most recent one is, something called the TOXMAP database. TOXMAP (https://healthdata.gov/dataset/toxmap%C2%AE-environmental-health-maps) was a database run by the National Library of Medicine (NLM) that integrated 12 scientific data sets into one data set in order to view the tracking of known hazardous materials on U.S. soil. The function of the TOXMAP was to list [the location of sites contaminated by] chemical contaminants on the National Priorities list. And so the National Priorities list (https://www.epa.gov/superfund/superfund-national-priorities-list-npl) is a list of sites that have been investigated by the EPA and declared either potential sources of hazardous chemicals or places where there already are hazardous chemicals released in the environment, and which could have been [reported] as an environmental violation. Or it could have been something historically, maybe a site from the 80’s before there were environmental regulations. But now the contaminant exists, and it’s still there in the environment. And there’s 1335 of these sites that are tracked. 

The goal of this [integrated] tracking system was to obviously track the mitigation of these sites and to see how contamination is being removed and cleaned or expanded. Are there new sites popping up? Was there a new spill somewhere? And now that place is logged as a site. And so, having all this integrated data on an area [on one map], it could help scientists make decisions because pollution is a complex event. It’s not always as simple [as an oil spill over here] or we spilled Mercury here. What [is the plan to] clean it up? What [are the immediate environmental effects?]. We don’t know what the downstream ([longterm]) effects could be. One pollutant might not be as harmful in one area as another area. Spilling mercury in the ground in the middle of the Arizona desert might not be as bad as spilling mercury into a river in the middle of the Mississippi. So having integrated data sets [like TOXMAP] is really important for environmental scientists to make decisions. So I see this as a really powerful tool that I never even knew about now is gone. And so I wish I’d known about it before, because then I could have seen what was available. Environmental science and pollution tracking isn’t my specialty, so it’s something that I missed. But I regret having missed it. 

Now that I’m reading about it, so what are these NPL sites [that were in TOXMAP], The National Priorities list? So these are sites that have been reported to the EPA where a pollution contamination event has occurred, and then the EPA has conducted an investigation and given them a hazard ranking score. And so this is a hazard ranking called the Hazard Ranking System a system that ranks the relative risk of site’s adverse effects on human health. So it’s basically a relative risk in the spectrum of all of the sites where contamination has occurred. [The score answers the question,] “How bad is this one?” 

What are some of the factors that went into scoring these sites? This is from EPA.gov. Number one, the likelihood that a site has released or has the potential to release hazardous substances into the environment. Number two, the characteristics of the waste with toxicity and quantity. Number three, [the presence of] people or sensitive environmental targets affected by the release. So is this something that happened in the middle of a community, or happened in the middle of nowhere? [Did the spill occur in an environmentally sensitive area, e.g. nature preserve?] That’s all going to go into the hazard ranking score. Further into that part of the score, what are the pathways of the contamination? From EPA.gov: Number one, a groundwater migration, which would be drinking water or surface water migration. [This could be direct release] into human drinking water, food chain, or other sensitive environments like lakes, streams and rivers or the ocean. Is that soil exposure or sub-service intrusion? So again, that could affect resident or nearby populations, sensitive environments, or regularly occupied structures. Let’s say something in liquid form leaks into soil [and then] just sits there but doesn’t spread into the drinking water supplies ([e.g., a soil trap]). Well, now, if you have construction [in that area], and say your construction workers go out to dig a hole and they dig through that contamination, now you’ve exposed construction workers to this pollution – [and this could happen years after the initial contamination event]. 

[Another pathway is] air migration. [Was the pollutant] a gas? And again, that’s going to be dependent on proximity to human or other environments. The scoring system has a nice mathematical property, so if [the site] scores really high on one of one of these [areas (e.g., human proximity)], and really low on everything else, it could still be a high risk site. So let’s say you have a low low amount of mercury that was spilled directly into a stream that people fish from, so that could be an extremely sensitive event. And you need to immediately close down the stream because people are immediately going to be exposed to mercury. So this is [why shutting down TOXMAP] is an example of scientific suppression. But it’s tricky because what the Trump Administration has done is they disabled the TOXMAP database, which is the linking together of 12 data sources. But those other 12 data sources still exist independently. So, really, what they’ve done is they’ve slowed down the scientific community ability to track, rank, and understand pollution sites in America. 

So I have a statement here from a Newsweek article from the Environmental Data & Governance Initiative (EDGI). “The dismantling of such a usable public platform connecting health and environmental data certainly accords with the EPA’s own declared strategies, of seeking to exclude so many environmental health studies from policy-making and to neglect or defund on-going environmental health investigations.” 

And so that is what the EPA under the Donald Trump administration is seeking. They have openly declared that they will purposely exclude scientific studies in policy making decisions. [We can see] the end result of that in the TOXMAP, and that’s just one example I [looked at]. If I go through this, I might find other examples [worth talking about], but I just wanted to get this out really quick since it happened recently. I hope everybody had a good holiday season and, on communications and things like that website, there’s a website up for this. It’s iiress.com. That’s the Institute for Integrative Research in Earth and Space Science, which is going to be the overarching, structure for which the Planetary News is operating within, which is the media arm of the research organization, and so we’ll have more on that. That’s Bryan White with the Planetary News Radio signing off.