Amid climate change, chemicals and controversy, still room for thanks

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Environmental challenges remain, but scientists, journalists, information and opportunities are worth being thankful for 

November 25, 2015

By Brian Bienkowski
Environmental Health News

At Environmental Health News, and our sister site The Daily Climate, we are in the unique position of both writing and sifting through a lot of news.

I’m not going to lie, most of it is bad—droughts, hidden chemical dangers, biodiversity loss, food security risks. The environment touches all of our daily lives, and for many, it can be a cold, callous hand.

But, on this Thanksgiving week, let’s poke around these dark clouds for some silver linings.

I’m thankful for you.

If you’re reading this, it’s fair to assume you have at least a passing interest in the environment. Many of our readers blow right by “passing” and straight to “passionate”—I see this in feedback of gratitude, emails of vitriol, story ideas sent, new science forwarded and in donations (Oh yeah, while we’re being thankful you can do that last one here).

News stories are just pieces of paper or another webpage—but add an engaged reader and the story turns into information, knowledge, and, in the best cases, spurs action.As a journalist, curious readers make my job worthwhile. News stories are just pieces of paper or another webpage—but add an engaged reader and the story turns into information, knowledge, and, in the best cases, spurs action.

We’re not always going to agree. Many of you let me know when you don’t like the stories I send out in the newsletter, what I write about, what sources I talk to.

But it’s in the search for information, the learning, and the exposure to new ideas that we can grow and as a global community make the best decisions about environmental health and climate change —so thank you.

Need more to be thankful for than just your oh-so-informed self? See what others in our newsroom had to say:

Douglas Fischer, Director: A network of environmental journalists

I jumped into the environmental beat 15 years ago, a brand new reporter at the Oakland Tribune and a handful of San Francisco Bay Area newspapers. One word described the learning curve: Terrifying.

I had just arrived in California from Alaska, where I spent five years covering city and state government. I had no sources, no understanding of the region, no idea what my readers expected. So I couldn't believe my luck when I stumbled across the Society of Environmental Journalists.

Here was my support network, my safety net: A group of journalists helping each other get better environmental reporting out to the world. Suddenly I had access to the brightest stars in the field: San Jose Mercury News' legendary Paul Rogers. Dan Fagin, then at New York Newsday, now a Pulitzer-prize-winning journalism professor at New York University. Marla Cone, then at the LA Times, now at National Geographic.

I drank for years from the collective wisdom of this group. We shared story ideas and ways to get the most from balky sources or agencies. Upcoming press events. Important background info.

In 2007 I went to my first national conference. I joined the board in 2009. I continue to learn, to share frustrations (a deadline comment from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency?), to celebrate success (like InsideClimate's work on Exxon, or Climate Central's launch of WXShift.com).

In 20 years as a journalist, I've seen the media world transformed. But reporters will always need help with sources, ideas, the quirky fact. We need support. SEJ has always been there. I'm immensely grateful for that.

Peter Dykstra, Weekend Editor: Thanks, FOIA!

An ancestral form of the Freedom of Information Act was passed in 1946, but it gave great leeway to federal agencies to withhold, rather than disclose, information. After all, this was the dawn of the Cold War, and spies were everywhere.

Congress elevated disclosure law in the first true FOIA-ish law in 1966, thanks in part to an energetic young Illinois Congressman, Donald Rumsfeld. By 1974, Congress saw a need to plug the many remaining FOIA loopholes, but President Ford vetoed the strengthening measures at the urging of his Chief of Staff, Donald Rumsfeld.

Congress overrode the veto, and the modern-day FOIA was born, allowing journalists, advocates and everyday citizens reasonable access to most government data, documents, and correspondence.

FOIA requests can be beautiful, and occasionally ugly. My two favorite FOIA projects date from the 1980’s and from this past year. Karen Dorn Steele was a reporter for the Spokane Spokesman-Review whose FOIA requests unraveled the secrecy around the massive pollution at U.S. nuclear weapons plants. Her work collapsed the wall of secrecy and led to the decades-long cleanup effort at Hanford and other sites. In 2015, activists Kert Davies and John Passacantando capped a ten-year pursuit of climate-denial funding, busting scientist Willie Soon’s pattern of cooked-to-order science funded by denial-friendly outfits like Exxon Mobil and Southern Company.

FOIA has also been used to harass legitimate science, particularly climate scientists. But on balance, FOIA is still a cornerstone of a free and informed democracy. One more thing: FOIA helped reveal the outrageous, sadistic behavior of prison guards at Baghdad’s Abu Ghraib prison a decade ago.

So thanks to FOIA and young Congressmen like Donald Rumsfeld, who have helped keep public officials like Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld accountable.

Laura Pyle, Research Manager: Environmental scientists’ tireless work

When people hear about the organization I work for, they often ask me, “Don’t you get discouraged, or depressed, reading that type of news every day?” Some days I do. Don’t drink that, don’t breathe that, don’t wear that, don’t eat that, don’t touch that…it’s exhausting. Add a family into the mix and watch your concerns grow.

 

That’s why I am grateful for the scientists who study environmental and human health. Thanks to their dedication and drive, there is a significant body of evidence that points to the urgency of protecting human and ecological health and the inadequacies of chemical regulation.

So when I read these articles or studies, sure I take a moment to reflect on my kids’ health because I made them eggs in a Teflon pan this morning or strapped them into aging car seats full of flame-retardants, but then, I am moved. Someone out there committed weeks, months, years or a decade of their time to make that discovery. From designing studies to preparing and testing samples to calibrating equipment to recording, summarizing and analyzing data—the actual work is meticulous and precise, it can be repetitive and back breaking, and it should be celebrated.

And so, a heartfelt thank you to past, present and future scientists who work in the environmental health field for pursuing, identifying and quantifying new information. Without your work we wouldn’t know the impact contaminants have in the environment and our bodies. What you do means the world.

Kara West, Operations Supervisor: Environmental justice and the privilege of information

I'm thankful I don't live near a mine. I'm thankful my neighborhood doesn't have a leaking landfill. I'm thankful my public water supply is drinkable and the air I breathe is not toxic. I'm thankful I don't live in Richmond, California, or Anniston, Alabama.

Environmental justice is taking care of the well being of the Earth and all the beings residing there in. But some of us get the short end of the stick. Minority and low-income communities tend to encounter far greater environmental risks and far less protection than more affluent, white communities.

 

I am thankful for environmental justice warriors like Rachel Carson whose book Silent Spring is widely credited with helping launch the environmental movement. Countless other individuals and groups such as Robert Bullard, Moms Clean Air Force, Greenpeace, The First Nations Environmental Network and Benjamin Chavis, who is credited with coining the term environmental racism, have made environmental justice their life’s work.

I’m even thankful for governmental agencies like the EPA, as bureaucratic as they can be, that, believe it or not, have at least some dedicated, hardworking folks among the ranks.

Most of all I’m thankful I have enough information, enough education and enough resources to take care of my health and that of my family. All of my privileges make it possible for me to work for EHN.org and DailyClimate.org where I encounter more environmental health and climate news than is possible to consume.

If I’m concerned about hog farms or power plants emissions or want to know more about urban faming, hundreds of thousands of articles are at my fingertips, and yours, through our public archives.

I can even find a few minutes in my daily life to vet shower curtains and sunscreens at consumer information powerhouses like EWG.org. Now that’s privileged.

Pete Myers, Founder and Chief Scientist: Discoveries, insurance and opportunities 

 

I climbed on board what became a bucking bronco of a scientific issue, endocrine disruption, when a Force of Nature, Theo Colborn, came out of the audience after a lecture I had just given in the DC area and said, “Pete, I’m Theo, and we have to work together!”

I am grateful for that moment, and for the next 27 years that I was able to work with her, until she passed away in December 2014.

When we began that journey, endocrine disruption was a hypothesis with many unknowns. Critics of the book we co-authored with Dianne Dumanoski, Our Stolen Future, actually tabulated the total number of times we wrote “maybe” and tried to use that as a cudgel to discredit our ideas. As if acknowledging uncertainty isn’t a core part of any scientific endeavor.

I am grateful for all scientific discoveries that have unfolded since then, which have now brought endocrine disruption squarely into the medical mainstream. Mainstream? The World Health Organization together with the United Nations Environment Program published a report in 2012 concluding that endocrine disruption is a global health threat.

This fall two major medical associations, the International Federation of Gynecologists and Obstetricians and The Endocrine Society (FIGO; TES), published major statements about the role of endocrine disrupting chemicals in derailing fetal development and contributing to a wide array of health problems, not just at birth but also unfolding throughout life. The Endocrine Society has even launched a global task force on the subject.

The re-insurance industry has even stepped in. In November 2012 the Chief Risk Officers Forum of the re-insurance industry (which insures insurance companies against catastrophic loss) recommended that manufacturers and users of ED chemicals reduce their financial exposures resulting from those activities.

I am thankful for the fact that the uncertainties we identified in OSF have been lessened. The science has become much stronger, not just for concerns we addressed in the book, but for issues we had not yet identified as possible driven, at least in part, by endocrine disruption, such as obesity and diabetes.

And I am profoundly grateful for the fact that this wave of science is revealing opportunities to reduce the burdens of a wave of endocrine-related epidemics now sweeping the developed and developing worlds. According to the reports above, endocrine disruption is contributing to these epidemics. They are all multi-factorial, so there is no single cause. But reducing EDC exposure can help prevent some portion of their impacts.

 

EHN wishes you and yours a happy and healthy Thanksgiving. We also welcome republication of our stories, but require that publications include the author's name and Environmental Health News at the top of the piece, along with a link back to EHN's version.

For questions or feedback about this piece, contact Brian Bienkowski at bbienkowski@ehn.org.

 

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