Many of my blog posts talk about the level of trust we should have in our regulatory agencies. Nowhere in recent memory has the lack of trustworthiness been more obvious than in the story of the Flint lead poisoning crisis. Now, from the mouth of the professor most responsible for breaking the Flint story, more evidence for not blindly trusting the EPA and CDC. In many cases, these agencies may be the best source of information we have, but they are disappointingly far from infallible.
The Water Next Time: Professor Who Helped Expose Crisis in Flint Says Public Science Is Broken
When Marc Edwards opens his mouth, dangerous things come out.
In 2003 the Virginia Tech civil-engineering professor said that there was lead in the Washington, D.C., water supply, and that the city had been poisoning its residents. He was right.
Last fall he said there was lead in the water in Flint, Mich., despite the reassurances of state and local authorities that the water was safe. He was right about that, too.
Working with residents of Flint, Mr. Edwards led a study that revealed that the elevated lead levels in people’s homes were not isolated incidents but a result of a systemic problem that had been ignored by state scientists. He has since been appointed to a task force to help fix those problems in Flint. In a vote of confidence, residents last month tagged a local landmark with a note to the powers that be: “You want our trust??? We want Va Tech!!!”
But being right in these cases has not made Mr. Edwards happy. Vindicated or not, the professor says his trials over the last decade and a half have cost him friends, professional networks, and thousands of dollars of his own money.
The infrastructural problems go beyond the public utilities of certain American cities, he says. In an interview with The Chronicle, Mr. Edwards said that the systems built to support scientists do not reward moral courage and that the university pipeline contains toxins of its own — which, if ignored, will corrode public faith in science.
The following interview has been edited and condensed.
Q. I just came back from Flint, and it may not come as a surprise to you that you’re something of a folk hero there. What do you think about that?
A. It’s a natural byproduct of science conducted as a public good. Normal people really appreciate good science that’s done in their interest. They stepped forward as citizen scientists to explore what was happening to them and to their community, we provided some funding and the technical and analytical expertise, and they did all the work. I think that work speaks for itself.
Q. Scientific studies by university-affiliated researchers, namely you and Mona Hanna-Attisha, were a big part of what broke this case open. On the other hand, it took a Flint resident writing to a professor in Virginia to start the process of finding out that there was lead in the drinking water. Do you see this as an academic success story or a cautionary tale?
A. I am very concerned about the culture of academia in this country and the perverse incentives that are given to young faculty. The pressures to get funding are just extraordinary. We’re all on this hedonistic treadmill — pursuing funding, pursuing fame, pursuing h-index — and the idea of science as a public good is being lost.
This is something that I’m upset about deeply. I’ve kind of dedicated my career to try to raise awareness about this. I’m losing a lot of friends. People don’t want to hear this. But we have to get this fixed, and fixed fast, or else we are going to lose this symbiotic relationship with the public. They will stop supporting us.
Q. Do you have any sense that perverse incentive structures prevented scientists from exposing the problem in Flint sooner?
A. Yes, I do. In Flint the agencies paid to protect these people weren’t solving the problem. They were the problem. What faculty person out there is going to take on their state, the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency?
I don’t blame anyone, because I know the culture of academia. You are your funding network as a professor. You can destroy that network that took you 25 years to build with one word. I’ve done it. When was the last time you heard anyone in academia publicly criticize a funding agency, no matter how outrageous their behavior? We just don’t do these things.
If an environmental injustice is occurring, someone in a government agency is not doing their job. Everyone we wanted to partner said, Well, this sounds really cool, but we want to work with the government. We want to work with the city. And I’m like, You’re living in a fantasy land, because these people are the problem.
Q. Now that your hypothesis has been vindicated, and the government has its tail between its legs, a lot of researchers are interested.
A. And I hope that they’re interested for the right reasons. But there’s now money — a lot of money — on the table.
Q. Not as much as some of them would like. I heard a lot of people say they thought that a zero might have been missing from the grant money that the University of Michigan made available.
A. Right. But the expectation is that there’s tens if not hundreds of millions of dollars that are going to be made available by these agencies. And some part of that will be directed toward research, so we now have a financial incentive to get involved. I hate to sound cynical about it. I know these folks have good intentions. But it doesn’t change the fact that, Where were we as academics for all this time before it became financially in our interest to help? Where were we?
Q. Now, of course, when you walk around Flint and ask people about the reassurances they’re hearing now, they don’t believe anybody. When is it appropriate for academics to be skeptical of an official narrative when that narrative is coming from scientific authorities? Surely the answer can’t be “all of the time.”
A. I’m really surprised how emotional this interview is making me, and I’ve given several hundred interviews. What these agencies did in [the Washington, D.C., case] was the most fundamental betrayal of public trust that I’ve ever seen. When I realized what they had done, as a scientist, I was just outraged and appalled.
I grew up worshiping at the altar of science, and in my wildest dreams I never thought scientists would behave this way. The only way I can construct a worldview that accommodates this is to say, These people are unscientific. Science should be about pursuing the truth and helping people. If you’re doing it for any other reason, you really ought to question your motives.
Unfortunately, in general, academic research and scientists in this country are no longer deserving of the public trust. We’re not.
Q. I think of that rock with the spray paint on it that says, “You want our trust??? We want Va Tech!!!” That’s a vote of confidence in you at the expense of confidence in anybody else. Is that a happy piece of graffiti in your eyes?
A. It’s a symbol of the total failure of our government science agencies, and also of our academic institutions. I really derive no personal satisfaction from that. I feel shame. That’s what I feel.
Q. I keep coming back to these university researchers in Flint who said: “The state has 50 epidemiologists. They say that the water’s safe. So I’m going to focus my energy on something that’s less settled.” How do you decide when the state should be challenged?
A. That’s a great question. We are not skeptical enough about each other’s results. What’s the upside in that? You’re going to make enemies. People might start questioning your results. And that’s going to start slowing down our publication assembly line. Everyone’s invested in just cranking out more crap papers.
So when you start asking questions about people, and you approach them as a scientist, if you feel like you’re talking to an adult and they give you a rational response and are willing to share data and discuss an issue rationally, I’m out of there. I go home.
But when you reach out to them, as I did with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and they do not return your phone calls, they do not share data, they do not respond to FOIA [open-records requests], y’know. … In each case I just started asking questions and turning over rocks, and I resolved to myself, The second something slimy doesn’t come out, I’m gonna go home. But every single rock you turn over, something slimy comes out.
Q. But at some point in a place like Flint, trust has to be restored somehow in order for the system to continue working.
Q. I talked to this woman yesterday at the university pavilion. She’s a senior, a nursing student. We looked at the stickers the university had put on its water fountain, saying that this has a filter, that this is safe. And she said: “No. I don’t drink the water here. I don’t care what they say. I don’t care if it’s from the university.” At that level of mistrust, the system doesn’t work. What do you think people would have to see in order to start trusting what scientists tell them?
A. It’s going to take time for the people in Flint. They have been so betrayed, and the callous way that our most vulnerable were treated in Flint by the very agencies paid to protect them is so profoundly disturbing. That’s why this is striking such a chord.
Q. You teach a course on ethics and heroism at Virginia Tech. How exactly does one teach heroism to college students?
A. We teach aspirational ethics. What I teach my students is, You’re born heroic. I go into these animal studies, and heroism is actually in our nature. What you have to do is make sure that the system doesn’t change you, that our educational system doesn’t teach you to be willfully blind and to forget your aspirations, because that’s the default position.
We talk about the realities of heroism too. It’s not fun. These are gut-wrenching things. But the main thing is, Do not let our educational institutions make you into something that you will be ashamed of.
Q. And you sort of warn them that you’re preparing them for a life of possible sadness and alienation?
A. Well, yeah. There’s a price to be paid.
Read more in the Chronicle of Higher Education at http://chronicle.com/article/The-Water-Next-Time-Professor/235136?cid=trend_right_a
For more perspective on the Flint, Michigan crisis, read this post by Michael Moore. And remember: it’s not just lead; it’s not just Flint.
We need to declare a national state of emergency for the systematic poisoning of our children, as President Obama has just done for the suffering families of Flint, Michigan. It’s not just lead, not just Flint. Just for instance, the children who are in the top 20% for chlorpyrifos, a common pesticide, are 7 IQ points lower than those in the bottom, and that is not zero. We are systematically poisoning our children and destroying their intelligence. Likewise, if we are going to attempt a moonshot on cancer, as Obama declared in his latest State of the Union, then we have to get serious about prevention and chemical regulation, which are one and the same thing.
FLINT (WJRT) – (1/16/15) – President Barack Obama has declared a State of Emergency in Michigan to help with Flint’s ongoing water troubles. That’s according to information released by the White House, this afternoon.
The declaration is in response to Governor Rick Snyder’s Thursday request for federal help in handling Flint’s water emergency.
According to the release, the action opens up the Department of Homeland Security and Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to coordinate relief efforts in Genesee County to protect public health and safety under Title V of the Stafford Act. FEMA can also provide equipment and resources to help with the emergency.
The release states, “Emergency protective measures, limited to direct federal assistance, will be provided at 75 percent federal funding. This emergency assistance is to provide water, water filters, water filter cartridges, water test kits, and other necessary related items for a period of no more than 90 days.”
According to Governor Snyder’s office, the declaration is good for $5 million in federal resources, of which, the state of Michigan has to match 25 percent. However, Congress has the option to approve additional funding.
A request for a “Major Disaster Declaration” was turned down because Flint’s water emergency is not considered a natural disaster. The state is appealing that decision.
U.S. Rep. Dan Kildee (D-Flint) released a statement in response to the declaration, Saturday. It reads, “I welcome the President’s quick action in support of the people of Flint after months of inaction by the Governor. The residents and children of Flint deserve every resource available to make sure that they have safe water and are able to recover from this terrible man-made disaster created by the state.”
Flint’s Mayor, Dr. Karen Weaver, also responded. In a statement, she says the declaration is what the city has been waiting for.
President Obama is also looking at other means of federal support that do not require an emergency declaration under the Stafford Act.
One should never get the impression that just one chemical is at fault for the epidemic of chronic disease among children and adults in this nation; rather, it is the combined impact of many toxic chemicals on our collective health.
The New York Times recently ran an excellent article detailing the story of rampant pollution with one such chemical — PFOA — from one of many chemical companies — DuPont. It is shocking that DuPont employees appear to have been completely at ease with poisoning multitudes. It was only when one tenacious lawyer found damning evidence that they had being doing so deliberately, with full knowledge of the potential damage, that their feathers were ruffled.
What follows is a short excerpt. You can read the full story at http://www.nytimes.com/2016/01/10/magazine/the-lawyer-who-became-duponts-worst-nightmare.html?smid=nytcore-ipad-share&smprod=nytcore-ipad&_r=0
Every year Rob Bilott writes a letter to the E.P.A. and the West Virginia D.E.P., urging the regulation of PFOA in drinking water. In 2009, the E.P.A. set a ‘‘provisional’’ limit of 0.4 parts per billion for short-term exposure, but has never finalized that figure. This means that local water districts are under no obligation to tell customers whether PFOA is in their water. In response to Bilott’s most recent letter, the E.P.A. claimed that it would announce a ‘‘lifetime health advisory level for PFOA’’ by ‘‘early 2016.’’
This advisory level, if indeed announced, might be a source of comfort to future generations. But if you are a sentient being reading this article in 2016, you already have PFOA in your blood. It is in your parents’ blood, your children’s blood, your lover’s blood. How did it get there? Through the air, through your diet, through your use of nonstick cookware, through your umbilical cord. Or you might have drunk tainted water. The Environmental Working Group has found manufactured fluorochemicals present in 94 water districts across 27 states (see sidebar beginning on Page 38). Residents of Seattle; Wilmington, Del.; Colorado Springs; and Nassau County on Long Island are among those whose water has a higher concentration of fluorochemicals than that in some of the districts included in Rob Bilott’s class-action suit. The drinking water in Parkersburg itself, whose water district was not included in the original class-action suit and has failed to compel DuPont to pay for a filtration system, is currently tainted with high levels of PFOA. Most residents appear not to know this.
Where scientists have tested for the presence of PFOA in the world, they have found it. PFOA is in the blood or vital organs of Atlantic salmon, swordfish, striped mullet, gray seals, common cormorants, Alaskan polar bears, brown pelicans, sea turtles, sea eagles, Midwestern bald eagles, California sea lions and Laysan albatrosses on Sand Island, a wildlife refuge on Midway Atoll, in the middle of the North Pacific Ocean, about halfway between North America and Asia.
‘‘We see a situation,’’ Joe Kiger says, ‘‘that has gone from Washington Works, to statewide, to the United States, and now it’s everywhere, it’s global. We’ve taken the cap off something here. But it’s just not DuPont. Good God. There are 60,000 unregulated chemicals out there right now. We have no idea what we’re taking.’’
Bilott doesn’t regret fighting DuPont for the last 16 years, nor for letting PFOA consume his career. But he is still angry. ‘‘The thought that DuPont could get away with this for this long,’’ Bilott says, his tone landing halfway between wonder and rage, ‘‘that they could keep making a profit off it, then get the agreement of the governmental agencies to slowly phase it out, only to replace it with an alternative with unknown human effects — we told the agencies about this in 2001, and they’ve essentially done nothing. That’s 14 years of this stuff continuing to be used, continuing to be in the drinking water all over the country. DuPont just quietly switches over to the next substance. And in the meantime, they fight everyone who has been injured by it.’’ (Rich 2016)
Rich N. 2016. The lawyer who became DuPont’s worst nightmare. The New York Times, Jan 6. Available at http://www.nytimes.com/2016/01/10/magazine/the-lawyer-who-became-duponts-worst-nightmare.html?smid=nytcore-ipad-share&smprod=nytcore-ipad&_r=0
A colleague and friend of mine wrote a cautionary comment to last month’s post on glyphosate sharing allegations about one of the authors, Stephanie Seneff (2013). Critics point out that Seneff is not a biologist, but a computer scientist, and a known anti-GMO advocate. There are several issues I would like to raise in relation to this oft-quoted objection: activist scientists, industry bullying of scientists, establishing causation, and Type I vs. Type II errors. In subsequent posts, I will address these issues in reverse order; they are fundamental cruxes in the use of science for the common good that are imperative to examine at this turning point in global society.
Several thoughtful, recent articles and books on the thinking about hypotheses and Type I vs. Type II errors have led me to examine various analogies used to assess how decisions about uncertainty and action based on science are made.
Type I errors are those in which an effect is detected where there is none, a false positive in other words. Type II errors describe those errors in which an effect is not detected where there is one, a false negative in common parlance.
A fascinating article in Scientific American finds that human psychology is responsible for some errors we tend to make in this regard because in some cases, making a Type I error is less potentially harmful, and therefore evolutionarily adaptive, than making a Type II error. The example used is this: a Type I error, seeing a pattern where there is no pattern – like the wind in grass – might cause an early human to see a predator where there is no predator. But that’s OK. There is no real cost to such a mistake. On the other hand, a Type II error, not seeing a pattern where there is one – a predator in the grass – can be much worse. A mistake like this can result in death for the individual, or even the whole family or tribe. When death is involved, it is better to err on the side of caution, obviously. The article goes on to talk about how this results in false assignations of “agenticity,” or the idea that there is some thinking force behind patterns in the world (Shirmer 2009). A two-by-two grid for this logical problem might look like this:
|See pattern||Not see pattern|
|There is no pattern (predator)||Type I Error: very small expenditure of energy.|
|There is a pattern (predator)||Type II Error: predator eats you.|
An article in the Industrial Psychiatry Journal makes the analogy between scientific hypotheses and decisions in law (Banerjee et al. 2009). A Type I error – or false positive – is comparable to an innocent jailed or even executed, which is rightly seen as the worst, least just outcome, hence our presumption of “innocent until proven guilty.” Of course, we have all seen that there are many of these worst-case scenarios in real life. In law, a Type II error – a false negative – or a guilty person who is released, is also potentially bad, particularly if that guilty person goes on to commit other crimes. Still, this outcome is seen as less horrific compared to an innocent person convicted.
|Innocent||Type I Error: Jail, possibly execution for innocent person.|
|Guilty||Type II Error: bad outcome, but not as bad as killing innocent.|
Some of the best of the recent work on the logic of assessing causation and risk is What’s the Worst That Could Happen? by Greg Craven, an ingenious book about logically assessing the risks of climate change that began as a somewhat corny YouTube post (complete with Viking headdress), eventually garnering millions of views.
Here’s how he lays out the logic about the outcomes from Climate Change:
with a Type I error, there is no climate change, but we wrongly regulate. However, even in this outcome, regardless of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, even if we grant a global economic depression, there are still some benefits, despite the economic costs. It is easily verifiable that fewer people would die from the direct effects of coal-fired power plants, completely aside from the impacts of climate change. On the other hand, in the worst predictions of a Type II error in this scenario, we all die. At the least, we face dire social, political, environmental, and health consequences.
|Switch to renewables/Prepare for climate change||Do nothing|
|There is no climate change||Type I Error: some expenditure of energy. Economic losses, but gains from pollution prevention.|
|There is climate change||Type II Error:
Economic, Political, Social, Environmental, Health impacts.
Possible end of civilization.
x 7 billion
Greg Craven on YouTube – What’s the Worst That Can Happen?
When it comes to chemical regulation, I would argue that the stakes are nearly as high as with climate change, and likewise weighted against making a Type II error. In the case of a Type I error – a false positive – a chemical could be taken off the market that could have been helpful or less expensive than an alternative. While this is an ill, it is one against which we are very well defended. With the Type II error in this case, the error we are making rampantly, as documented abundantly by the CDC Biomonitoring Project, the President’s Cancer Panel, and the American Academy of Pediatrics – people, including young children, fall ill and die. They lose IQ points, experience bad health, risk death, and generally experience all the evils they could experience: loss of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
|Regulate chemicals||Do nothing|
|There are no health effects from chemical exposures||Type I Error: chemicals that are helpful and/or cheaper are pulled from the market.|
|There are health effects caused by chemical exposures that cause illness and death and are bioaccumulative and heritable||Type II Error: depending on effect size, many people fall ill and die; irreversible effects from bioaccumulation and epigenetic effects x millions or billions|
In chemical regulation, the scientists I have interviewed themselves have said they try very, very hard to avoid Type I errors because chemical companies exert undue pressure on the process. These companies would sue and slander scientists who make this kind of error, in the same way that they have with climate change. A case in point: the persecution of Tyrone Hayes for his research on atrazine, beautifully documented by The New Yorker (Aviv 2014). The Union of Concerned Scientists is working to raise funds to protect scientists who are so persecuted. Even when the evidence is beyond a reasonable doubt, huge economic forces and astonishingly wealthy companies do everything in their power to call into doubt the regulation outcome. Because this two-by-two square involves death for humans, it is more analogous to not seeing a predator than to releasing a guilty person. In addition, unjust death is more likely in the justice analogy to be brought through the death penalty, in the case of a Type I error, than in a Type II error. In the predator and chemical regulation analogies, unjust death is more likely to result from a Type II error. The precautionary principle would indicate that much more caution should be applied in models where the Type II error is more calamitous. Science denial on behalf of the status quo, which avoids at all costs Type II errors, results in very bad consequences, both for individuals and for humanity. It results in ridiculous outcomes like the one we are currently experiencing with virtually no action on climate change, the greatest threat to human civilization ever, aside from the threat of all-out nuclear war.
The point of all this is that while the logical pattern of these problems is similar, the outcomes, the gain or loss in common and individual goods, are entirely unequal. And while one would like to think that the bias introduced to this pattern was entirely from a logical calculation of these goods and ills, this is very far from the case: first, because there is a huge bias toward the status quo; second, because very large entities (corporations) care about bottom lines far more than the common good, even if it entails others’ deaths; and third, because industry can exert pressure even on the process and thinking of the supposedly objective science and scientists themselves, towards what they consider the desired outcome. Not only does this outside pressure directly affect the behavior and science of those scientists in the employ of the industry, like the scientists doing bogus work for the tobacco industry. It also affects in more subtle but still serious ways those well intentioned scientists who will be bullied if they are wrong in the direction industry does not want them to go. Also, in a case like preventing climate change, or giving up handy chemicals that help people, there is a bias on behalf of nearly all of us: we do not want to find out that we must be inconvenienced to avoid terrible hazards in the future. But we tend to completely neglect the consequences of Type II errors that support the status quo or business as usual. And we forget that science and scientists can be wrong in the wrong direction. The Arctic can melt faster, and the chemicals can cause more autism and lower IQs than anyone ever predicted.
Effect size is another important issue, one I cannot address adequately in an already long blog. But we must consider that while a wrong decision about a predator or an unjust decision in law affects only a few people, runaway global climate change will negatively impact millions, possibly billions, possibly every living being on the planet. Excess use of chlorpyrifos not only killed my daughter and many others like her; it has also affected the intelligence of many, if not most, children. Bruce Lanphear is excellent on the subject of the shifting bell curve of intelligence among today’s pre-polluted generation of children (PANNA 2011; Peeples 2011).
It should also be acknowledged that any such schema as these grossly oversimplify the complexities of real life. But these logical models are useful in epidemiology and assessment of risk precisely because they narrow the possibilities down to broad outlines.
Back to Samsel and Seneff: they are not proposing harms of glyphosate in isolation; rather they are beginning to theorize about mechanisms by which harms, already documented in the epidemiological data, could occur. Their theory is far from conclusive, but nevertheless suggestive. It goes to biological plausibility of an established hypothesis, that glyphosate, far from being innocuous, harms people. Glyphosate is obviously not the only pernicious chemical, but it one that has been relatively neglected. Even this chemical many of us had conceded was less harmful, does convey some harm.
Biological plausibility is one of the Bradford Hill criteria for establishing causation in science. More on that soon. It is perhaps not surprising that ideas about biological plausibility based on indirect mechanisms come not from specialists in cancer or autism, or epidemiologists, or chemists, but from polymaths who step back and try to see the whole picture. Often, that is how break-through ideas occur. We need more of these kinds of insights and discussions about how technology and science can benefit, or conversely, harm, the things and people we value the most.
Aviv R. 2014. A valuable reputation. The New Yorker, Feburary 10. Available at http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2014/02/10/a-valuable-reputation
Banerjee A, Chitnis UB, Jadhav SL, Bhawalkar JS, Chaudhury S. 2009. Hypothesis testing, type I and type II errors. Ind Pscyhiatry 18(2):127-131.
Craven G. 2007. The most terrifying video you will ever see. YouTube. Available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zORv8wwiadQ
Craven G. 2007. What’s the worst that could happen? New York: Penguin Group, 2009.
Peeples L 2011. ‘Little things matter’ exposes big threats to children’s brains. Huffington Post, November 20.
Pesticide Action Network of North America (PANNA). 2011. Little things matter: Shifting IQ down a notch. Available at http://www.panna.org/blog/little-things-matter-shifting-iqs-down-notch
Samsel A, Seneff S. 2013. Glyphosate’s suppression of Cytochrome P450 enzymes and amino acid biosynthesis by the gut microbiome: Pathways to modern diseases. Entropy 15: 1416-1463.
Shermer M. 2009. Why people believe invisible agents control the world. Scientific American, June 1. Available at http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/skeptic-agenticity/
Have you heard how they’re poisoning children with lead in the water supply in Flint, Michigan? Trust no one when it comes to your children’s health. At the very least, trust but verify. Don’t wait to learn this lesson by hard experience, as so many of us have. Our government — federal, state, and local — should protect us, but it doesn’t. Not even close.
MELISSA MAYS: Well, my sons, all three of them, are very bright. They had a great future going. Their school—their grades in school were fantastic. My oldest is actually taking high school and college classes at the same time, so he scored so well, he was able to do that, so he would have an associate’s degree by the time he graduated high school. Well, now he’s struggling. He needs a tutor. And he has a C average, which is unheard of for him. And he’s really getting down on himself, because he’s missing small things, pluses and minuses in algebra, little small things, because of brain fog.
My middle child, they—Christian has been able to bump up a grade, since he was in kindergarten. And now he’s also struggling, forgetting things. And he can’t sleep at night because his bones hurt. He fell off his bike, and his wrist basically shattered. And for his bones to be that weak just blew everyone’s mind.
And my youngest, he’s dealing with anemia. We can’t get his white blood cell count over four, meaning he gets sick anytime anybody sneezes. And he’s just—they’re all great kids, and now—they were on this path to doing really great things and working hard at their—at school work and working hard at, you know, Lego engineering and everything they’ve been doing, and now they can’t focus, they’re in pain, they’re sick all the time. So they’ve been derailed because of this—
Read more at Democracy Now: http://m.democracynow.org/stories/15795