Gina McCarthy’s words and deeds

I just heard on NPR an interview with former EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy (Morning Edition, 12 August 2017) in which she criticized the Trump Administration for not protecting the environment.  Ms McCarthy has been under attack plenty of times herself.  She was asked to resign as EPA Administrator by more than one member of Congress for her agency’s failure to take action in the Flint lead in water crisis.  In today’s interview, she made no mention of the EPA’s botched response to the Flint water crisis, but it prompted me to review that response given McCarthy’s current role as a public critic of the agency.  If she, a supposed champion of ensuring public access to clean drinking water, and with a supposedly supportive Obama Administration backing her up, could be “misled” and “strong-armed” so that they “could not do our jobs effectively,” what hope is there that any agency can or will protect the public’s drinking water?

McCarthy has been vilified by both sides of the debate over environmental regulation.  There is plenty to cheer as well as to jeer about her record on protecting the environment.  On one hand, she championed the Clean Water Rule and the importance of upgrading aging water infrastructure.  On the other hand, she failed to intervene and even defends her agency’s response to Miguel Del Toral’s reports of water contamination in Flint, Michigan in June 2015.  In her testimony before a House Committee in March 2016, McCarthy claimed her agency was “misled” by the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality.  McCarthy’s subordinate, former EPA Region 5 Administrator Susan Hedman, also blamed MDEQ for covering up the problem, as did the former mayor of Flint Dayne Walling and even the former state appointed emergency manager, Darnell Earley (who is facing felony charges in connection with his decisions as Flint Emergency Manager).  All of them claim they did all they could.  And yet the water in Flint is still not safe to drink.

MDEQ’s alleged attempts to mislead, or their failure to ensure corrosion control treatment of Flint’s water is even less shocking to me than the fact that the federal agency charged with overseeing enforcement of the LCR could be “strong-armed” by the agency it is charged to regulate.  McCarthy claimed in a Congressional hearing in March, 2016 that “we had everything in place we needed to prevent this from happening…the state failed to implement and enforce appropriately.”  Really?  This strikes me as blaming the fox for failing to enforce the rules that are supposed to keep foxes out of the henhouse.  The fox didn’t make the rules, it is just being a fox.   At least Governor Snyder apologized and admitted failure of his administration to handle the crisis, and his attorney general has brought charges against several state and city officials involved in the case.  I’ve seen no such attempts at accountability at the federal level.

Curious to know what McCarthy had to say upon leaving her post as EPA administrator, I found an interview by the Washington Post on 21 December 2016 (, just as she was leaving the EPA to be replaced by Trump appointee Scott Pruitt.  McCarthy said her biggest regret as EPA Administrator was the agency’s inability to connect with rural communities in the way it had succeeded in doing with mayors of urban cities.  She made a good point about the need to address source water pollution to prevent the requirement for huge investments in treatment facilities downstream.  Only when pressed by the interviewer did she mention Flint.  She said Flint’s water is getting fixed, but its economic problems continue to contribute to its environmental issues.  “They have neighborhoods where they have one person living in them. You can’t service one person in a system like that without having stagnant water everywhere. Stagnant water is not your friend in a drinking water system. So there are long-term challenges there that have to be fixed. And it’s a real serious question about how the economics work in a city that has such high poverty levels with such high vacancy. It’s like Detroit, only smaller. There needed to be a huge national effort to address that.”

Taking Dr. Yanna Lambrinidou’s class on Experts and the Public helped me to interpret those remarks differently than I would have before. Before taking the class I might have overlooked the shortcomings of people who were otherwise supportive of my position.  But after studying the Flint water crisis and other environmental crises like it I am convinced that good intentions and supportive words are not enough.  I give McCarthy credit for recognizing the nature of the situation in Flint, that the roots of Flint’s water crisis lay in its deep seated economic problems.  But she failed to explain what it was that prevented the EPA from addressing or even acknowledging the problem for so long, whether it was the culture of the EPA or inadequate policy or lack of enforcement tools.  Saying “we had what we needed” and then doing nothing because they were “misled” by MDEQ doesn’t cut it.  The EPA’s own employee, Miguel Del Toral, sounded the alarm about Flint’s water contamination in June 2015.  Even before that, it was Flint resident LeeAnne Walters who alerted Del Toral to the lack of corrosion control treatment in the water.  McCarthy is now in a position to be a strong advocate for changes to the Lead and Copper Rule, to close the loopholes which enabled state agencies to wait over a year before applying corrosion control while claiming Flint’s water was “optimized” as required by the LCR.  Yes, Flint’s economy needs to be fixed, and the new EPA Administrator is rolling back environmental quality regulations, but McCarthy would be more effective by righting what went wrong under her watch rather than ignoring it.


On Objectivity

Listening to an “On The Media” podcast titled “In Which Brooke Explains OTM’s Secret Sauce to Jesse Thorn” (July 12, 2017), it occurred to me how similar OTM co-host Brooke Gladstone’s views on the objectivity of the media and journalists are to my own views about the objectivity of science and scientists.  In the interview, Brooke explains why the decision was made for the co-hosts to “lay their emotions on the table” as an additional “data point for listeners,” and to reveal their “own points of view” rather than acting as a “voice from on high” style that other media use.  “Being authentic,” and avoiding the “awkward locutions” of pretending to be “passionless priests of objectivity,” explains Brooke, is a way to build trust in their listeners, rather than diminish it.  What worked for Walter Cronkite would not work today because the “playing field has been leveled by the internet.”  Brooke sums it up with the statement used by many others in the field, “disclosure if the new objectivity.”

Perhaps it’s time for science and scientists to acknowledge that the playing field has been leveled by the internet, meaning ordinary citizens have access to all kinds of information that was not available to them in the past, and that information combined with the data that comes from personal experience is a powerful source of knowledge.  That is not to say that my Google search is equivalent to someone else’s PhD or other professional credentials, but even someone with a PhD must recognize the limits of their knowledge and understanding, and be open to input from people with a personal interest in an issue.  Someone directly impacted by something (especially something affecting his or her health) has the benefit of experience and a powerful incentive to gather as much information as he or she can about it.  In the age of the internet, it is far more valuable to know how to access data and learn new things rather than be satisfied with the quantity of what you have learned in the past.

Sins of science

Week 10’s readings about the appropriate role of scientists in the public arena brought to mind the story of German chemist Fritz Haber.  Haber was a secular Jewish chemist who won a Nobel Prize for combining nitrogen and hydrogen to make nitrates for fertilizer.  His achievement was hailed as “a triumph in service of all humanity” (from Haber’s obituary in 1934).  On the other hand, he also contributed to the production of synthetic nitrates for explosives, thereby increasing and prolonging the mass slaughter of World War I.  Haber also invented a way to weaponize poison gas for use on the battlefield.  He developed a pesticide called Zyclon A which was later re-formulated by the Nazis as Zyclon B, which was used to murder people, including some of Haber’s own relatives, in the gas chamber.  Was Haber good or evil?  Was he a patriot trying to serve his country or was he a war criminal? Do the ends justify the means?  The point is that scientists often try and position themselves or science in general as being on the side of good or evil, when the fact is there are often elements of both sides present.

Lead, Margarine, and Unintended Consequences

Paul A. Offit, “Pandora’s Lab” excerpted from Pandora’s Lab: Seven Stories of Science Gone Wrong (2017) in National Geographic, June 2017, 136-150

Having heard a lot about the Lead and Copper Rule, I’m still mulling over whether government regulations like the LCR, however well intended, do more harm or more good in protecting the public.  I recently came across an excerpt of Dr. Paul Offit’s 2017 book, Pandora’s Lab: Seven Stories of Science Gone Wrong, which tells the story of the government’s role in restricting dietary fat while inadvertently promoting trans fats which turned out to be far more dangerous than saturated fats.

In 1977 a US Senate Select Committee published dietary guidelines calling for reduction of all foods containing cholesterol (eggs) and saturated fats (like butter, lard, cream, and processed meats).  With help from consumer activists and government agencies, these guidelines became government policy and had a tremendous influence over Americans’ eating habits.

The government guidelines were based on inconclusive studies of total fat and total cholesterol intake.  In the 1980s, several studies indicated that foods with saturated fat contributed to heart disease while those with unsaturated fat (like fatty fish, almonds and other nuts, flax, and chia seeds), did not.  Since margarine was low in saturated fat, Americans were told to continue to eat “heart healthy” margarine instead of butter.

Unfortunately, margarine contains 25% trans fat, which turns out to be far more dangerous than other fats.  Though researchers had reported on the dangers of trans fats as early as 1981, the dominant narrative was that all saturated fats were bad and unsaturated fats were good.  Cholesterol, too, turned out to be more complex than we were led to believe.  Some cholesterol is actually good for you (HDL), some is bad for you (LDL) and some is VERY bad for you (VLDL).  Trans fats not only increase VLDL but they decrease HDL.

In contrast to the expedited way the government implemented guidelines on saturated fat and cholesterol, it wasn’t until 2006 that the FDA finally implemented rules requiring manufacturers to list the quantity of trans fats on nutrition labels.  As quoted in the article, Harvard epidemiologist Walter Willett said “you really need a high level of proof to change [government] regulations, which is ironic because they never had a high level of proof to set them.”  Unfortunately the FDA still allows manufacturers to claim zero grams of trans fats in products that contain less than .5 grams (like coffee creamer and some margarine).

Back to the LCR.  Like the dietary guidelines, the LCR was intended to protect the public.  But, like FDA rules, the LCR contains conditions, exceptions, and loop holes that open the door to abuse and actually discourage enforcement by the people charged to implement it.  Laws and regulations including the LCR that rely on science must be reviewed as the science evolves and brings forth new evidence.  This speaks to the importance of science advisors who understand science as well as legislation and can keep track to ensure legislation includes mandatory review periods.

The Effect of Power on the Brain

Jerry Useem, “Power Causes Brain Damage” The Atlantic, July/August 2017, p24-26

“Absolute power corrupts absolutely,” said 19th century British politician Lord Acton.  The corruption of power is often manifested as hubris among those who possess the power.  The degree to which power corrupts not only the bad but also the otherwise good, moral person differs among individuals.  You can find countless books and articles on the subject of power and hubris in business journals and military leadership books.  The hubris of powerful people has been attributed to many things, from cold heartedness or greed, to weakness of character, to personality defects or personal insecurity.  Wherever it comes from, it has led to numerous disasters throughout history (for example, Napoleon’s ill fated invasion of Russia).  Last week I found an article in the Atlantic that explores another source for disorders of the powerful – brain damage.

Jerry Useem’s article highlights research on what seems observable and obvious to many of us – that people in positions of power seem to lose their ability to relate to their subordinates, and in some cases lose touch with reality in general.  Useem points to what neurologist Lord David Owen and co-author Jonathan Davis call “Hubris syndrome,” a disorder of people in positions of power for extended periods of time, characterized by contempt for others, loss of contact with reality, restless or reckless action and displays of incompetence.  This is the first time I’ve seen these traits treated as a “disorder” with “clinical features” rather than a personality flaw or leadership defect.

Useem also mentions several studies that demonstrate impairment of certain neural processes, including “mirroring.”  Mirroring, as used here, is a subconscious form of mimicry in which watching someone do something causes the part of the brain we would use to do that same action to “light up in sympathetic response.”  Research shows that among those studied who were considered powerful, the mirroring response worked less well than those in the nonpowerful group.  Even when the powerful group was asked to make a conscious effort to increase the mirroring response, the results did not change.

Fortunately there are techniques for avoiding “hubris syndrome” and other disorders of the possession of power.  Extremely powerful people such as Franklin D. Roosevelt and Winston Churchill had confidants who kept them grounded and even humbled simply by treating them as if they had the same obligations as the rest of us.  Unfortunately, as Useem points out, there is not a lot of appetite in the business world (nor, I would add on the military or government side) for research on hubris.  I would recommend more of this research for use in leadership training.  Most of the toxic leaders I have come across are the last to realize or admit that they are responsible for the toxic atmosphere in their organizations.  In some cases it would be more effective to treat it as an unconscious response of the brain to the experience of sustained power instead of as a personality defect that most would deny having.

The research described in this article is also useful for ethnographic researchers who seek to understand the perspectives and insights of members of groups that are disempowered, silenced and victimized.  It helps explain in part why “good people do bad things.”  Indifference toward victims, loss of touch with reality, and acts of blatant incompetence can be result at least in part from “hubris syndrome,” especially when leaders do not make a conscious effort to remain grounded and in touch with their subordinates and clients.  Also, researchers themselves must be aware of how they come across to the people they are interviewing.  As Yanna pointed out in class, how one listens can be a source of either empowerment or annihilation to the person being interviewed.  The ability to see yourself as others see you is critical in ethnographic studies, and the researcher must adopt strategies to keep that ability from becoming “anesthetized.

PBS NOVA airs “Poisoned Water”

The documentary “Poisoned Water” aired on the PBS series NOVA on May 31st.  The program tells the story of the city of Flint, Michigan’s switch from Lake Huron to Flint River water, and lead poisoning crisis which followed.

It was unclear who funded the making of the documentary, although it was made by Blue Spark Collaboration.  I could not find any information about “Poisoned Water” on the Blue Spark Collaborative website.  Funding for the series NOVA was provided by 23andMe genetic service and David H. Koch, an American businessman who with his brother Charles owns the second largest private firm in the US (  Koch’s political views are libertarian, and he has contributed to the political campaigns of both Republicans and Democrats.  Koch is a cancer survivor who has given millions to cancer research, among other charities.

The decision to switch Flint’s water source from Lake Huron to Flint River was intended to be a money saving measure, instituted by an emergency manager appointed by Governor Snyder.  The film focuses on Flint resident LeeAnne Walters, who became an activist after observing the health problems that she and her four children suffered as a result of exposure to the city water.  Walters requested documents and did her own research on water quality and the effects of lead.

At first, the city’s response to Walters and others’ complaints was denial.  Walters discovered by going through Flint water reports that the city had not been applying corrosion controls.  Walters appealed to the EPA’s Midwest water division, which led to an introduction to Marc Edwards, an expert in lead corrosion at Virginia Tech.  Edwards had challenged the Center for Disease Control’s data during the DC water crisis in 2001-2010.  To Edwards, “Flint was the next DC.”  Edwards and his team conducted their own tests and requested more city documents through FOIA requests.  They found Flint residents had been instructed by city officials to flush the water lines before sampling, thereby decreasing the amount of lead that would be found in the sample.  They also found that samples from LeeAnne Walters’s home had been discarded.  Another player in the story was pediatrician Mona Hanna-Attisha, who began researching the blood lead levels of Flint’s children before and after the change in water supply.

It took yet another water borne crisis, this time the appearance of Legionnaire’s Disease bacteria in the water which infected 90 and killed 12, before Dr. Eden Wells of Michigan HHS confirmed the research and the Governor ordered Flint’s water supply to switch back to Lake Huron.  LD bacteria are normally killed by chlorine in the water, but without corrosion control the chlorine was consumed by rust.

In the aftermath of the Flint water crisis, 13 people have been criminally indicted.  LeeAnne Walters moved her family to Virginia.

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The Atlantic – The Lead-Poisoned Generation

Good article from the Atlantic, May 21st 2017