Toxic Talk of the Month – Field Notes from a Catastrophe

In light of the recent U.S. presidential elections and the preceding debates, I was all too reminded of the lack of attention paid to the most pressing issue of our time; namely, climate change. While nations around the world rally to legislate international policies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, the U.S. has simply languished due to repeated blocks by a republican senate (yes, climate change has unfortunately become a partisan issue). With Donald Trump now bound for the White House, we can expect a Supreme Court that will likely block the only regulatory hope we had (the Clean Power Plan) at seriously curbing domestic greenhouse gas emissions. With that being said, it is time for Americans to break away from the politicization and partisan spin on climate change. We simply can't rely on political figures to deliver a message when their funding depends on their silence. We must rely on our scientists to deliver this message. To this end, I am initiating a blog series aimed at educating the public on the science of climate change. As a first step, I present to you Field Notes from a Catastrophe: Man, Nature, and Climate Change.
Field Notes from a Catastrophe is the first book on climate change I ever read. It is an excellent read that I would consider non-technical and enjoyable for the greater public, yet replete with essential information. It weaves the science of climate change into an interesting investigatory narrative, told by a journalist with a burning desire to understand and report on the issue. Throughout her book, author Elizabeth Kolbert travels around the world, interviewing climate scientists and visiting places afflicted by climate change. Her observations are very real, and her discussions with scientists very telling.  

Ms. Kolbert has been a staff writer for The New Yorker for nearly 20 years. Her book originally stemmed from a groundbreaking, National Magazine Award-winning three-part series in the Newspaper. She expanded on this story to put together this captivating book. Although originally published in 2006, her book was updated in 2015 to include several new chapters. Yes, climate change has only gotten worse, and the impacts more widespread! So I call on Americans and people around the world, please learn about climate change. Get to know the issue and what you can do to reduce your carbon footprint and, importantly, to pressure your local politicians to act on the matter. Expand your knowledge using unbiased, science-based websites. No corporate or political sites! This book is a good place to start. For other credible info sites, and how to avoid garbage info, read my previous blog. And importantly, stay tuned for my climate change blog series!

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                                                                                        Shahir Masri
                                                                                        Doctor of Science
                                                                                        Environmental Health Science


Election Day is Here - Go Vote!!!

It's VOTING DAY!! To the "no voters," third party voters, and swing state voters, please consider your decision very carefully. We have a candidate on the table who believes climate change is a hoax and has little to say about curbing greenhouse gas emissions. If you have children, your vote will affect them. If you plan to have children, their futures are at stake. Vote responsibly on their behalf. They will thank you in 20 years. While I don't claim Hillary is our savior, she at least recognizes what 97% of climatologists recognize, and she has tangible policies to address the matter. The most important piece of climate legislation our country has seen, The Clean Power Plan, will soon be decided in the Supreme Court. A Trump judicial appointee would likely kill this policy, furthering the world down a path of business as usual. A no vote essentially approves this reality. A third party vote essentially approves this reality. And a Trump vote essentially welcomes this reality. Be on the right side of history!!

                                                                              Shahir Masri, S.D. 
                                                                              Environmental Health Scientist 


Clinton vs. Trump on the Environment

Hey everyone!

We’re now days away from an important presidential election. You’ve watched them debate. You’ve seen them rally. What you probably haven’t witnessed is either candidate speak to issues of the environment, except for a brief question by beloved Ken Bone of course! Fortunately, both candidates were recently interviewed on these issues by www.ScienceDebate.org, so we can still gauge and compare their stances and knowledge. In this blog I do just that! Using this Presidential Science Debate 2016 interview, I have selected 8 questions that relate specifically to the environment and public health.  To assess the quality of each candidate’s response in the least biased manner, I generated a ranking system through which I scored each response by Trump and Clinton according to 6 separate criteria. Such criteria are described below, and the results are plotted in a bar graph for simple interpretation.

Scoring Criteria

Scoring was dichotomous. That is, candidates received either a “1” or a “0” in each of 6 categories, depending on their response.

Understanding of Topic
1 = candidate conveyed a good understanding of the topic, 0 = if not

Response Length
1 = only if response was twice the length of opponent’s response, 0 = if not

Concrete Goals 
1 = candidate described specific/quantifiable goals, 0 = if not

Provided Solution
1 = candidate provided some sort of solution to the issue at hand, 0 = if not      

Scientific Accuracy
1 = candidate’s response was scientifically accurate, 0 = if not

Avoided Vague Language           
1 = candidate used strong language such as “will” or “shall” in describing goals, 0 = candidate used soft or vague language such as “should” or “can”

The Results

As shown above, Clinton out scored Trump in all issues relating to public health and the environment. However, no issue separated the candidates’ scores more than climate change. While Clinton conveyed a sound understanding of the issue and the measures needed and proposed by experts to mitigate climatic impacts, Trump conveyed an overall lack of understanding of climate change and perception of its importance. To see where each candidate was penalized according to my scoring criteria, please see the table below (zeros are left blank).

As you can see, three common criteria penalized Trump, including 1) understanding of topic, 2) response length, and 3) concrete goals. Put into a single sentence, Trump’s responses were mostly very short, vague, and failed to convey an understanding of the topics. On average Clinton’s responses were a whopping 4.5 times longer than Trumps. By contrast, Clinton appears to understand these issues quite well and has taken the steps to formulate concreted goals relating to their solutions. In reviewing this Presidential Science Debate 2016 interview, it is therefore difficult to conclude anything but Clinton as the stronger candidate on issues of public health and the environment. 

Given the differences between the candidates on these issues, I shall conclude with a bit of my own opinion. The issue of climate change is particularly alarming as it relates to Trump’s demonstration of knowledge, understanding, and lack of proposed mitigation policies. Refuting climate change is refuting what 97% of climatologists are telling us. If you visited 100 doctors and 97 of them said you had the flu, would you still question whether you had the flu?? It is time to take this issue seriously. It is imperative to have a U.S. president who takes climate change seriously. The issue is not one of the environment exclusively, but one of human health as well. Trump appears to overlook this.

If you think that my analysis could be flawed by bias, I urge you to read on. I have provided a summary of each candidates response to all 8 interview questions. I think you'll conclude that my analysis was quite fair. You will notice my summaries of each candidate’s response are not equal in length. That is, I often summarize Clinton’s response using more text. This is because I’ve taken great care to write summaries that reflect the actual lengths of each candidate’s response. Yes, I did a Microsoft “word count” on each answer! So, if one candidate’s answer was twice as long as the other’s, then my summary of their response was twice as long. This was to give you the most unbiased and accurate reflection of their true answers.  If you don’t want a summary and wish to read the full interview, click the Presidential Science Debate 2016. Note that I didn’t provide the actual questions below, but rather the topic headers, which is sufficient to understand their responses.

Response Summaries

1. Climate Change

  • The science of climate change is clear
  • Climate change is an urgent threat
  • Will work to slash greenhouse gas pollution
  • Set 3 specific energy goals to be achieved within 10 years of taking office
    • Generate half of electricity from clean sources, with half a billion solar panels installed by the end of first term.
    • Cut energy waste in American homes, schools, hospitals and offices by a third and improve American manufacturing efficiency and pollution.
    • Reduce American oil consumption by a third through cleaner fuels and more efficient cars, boilers, ships, and trucks.
  • There is still much that needs to be investigated in the field of “climate change.” 
  • Perhaps our limited financial resources should be focused on issues of water, infectious disease, and food, along with developing alternative energy sources.

2. Biodiversity

  • Conserving biodiversity is essential to maintaining our quality of life.
  • Climate change, pollution, habitat destruction, unsustainable management practices, introduction of invasive species and other forces pose serious threats to biodiversity.
  • Will work to double the State and Tribal Wildlife Grants program to help states, tribal nations, and local communities act earlier to conserve wildlife before they become threatened or endangered.
  • Will establish an American Parks Trust Fund to scale up and modernize how we protect and enhance our natural treasures, and to better protect wildlife habitat across the country.
  • Will work collaboratively with other nations to end trafficking in wildlife and illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing that threatens our oceans
  • There will be shared governance of our public lands and we will empower state and local governments to protect our wildlife and fisheries. 
  • Laws that tilt the scales toward special interests must be modified to balance the needs of society with the preservation of our valuable living resources.  Will bring all stakeholders to the table to determine the best approach to setting that balance.

3. Energy

  • Make America a 21st century clean energy superpower.
  • Rejects notion that the economy, environment, and national security can’t go hand in hand.
  • Defend, implement, and extend smart pollution and efficiency standards, including the Clean Power Plan and standards for cars, trucks, and appliances that are already helping clean our air, save families money, and fight climate change.
  • Invest in clean energy infrastructure, innovation, manufacturing and workforce development to make the U.S. economy more competitive and create good-paying jobs and careers.
  • Ensure the fossil fuel production taking place today is safe and responsible and that areas too sensitive for energy production are taken off the table.
  • Expand clean energy production on public lands and waters tenfold within a decade.
  • Cutting billions of wasteful tax subsidies to oil and gas companies.
  • Cut methane emissions across the economy and create strong standards for reducing leaks.
  • It should be the goal of the American people and their government to achieve energy independence as soon as possible.
  • Obtaining energy independence should include exploring wind, solar, nuclear and bio-fuels.

4. Public Health

  • Despite recent major events like contaminated drinking water in Flint, Michigan, the spread of Zika virus, and the continuing need to address HIV, we are not currently investing in public health preparedness and emergency response the way we should.
  • Will create a Public Health Rapid Response Fund, with consistent, year-to-year budgets, to better enable the Centers for Disease Control, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, state and local public health departments, hospital systems, and other federal agencies to quickly and aggressively respond to major public health crises and pandemics. 
  • Will ensure that our government has strong leadership and is organized to better support and work with people on the ground facing public health challenges.
  • Must focus on boosting our preparedness for biological threats and bioweapons, supporting research for new diagnostic tests and vaccines for emerging diseases, building capacity in public health departments, etc.
  • We cannot simply throw money at public health institutions and assume that the nation will be well served. 
  • Must focus on assessing where we need to be as a nation and then applying resources to those areas where we need the most work. 
  • Our efforts to support research and public health initiatives will have to be balanced with other demands for scarce resources.

5. Water

  • Invest in infrastructure and work with states, municipalities, and the private sector to modernize water systems and provide all Americans access to clean, safe drinking water.
  • The federal government must become a better partner in supporting state and locally-led efforts to improve water security.
  • Create a coordinated, multi-agency Western Water Partnership to help fund water efficiency, consideration, and infrastructure modernization projects across the region, including significant new investments in water reuse and reclamation.
  • Establish a new Water Innovation Lab for better water efficiency and treatment solutions.
  • Invest in our fresh water infrastructure to ensure access to affordable fresh water solutions.
  • Explore all options to include making desalinization more affordable and work to build the distribution infrastructure.

6. Nuclear

  • Nuclear power accounts for over 60% of our zero carbon power generation and is an important tool for meeting climate change goals.
  • Will increase research, development and deployment of advanced nuclear power. 
  • Must also invest in the security of our nuclear materials at home, and improve coordination between federal, state, and local authorities.
  • Must seek to reduce the amount of nuclear material worldwide – working with other countries to minimize the use of weapons-grade material for civil nuclear programs.
  • Nuclear power can be made safer and is a valuable source of energy that should be part of an all-the-above program for providing power for America long into the future. 

7. Vaccines

  • Will protect child health in American and the globe through use of vaccinations and vaccine science.
  • The recent measles outbreaks in California’s Marin and Orange counties remind us that we cannot be complacent with our own nation’s vaccine policies.
  • Will work closely with talented physicians, nurses, and scientists in U.S. Public Health Service to speak out and educate parents about vaccines.
  • We need to engage stakeholders across industry, non-profits, foundations, and government to spur the development of a new generation of vaccines.
  • Should educate public on the values of a comprehensive vaccination program.

8. Ocean Health

  • Our coastal and ocean resources play a critical role in providing nutritious food, good livelihoods, and critical storm protection for our nation.
  • With about 40 percent of our nation’s population living in coastal counties, 1.8 million Americans making their livelihood from fisheries, and 3 billion people globally dependent on the oceans for a major portion of their protein, we cannot afford to ignore the health of our oceans.
  • Will continue to recover and rebuild U.S. fish stocks by making sound management decisions based on the best available science.
  • Will work with our industry, and other countries, to implement strong traceability standards for our seafood from bait to plate.
  • Will work collaboratively across government, academia, and industry to build solutions that keep our waters clean, our coastal and ocean resources healthy, and our communities thriving.
  • Work with Congress to establish priorities on how to allocate fiscal resources.  
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                                                                         Shahir Masri
                                                                         Doctor of Science
                                                                         Environmental Health Science


Aerial Pesticide Spraying for Mosquito Control - News Publication!

Hey blog world,

Recently I discussed the Zika outbreak. One strategy being applied in the U.S. to combat Zika is aerial spraying of organophosphate pesticides (OPs) for mosquito control. Kill the mosquitoes and you'll reduce Zika. However, OPs come with their own set of health consequences. As recent flooding by Hurricane Matthew may bring a boom in mosquito numbers, it's quite possible we'll see OP spraying yet again commence. In an opinion piece published just yesterday in The Hill, I discuss this issue in detail. Check out the article below!

In the wake of Hurricane Matthew — to spray or not to spray?

"Confronted by devastating Hurricane Matthew, Florida residents and city officials have even more to deal with than the obvious destruction and loss at hand.  When floods and rain subside, stagnant puddles and newly formed ponds persist — a perfect breeding ground for mosquitoes. What this has meant previously is aerial spraying of highly toxic..." 
Get the full article at The Hill. 
Join my blog site by clicking “join this site” at the top right of this page, logging into your account, and clicking “follow publicly.”  Thanks!

                                                          Dr. Shahir Masri
                                                          Environmental Health Scientist