Category Archives: Outreach

Our Role in Combating Pseudoscience

By Mandy McDougall

The prevalence of pseudoscience in our society is getting out of hand.

Pseudoscience (including bad science, chemophobia, and full-fledged anti-science) presents itself as a multidisciplinary problem. Though many pseudoscientific claims concern personal and public health (for instance, vaccines and vaccine-preventable diseases, homoeopathy, and ‘detox’ cleanses), some also concern environmental toxicology, including misconceptions surrounding many environmentally relevant compounds, such as pesticides. Although pseudoscience is by no means a new phenomenon, tea detox advertisements and chemtrail conspiracy theory pages are now polluting the internet and social media. When combined with the growing glorification of pursuing ‘alternative’ agricultural and medical practices, pseudoscience often tries to disguise itself as quality science.

Such frequent disregard of the scientific method calls for scientists – particularly toxicologists – to play a vital role in tackling pseudoscience. Those who understand the science have an obligation to passionately and unapologetically communicate the threats of pseudoscience as it relates to public health, food security, and scientific literacy. How many times have you seen ads for a ‘chemical-free’ dish soap, granola bar, or makeup powder? Seems innocent enough, but excusing bad science in marketing is just the beginning of something much worse.

Overall, this issue is bigger than the specific area of toxicology or chemistry that we study. People are being encouraged to put their families, their children, and public health at risk, on account of advice from sources claiming to be an enlightened alternative to the evil ‘Bigs’ – Big Pharma, Big Ag, Big Chem – you get the picture.

Some people have adopted a reaction whereby they believe that any product developed by a large company – let’s say pesticides – is inherently bad. No questions asked; no case-by-case evaluation; no room for logic and reasoning. These knee-jerk reactions to words like ‘pesticide’ and ‘chemical’ are brought on by fear-mongering campaigns and clever marketing schemes for ‘alternative’ products. There is this unfounded assumption that in maintaining a healthy environment, the use of conventional pesticides cannot occur. However, these two things are not, as some may think, mutually exclusive.

Perhaps the most well-known example of this involves the continued use of DDT (dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane) in select tropical regions of the world. DDT was once believed to be completely safe for widespread application. However, we eventually learned about the long-term bioaccumulative and toxic effects related to DDT exposure in ecosystems, wildlife, and humans.

Despite these serious toxicological concerns, DDT is still approved for use in certain regions of the world in an effort to combat malaria. Such decisions are the result of complex risk assessments. When the benefits of DDT’s anti-malaria properties are weighed against the adverse long-term bioaccumulative and toxic effects of exposure to the compound, DDT use wins in some cases, but not in others. It is important to remember that the world is full of wicked problems where there fails to be one ‘right’ solution. In such cases, pragmatic problem solving prevails over ideological thinking. In environmental decision-making, a one-size-fits-all solution is often unachievable. We must look at the evidence and calculate the potential benefits and costs via the risk assessment process.

That being said, an important question to ask someone standing firm in their anti-science or pseudoscientific position is, “What would it take to change your mind on this issue?”, whether it be vaccine safety, the impracticality of detox cleanses, or agrochemicals. To someone who is concerned about the potential effects of a herbicide like glyphosate, you may, as an environmental toxicologist, want to challenge their claim that glyphosate is inherently a ‘bad chemical’. You may explain the role of route and exposure in estimating the risk of toxic effects from pesticides and herbicides. You may explain to them what it actually means when something is labelled as a ‘probable carcinogen’. You may explain how the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), like most organizations, has their own agenda.

If nothing you say could ever make them even consider a different perspective, it means that they are no longer thinking in terms of scientific truth, but simply in their beliefs. Their belief that ‘chemicals are bad for the environment’ is no different from other types of beliefs. No amount of scientific data could change their perspective on ‘chemicals’. Ultimately, such beliefs stem from a lack of knowledge in chemistry and toxicology. Although they may consider themselves enlightened because they believe in information contrary to ‘mainstream science’, this does not mean that what they believe is legitimate.

It is likely that some of this mistrust stems from a lack of transparency and effective communication on behalf of regulators and environmental scientists. We will have to first overcome this lingering mistrust between scientists and the public. Twitter feuds and debates just seem to further divide the ‘conventional’ and ‘alternative’ science communities. To promote effective communication, advanced facilitation techniques are probably necessary. The main objective here should be to search for an idea or statement that both an agrochemical scientist and environmental activist could agree on. For instance, perhaps a statement like, “Pesticides have the potential to harm the environment and those who live within it” may be appropriate. I’m sure that there are situations in which both parties would believe this to be true. Once some common ground is established, subsequent conversations will likely be less defensive and circular.

Environmental pollution has been and continues to be, detrimental to the air, water, soil, and well-being of many communities worldwide. From biomagnification of harmful contaminants in Northern communities to hydrocarbon pollution at abandoned gas stations, environmental pollution is prevalent and a constant threat to humans, wildlife, and ecosystems. I began studying environmental toxicology because of my love for nature and the desire to protect the environment against anthropogenic harm – from a rational, scientific approach. Without this, we cannot know where to prioritize our efforts and would be easily distracted by the claims of pseudoscience enthusiasts.

I end with a plea. My plea to students studying environmental chemistry and toxicology is to speak up for sound science. Being a scientist does not disqualify us from sharing knowledge outside of an academic journal or a conference poster. If anything, we should feel compelled and eager, if not obliged, to contribute to such conversations.

Don’t let companies get away with marketing ‘chemical-free’ products. Don’t let your friends spread misinformation from websites with questionable agendas. It might seem innocent enough, but it’s these same ideas that influenced parents, in several instances, to attempt to cure their children’s very treatable diseases using pseudoscientific approaches, sadly resulting in their death. At some point, an innocent lack of scientific literacy grows to become a danger to public health, food systems, and the overall integrity of science. So for me, this is no longer just about silly semantics. It’s about our role in shaping a society equipped to interpret and challenge information.

McDougall

 

Mandy is a graduate student at Simon Fraser University studying bioaccumulation behaviour of perfluorinated compounds in marine food webs.

Formulating Future Career Options within Green Chemistry

By Alicia McCarthy

Green chemistry, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), is the design of chemical products and processes that take into consideration the entire life cycle to reduce and eliminate the use or generation of hazardous chemicals. An aspect of green chemistry that can, at times, be overlooked is the communication up and down the supply chain of a substance. It is easy to sum up good practices for green chemistry, but it is another thing to implement those principles.

During my academic career, I knew I was passionate about sustainable chemistry, toxicology, and environmental health, but I had no idea what career options I had beyond what was listed in my major’s brochure. I took the time to reach out to professionals I met through my university and at conferences to hear about their own journey. When I was curious about certain career directions, I actively looked to join projects that would help me get a taste for different fields relating to green chemistry and toxicology. These projects provided hands-on experience and facilitated interaction with professionals, allowing me to see the bigger picture of substances from upstream, which could be the development and manufacturing of a substance, and following it downstream where it reaches end-users; revealing where the practice of green chemistry principles are or should be implemented.

When green chemistry principles are not initially utilized, certain occupations and fields become vital to the protection of human health and the environment. This blog will discuss a few areas related to green chemistry that I have learned about from my own experiences. There are plenty of other areas that benefit from a background in green chemistry and toxicology, but in this post I will go over hazard communication, recycling, chemical policy, environmental certification organizations and third party testing laboratories, formulation, the military and medical writers.

Hazard Communication

Communication is essential during the entire lifecycle of a substance; from the formulator to the recycling or disposal workers. Most workers that use hazardous substances only have labels to depend on to warn them of risks. However, there is a considerable difference between hazard and risk that is posed by a substance. The hazard will be present in all situations due to a substance’s intrinsic chemical or physical properties, but a risk posed by a substance is dependent on how a substance is handled, contained, and transported.

Whether on a global, national, state, or industry level, hazard communication is a field that has many opportunities for refinement. Countries adopt different editions of the GHS (Globally Harmonized System), and there are still inconsistent substance classifications on national harmonized lists. Just because there is a harmonized system does not mean there is harmonized labeling. Labeling and classification is dependent on hazard groups, categories adopted, editions of GHS utilized, national substance classification lists, country-specific requirements, and many other factors. Understanding the variables associated with national adoption of GHS brings opportunities to improve hazard communication.

Substances may be intended for one type of function, or for use in a mixture, however when downstream users are untrained in the risks of straying from those expected functions, the specific hazards and precautionary measures defined by the manufacturer may no longer be relevant. Having knowledge of chemical reactions and properties, mechanistic toxicology, and green chemistry can assist when training and educating workers and suppliers about the risks that go beyond the scope of the SDS (Safety Data Sheet) or GHS labeling.

With new technologies will come new human health and environmental toxicity risks; 3D printers and carbon nanotubes are just a few examples of emerging technologies that lack complete hazard communication and full risk assessments. Hazard communication can be the gatekeeper when it comes to risk assessments of substances like these, especially when certain risk assessment tools rely heavily on SDS. Missing toxicological information on a substance, trade secrets, or availability of in-house alternatives for substances are dependent on hazard communication professionals who contribute to these important policies and documents. For more information on careers in this field, the Society of Chemical Hazard Communication is a great way to talk to professionals and learn about opportunities in this area.

Recycling Specialist

The reuse and recycling of substances and waste produced by industrial processes or consumer articles are also within the scope of green chemistry. Those with degrees in chemistry, environmental health, and toxicology are crucial to the understanding of a substances fate, exposure, and potential effects at the end of the pipeline, especially if an article or substance is being transformed into something else. Many businesses, as well as cities and states hire recycling specialists to help develop and run recycling programs.

When recycled, some materials can expose workers to toxic chemicals that would not have been released in the original state. The reuse of substances can also pose a potential health risk depending on the original material. An example of this would be tires used to make turf fields. Businesses that reuse material need to have the expertise of chemists who understand environmental health and consider the life cycle of the new product and any new exposures the frontline workers may face. This is an area that is often forgotten within green chemistry, but it is a growing process for companies looking to save money and reduce costs of disposal.

Chemical Policy: Agencies, Institutions, and Organizations (United States and Europe)

Many of the exposure limits set by national agencies are allowable concentrations defined between industry, third party laboratories, government agencies, and other organizations. Chemical policy is always changing around the world and having expertise in green chemistry and toxicology can help contribute to a better “big picture” view. Knowledge of mechanistic toxicology and chemistry is important for knowing how to test certain substances and not expect that all will react in the same way, e.g., endocrine disrupting chemicals and the ongoing debate on the criteria to test and regulate.

In the United States, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) is a federal agency that is part of the U.S Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). NIOSH helps promote safe and healthy workers through interventions, recommendations, and capacity building. NIOSH has a diverse range of employees in the fields of epidemiology, medicine, nursing, industrial hygiene, chemistry, and different branches of engineering. OSHA works closely with NIOSH to create standards for occupational health. The EPA is another agency that plays a huge role in chemical policy and the research of substances. The EPA promotes the usage of green chemistry principles within their own laboratories, certification programs, and through grants.

On state and local levels within the United States, there are institutes and organizations that assist in the research, education, and professional opinion within chemical policy. Some examples of these would be Silent Spring Institute, The Endocrine Disruption Exchange, The Campaign for Safer Cosmetics, Warner Babcock Institute, the Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment (OEHHA), and the Toxic Use Reduction Institute (TURI). I recommend students and early professionals to learn what organizations or institutes are out there that share your interests, and talk with people who work at these places to find out what steps they took to advance their careers.

In Europe, the European Chemical Agency (ECHA) is in charge of the European Union (EU) regulation called REACH (Registration, Evaluation, Authorization, and Restriction of Chemicals). There are also sectors of the European Commission that impact chemical policy such as the Directorate-General for Environment and the Directorate-General for Industry and Enterprises. Every country within the EU also has their own agencies, institutions, organizations, and trade unions that have their own research and development of safer substances.

Creating ties through volunteer work, internships, or pathway programs is a great way to secure a longer-term position at an institution or agency involved in policy. Internships abroad are also a great way to learn about other chemical policy systems. Do not restrict yourself to just the United States or the EU; look globally to see what is going on in chemical policy and what career options are available in other countries.

Environmental Certification Organizations / Third Party Testing Laboratories

Non-profit environmental certification organizations, like Green Seal, are another area offering jobs involving green chemistry. Green Seal provides science-based environmental certification standards to help manufacturers, purchasers, and consumers from cradle to grave and improve product quality. Not only do they certify products, but they also provide education and guidance for a more sustainable world. Safer Choice, by the EPA, is another certification that researches chemical toxicology and works with industry to improve health safety.

Research for certification of these labels also comes from third party testing laboratories, such as  TURI. Work at third party laboratories allows for experience in quality control, reformulation, and evaluation of comparative products already on the market. It is also a great way to get familiar with industry, regulations, and quality documentation.

Green Chemistry Formulation

Formulators are the first line of prevention of hazardous substances. Although most formulators work within the restriction of a company’s methods, some institutions and businesses look for those with an understanding and background in green chemistry for not only ethical reasons but also to reduce occupational disease costs.

An example of a type of business looking for chemists with a green chemistry background is a correctional facility. MassCor provides inmates training and skills through work that provides quality products at a competitive price. They recently hired a student who worked at TURI Laboratories as a head formulator for one of the Massachusetts correctional institutions to instruct the inmates within the shop department to manufacture Green Seal certified janitorial products. This position eventually will allow the formulator to innovate new formulations for these products that are safe for the inmates to create within a correctional institutional environment.

Commission Corps / Military Specialist

There is a section of the United States military that people in the public health, toxicology, and chemistry field may qualify for: the Commission Corps. Those who join can work as science and research health professional officers. These officers conduct cutting-edge research on public health topics for scientific and medical discoveries within the United States or abroad, and they provide oversight for national health research and development. Some of the distinct disciplines within this branch of the military include epidemiology, chemistry, toxicology, and microbiology.

Medical Writer

Toxicology and green chemistry research may eventually be distributed to the public. Readability of this information takes knowledge and skill so that the topic is accessible without being diluted or oversimplified. Nonprofits, hospitals, and even industry need people who have the writing skills and education to relay this information in layperson’s terms. The average readability level within the health field is 7th to 8th grade among Americans. In some cases, it can go as low as a 3rd grade reading level. Explaining important health risks and research at these levels is a huge asset and facilitates engagement at the community (tax-payer’s) level.

These are just a few of the career areas that intertwine toxicology and green chemistry. Most of the opportunities and jobs that I have been able to experience are due to putting myself out there and just asking to be a part of something. Even more so, the skills I have gained are partially due to finding mentors that are willing to help me grow within the many factions of green chemistry and environmental health. Connect with your professors and colleagues and get involved with associations. Find the people who inspire you and ask them to share stories of their own professional journeys. Stories from people in your field can give you amazing tips, areas to strengthen, information on current projects, more connections, and allow you to reflect on your own professional path. Never be afraid to actively ask to be a part of a project or apply for positions that may be a little bit outside of your experience.

AliciMcCarthya McCarthy graduated with a BS in Environmental Health and is currently in the Occupational and Environmental Hygiene Master’s program at the University of Massachusetts Lowell. She is a Research Assistant and CHO at the Toxic Use Reduction Institute Laboratory. Alicia is an intern at the ETUI this summer in Brussels, Belgium.

AliciaMcCarthy88 (at) gmail.com

Science Outreach in Norway House Cree Nation

20150703_131302 If you are ever looking for freshwater lakes to canoe, fish, swim, or just plain admire, then Canada is your spot. Estimated at around three million, Canada is host to more lakes than every other country in the world combined. So, it may come as a surprise that many First Nations communities located in Canada’s North face serious water security issues, largely as a result of insufficient waste and drinking water treatment facilities. The CREATE H2O program is trying to change that. Funded by the Collaborative Research and Training Experience (CREATE) program of the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada, the H2O program aims to help address water and sanitation security issues on First Nations reserves.

I joined the H2O program in the fall of 2013 for; 1) the opportunity to do unique research in Northern Manitoba, 2) see first-hand some of the water security issues facing First Nations, and 3) experience the rich culture and history of these communities. While all three of these expectations have been met and exceeded over the course of my tenure in the program, the most rewarding experience of all has been something that was not even on my radar when joining H2O – the opportunity for science outreach and education – and the outcome has been inspiring! Before I delve too deep into my experiences in the Northern Manitoban community of Norway House Cree Nation, let me step back and explain a little bit about how I got there.

I first got my feet wet in outreach through 20150703_113152involvement in the Verna J. Kirkness Science and Engineering Program, a registered charity foundation whose goal is to “Increase the number of First Nations, Métis and Inuit students graduating from science and engineering programs in Canada.” In May of 2014 and 2015, as one of a number of science leaders in our faculty, we hosted a group of grade 11 and 12 students for one week in the Department of Environment and Geography at the University of Manitoba. The visiting students were exposed to university-level research through hands-on experiments. From learning about basic water quality parameters and instruments for their measurement, to setting up and interpreting an earthworm soil avoidance assay, to extracting fish otoliths and analyzing them for metals using an ICP-MS/MS, the Kirkness program provides these students with the unique opportunity to be exposed to the world of research at a perfect time in their educational career. The benefit of this program for these youth cannot be overstated!

20150703_133042By chance, both in 2014 and 2015, a number of students in our group were from Norway House Cree Nation (NHCN), the same community that I was about to commence research in through the CREATE H2O program. What happened next you can probably guess? We made arrangements for two Kirkness students, Chadwin and Hunter, to join us during our field sampling in July 2015. We spent the day sampling the wastewater treatment facility and surrounding surface waters. Chadwin and Hunter helped deploy passive samplers, sample water, and take water quality measurements. It was a great experience for them to learn about the water treatment system in their home community of NHCN, all the while reinforcing the skills and knowledge they gained from the Kirkness program. Hunter is entering his senior year of high school and Chadwin has been accepted to the University of Manitoba beginning Fall 2015 and has enrolled in the Department of Environment and Geography. Both of them very impressive young students in their own right! Our hope is to continue this valuable outreach with the larger community by holding a public forum to present our research. Keeping the community members and leaders informed is a crucial part of doing research on their land and studying our most precious resource, H2O.

Jonathan Challis is a graduate student in the Chemistry Department at the University of Manitoba

Clemson WOW Project

WOW 2014-2015 group pic grad students and high schoolers

What’s in Our Waters (WOW) program was designed by graduate students in the Biology and Environmental Toxicology programs at Clemson University (CU) in June 2013. The goal of the program was to introduce high school students (in and around Clemson, South Carolina) to methods of monitoring and reporting on the conditions of local streams. We started working with environmental clubs (from neighboring high schools) and taking them to field trips for water quality monitoring. Over the next few months our vision progressed towards teaching students the importance of responsible citizen science, conducting research using the ‘scientific method’ and the relevance of science communication with the public .

We wanted to incorporate this whole process under the WOW program. We were able to launch a model for this program with the AP Environmental Science class of Daniel High School (Central, SC). This past academic year, Daniel High School students designed and conducted both chemical and biological water quality tests at Indian Creek, located in CU’s North Experimental Forest. Students measured physical attributes of the creek including dissolved oxygen, acidity, alkalinity, conductivity, temperature, and turbidity. Moreover, students also collected faunal specimens (i.e. aquatic macroinvertebrates), which serve as biological indicators of water quality.

The WOW program model is divided into four phases:

1.) In class presentation to students by WOW mentors: they talk about citizen science, other water quality programs, careers in environmental sciences, building a research hypothesis, conducting research, data analysis and research communication.

2.) Field trip: students are assisted by mentors at the field trip to the Indian Creek, in observing macroinvertebrates and measuring water quality using chemical testing kits.

3.) In class mentoring to prepare scientific posters: mentors work in groups with students to help them analyze data collected from the field trip and summarizes and presents that in the form of a poster.

4.) Participate in a poster presentation session at a biology symposium in Clemson University.

This program is valuable for several reasons: it introduces budding scientists to field techniques, serves as a platform for students to practice the scientific method, and most importantly, increases public awareness of the threats to the health of our freshwater ecosystems.

My “wow” moment from this program was when my mentees (while presenting the poster) said with confidence that , “The WOW collaboration between DHS and Clemson University should be a model which other high schools and graduate schools in SC and other states should replicate.”

WOW is not a funded or registered program, nor is it a part of an NSF or bigger outreach initiative. What I loved about this whole process was all of us (all the mentors) had a selfless involvement with this project. We did this out of our passion and to see the relevance of our passion outside our own research labs. Unfortunately a lot of high school students are deprived of real-life-mentors. I think it does make a difference when they get to talk to a mentor (outside school/classroom) and learn about the possibilities of environmental sciences, research and understand the common goal of seeing the bigger picture.

Namrata Sengupta is a graduate student in Environmental Toxicology at Clemson University.


More information:

Current partners: Pickens County 4H Club, Anderson and Pickens Counties Stormwater Partners, D.W. Daniel High School and Clemson University

Press Release: http://newsstand.clemson.edu/mediarelations/grad-students-teach-high-schoolers-how-to-monitor-water-quality/

Facebook: Clemson WOW Project: https://www.facebook.com/groups/1613862448838923/

Twitter: Follow #ClemsonWOW for more updates

Current and past North America and Carolina SETAC student members involved as WOW mentors (June 2013 to June 2015): 

Cofounders: Austin Wray, Kim Newton, Lauren Sweet and Namrata Sengupta

Mentors: Anna Lee McLeod, Erica Linard, Katherine Johnson, Maria Rodgers, Ramiya Kumar and Sarah Au

For more information on our model and if you would like to adopt it for your own campus then please email: Namrata Sengupta nsengup@g.clemson.edu