Earth Day: Evaluating Environmental Impacts by the Numbers | Stats + Stories Episode 6 / by Stats Stories

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Jim Oris is Associate Provost for Research, Dean of the Graduate School, and University Distinguished Professor of Biologyat Miami University (Ohio). Jim has spent the last 36 years exploring the effects of fossil fuels and their combustion products in freshwater and marine ecosystems. He joined the Stats + Stories regulars to discuss Earth Day and environmental issues related to oil spills and climate change

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Bob Long: We've been celebrating Earth Day now for more than 40 years, yet there are still skeptics out there whenever you talk about the carbon emissions, whether they're damaging our planet, whether climate change is real. I'm Bob Long. We welcome you back to another edition of Stats and Stories. It's a program where we look at the statistics behind the stories and the stories behind the statistics. Our focus today is on Earth Day and the environment. Joining me on Stats and Stories for our discussion today are Miami University statistics department chair John Bailer; media, journalism, and film chair Richard Campbell; our special guest today is Miami University's distinguished professor of biology, also the associate provost for research and scholarship and dean of the graduate school, Dr. Jim Oris. Jim, we welcome you to the show today.

Jim Oris: Thanks, I'm glad to be here.

Long: Given the fact that my bias is that I'm a media history instructor and I'm always harping on my students about the importance of learning the lessons of history. Let's go back to 1970 when Earth Day all got started, what was it that kind of prompted that whole movement back at that time?

Oris: Earth Day and many of our more recent environmental laws came about around about the same time, so through the 1960s and up until the late 1960s, there was a lot of realization that the environment was degrading and our human health and environmental health was linked and Earth Day itself was put together and proposed by many people, but in particular one group of peace and environmental activists proposed April 22nd as the first Earth Day. Coincidence with that was the year before, Congress passed the first national legislation that declared environmental quality as a policy for the United States. The National Environmental Policy Act of 1969, and then shortly following after that, another act, the Environmental Quality Improvement Act was passed in 1970. Shortly after that, Earth Day, and then in 1970 in the fall, President Nixon, by executive order, founded the US Environmental Protection Agency.

Long: I think a lot of people were surprised to know that Nixon was president at the time all of that happened, and he also I think started OSHA, is that right around the same time, didn't he?

Oris: Yeah, OSHA and Clean Water and Clean Air amendments were passed that same year and a lot of other environmental legislation and human health safety legislation was passed by that Congress.

Long: John Bailer, I'll turn to you.

John Bailer: So what kind of data led to some of these decisions?

Oris: Well if you go back to some of the origins of what I would call the environmental revolution of the 1960s and 70s, a lot of this originated from industrial wastes that were put into hazardous waste landfills, left behind pollution in the air, and people started seeing higher instance of disease and cancers or they saw fish kills, and so the kinds of data, there was observational and anecdotal for the most part, so a group of people over in that neighborhood were sick, more sick than other people, or we had fish kills on Lake Erie and lots of dead fish floating around, so a lot of anecdotal information. But around the same time, there were people in the government that were studying what kinds of chemicals that were present and how they would cause negative impacts in the environment. So in my field, which is aquatic ecology and toxicology, we used to take goldfish and put them in mayonnaise jars and try different levels of water from a lake or a river and see how many fish survived those exposures, so we literally started out by counting fish in mayonnaise jars.

Long: I'm just kind of curious, but it seems like southwest Ohio, where we're located, we've had our share of a lot of environmental issues, and you mentioned fish kills, I can think of some in the Great Miami and the Ohio River, places like that. I wanted to kind of talk how things have maybe changed that way, what you've seen through the years, as far as aquatic health of our environment around here.

Oris: Around here, we are an industrial area and we also live on the Ohio River corridor and every river mile from Pittsburgh to past Cincinnati, there's some kind of facility, a coal pile, an industrial site storage, chemical sites, and so back in the early years, what I call the early years, the '50s and '60s, those types of activities weren't regulated too heavily. Now we have, with the Clean Water Act and national standards for what we call ambient water quality criteria, the characteristics of the chemicals that are in the water and their regular concentrations, we have limits on the kinds of chemicals and the kinds of activities that can go in the water, and those were put together by the Clean Water Act. Same thing goes with our air quality, we have limits on the amount of pollutants that can be released into the atmosphere, so the air is a lot cleaner and the water is a lot safer too.

Long: Richard Campbell, we go to you for the next question.

Richard Campbell: Jim, one of the things I'm interested in hearing is in terms of media coverage, and I have kind of a two part question, one, we have a hypothesis in those of us that do media criticism about agenda setting and that one of the things that Earth Day did was put environmental protection and those kinds of issues on the media agenda, and it started getting covered, but there's also a criticism that typically the media just cover this once a year, on Earth Day there are a lot of articles about this. So one would be, the first question is, what do you think about the general media coverage about these important issues? Then the second part, and this is for John too, those of you who do research and scholarship in this area, what kind of obligation do you feel you have to communicate this stuff to the broader public, and what kind of a challenge is that?

Oris: Some people might not agree with me, but I feel it's our obligation, morally and socially, to get our work out to the public in a way that the public can understand. One of the things that I feel we need improvement on in the world is scientific literacy and getting our work out to the public in an understandable format can help with that. As scientists, most of us in my field receive our funding from the federal government, from public sources, and we owe it to the taxpayers to let them know what they're spending their money on. So I feel strongly about that, in fact I feel so strongly about it that every year, we take between ten and twenty science to Columbus and to Washington D.C. to meet with our legislators and other public officials to talk about what they do and teach them how to communicate with the public.

Bailer: I'll jump in on that too, I would agree with Jim completely. I think the translation of the message is a critical aspect of what we do. One of the great challenges is trying to communicate technical ideas and technical concepts to a broader group. And some of these concepts are ones that embrace uncertainty and variability, and so trying to convey that it's just not known with certainty when you're drawing some of your conclusions, there's still the possibility of being wrong proves to be a real daunting task, especially in a media where a simple message is more attractive than a complicated or nuanced one.

Campbell: Let me give Jim a little question on this, just sort of reading your bio information, when I read what it is that your research interests are about let me read this to you and you can talk about, how do I translate it? Your research interests include the photochemistry and toxicology of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons in fish, so I need to know what that means and how would you talk about that to the general public?

Oris: So what polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons are is a class of chemicals that are found in coal and oil and when you burn fossil fuels. So these are materials that are released into the atmosphere and the water. They share characteristics that are similar to plant pigments like chlorophyll that plants use the sun to harvest the energy to make food. These chemicals are similar in that they can absorb sunlight, so when they absorb sunlight, they take that energy in, they pass it on to other parts of the fish and it actually causes sunburn, so when you read the back of your prescription medicine and it says avoid exposure to sunlight when you take this drug, or some shampoos are the same. Those all have hydrocarbons in them that absorb sunlight and can pass that energy on and can cause tissue damage. The best way that I can think of it is instead of putting on sunscreen like SPF35 or SPF40, these hydrocarbons like SPF minus 10,000. And fish get sunburn.

Long: You're listening to stats and stories where again, we always discuss the statistics behind the stories and the stories behind the statistics. We're focusing on the environment today with Earth Day on April 22nd. I'm Bob Long. Our regular panelists are Miami University statistics department chair John Bailer; media, journalism, and film chair Richard Campbell; and our special guest today is Miami University's associate provost for research and scholarship Dr. Jim Oris, who is a distinguished professor of biology. We also wanted to find out what people on the street know about today's topic, so we asked them, when did we start celebrating Earth Day, and who was the president at that time?

Woman on the street #1: I would think it would be sometime after a World War when people started appreciating world peace and the earth…so.

Woman on the street #2: No clue, but I'm going to go with probably sometime around the hippies. People started appreciating the earth more so I don't know a president at all. Let's go 1970s.

Woman on the street #3: I think we first celebrated Earth Day probably the middle of the Cold War, so '70s-'80s.

Man on the street #1: I think it was sometime in the early '70s and I guess the president would have been Richard Nixon.

Man on the street #2: I think it was President Teddy Roosevelt and it was during his presidency.

Man on the street #3: I'll say that the president was Lincoln and the issue was logging.

Long: All right, Jim, what I wanted to go to next, I was reading some material where NOAA came out with a study last fall about the whole state of the climate, yet, I know over the winter time because we've had this horrible winter here in the Midwest and the northeast, the skeptics are out there saying, "Oh, well see, we told you this whole thing about climate change is a hoax." I wanted you to kind of explain, there seems to be such a misunderstanding on this topic that still exists today.

Oris: Yeah, so climate change is climate change, and so we're not talking about global warming. The better way to think about it is that the climate is changing and the climate is changing at an unprecedented rate compared to anything we've seen in geological time, ever. So it is changing. When we mean change, we talk about fluctuations includes change. So right now what we're seeing are large fluctuations in what we're normally used to, by now, it's usually a little warmer and it's not freezing cold in March and April and May, and those are just fluctuations that we see.

Long: The same thing is true though, like we've tremendous fluctuations in the number of tornados some years, number of hurricanes some years, so when we're talking about climate change, we're talking about all of those kinds of things that you can see.

Oris: Right, and the severity of those fluctuations right now are what we are mostly concerned about.

Campbell: I want to jump in on this because this might actually be helpful to me in talking to journalism students. We have this thing that we call false balance in journalism, where you're supposed to tell two sides of the story, and often it can be simplified in this issue that I'm going to go out and talk to two scientists that believe in climate change and two who don't, and that creates kind of a false balance. So when I'm talking to journalism students about this issue and about how to represent it fairly, what would your instruction be here, in terms of talking to experts and how many do you have to have and what about this sort of issue?

Oris: Well on has to take great care on how many people you talk to, because right now the preponderance of scientific evidence is that climate change is happening and that humans are influencing climate change. So if you took two people who agree with the preponderance of science and two people who don't agree with the preponderance of science, it would look like it's a balanced argument and in fact, it's not.

Campbell: Thank you.

Long: John Bailer.

Bailer: Amen. It's nice to think that the preponderance of evidence may be impacting the way we view a topic, and I think when you were talking about the communication earlier Richard, this is one aspect of it that this is not a coin flip in terms of where you end up, that there's more to the story. You know Jim, when you were mentioning earlier about some of the experiments that you were doing with the PAHs and UV contact and the illusion of sunscreen, I'm trying to picture you putting sunscreen on a fish. That seems like a really difficult thing to do, but I'll try to keep that image out of my mind.

Oris: Add oil to water.

Bailer: I guess that's kind of what we're doing when we put on sunscreen; too, we're adding oil to skin and then adding water. That works. I know you've been involved in lots of important problems and investigating impact; one problem that I'd be curious for you to tell us a little bit about is your experience with looking at the impact of jet-skis at Lake Tahoe. So if you could just tell us a little bit about that story and what motivated the inquiry and what kind of data and what kind of analysis did you do as part of investigating that story?

Oris: So back in the mid to late '90s, we were invited out to Lake Tahoe, which is a 12 mile wide, 22 mile long, crystal clear blue lake on the Sierra Nevada Mountains between Nevada and California. There were many issues with what most people call jet-skis, personalized watercraft, or PWCs, and they're noisy, they were used heavily, they disturbed near-shore areas, but they also had an engine type that was a very old technology. It was called carbureted two-cycle engine. So think of your old outboard that you sit and you put it into the water and you see the oil sheen kind of move off the back of your boat and then turn that into a 150 horsepower engine that burns 100 gallons of fuel a day. That type of technology, of that 100 gallons of fuel, 25 gallons of that fuel would go into the lake unburned. So a tremendous amount of oil and gas were being dumped into the water, unburned, just directly. So we were asked to assess the impacts of that and its potential. We looked at both the unburned components and the burned components and we set up experiments in the north part of Lake Tahoe where there was a jet-ski area. We did studies in the field where we collected water along where the jet-skis were for the most part and then we went out into the center of the lake where we thought it would be a control or reference area and did the same water collection. We took the water back to the shore, exposed organisms under natural sunlight, again, this photo-enhancement of the toxicity, and observed that near shore, at the levels that were being produced by the jet-skis, it was harming 100% of the zooplankton, the small filter-feeders in the lake, and about 50% of the small fish that we were testing. Unfortunately, or for better or for worse, our control site, two days after the jet-ski weekend was over, all of that moved off-shore and we saw a diminished impact two days later out in the middle of the lake, so we saw the plume of the gasoline and combustion products going from near-shore to off-shore. So by Tuesday, the impact had moved out to the center of the lake. So those results were reported to the regional planning agency and that, along with noise studies and disturbance studies and other information that came in, economic considerations, the regional planning agency decided that in 1999, that type of engine would be banned from the basin, Lake Tahoe basin.

Campbell: How did that get communicated in the media? Was this something that was reported well, or was it overlooked? How did your research get communicated to the larger public?

Oris: I was interviewed probably 50 or 100 times in a month after the report was released. We went to hearings and meetings and there were articles and articles. One thing that really resonates with the people in that area is the water quality and clarity of Lake Tahoe because the whole area is dependent on the tourism and the real estate values are based on the clarity and color of the water.

Long: You're listening to Stats and Stories, and again we're focusing this time on the importance of the environment and especially with Earth Day coming up on April 22nd. I'm Bob Long. Our regular panelists for the show are Miami University statistics department chair John Bailer and media, journalism, and film chair Richard Campbell. Dr. Jim Oris, a distinguished professor of biology at Miami University is our special guest. Jim's an associate provost for research and scholarship at Miami and also dean of the graduate school. For our topic today, we had a second question for folks on the street. What do you think sparked the start of the environmental movement?

Woman on the street #4: And it was because of urbanization and the industrialization, and like realizing nuclear weapons and how that all affects the world and the planet.

Man on the street #4: I'm going to guess it was the conservation movement, which was prevalent during that time…the Teddy Roosevelt era. So saving instead of reducing.

Man on the street #5: Uh, pesticides being used in farming, agriculture.

Woman on the street #5: When scientific research and the technology in that area started actually showing that we made an impact on the planet.

Woman on the street #6: I feel like climate change is probably a big one and also maybe like deforestation or like industrialization, things like that. People realizing the effect that like pollution and industry has on the environment.

Woman on the street #7: When the Cuyahoga River caught on fire. I think that was significant.

Long: Next we're going to move on to John Bailer for the next question.

Bailer: I'd like to follow up on what we did just before the break when we were talking about some of the coverage that you had received after the reports were issued on Lake Tahoe. Were there parts of it that you thought were done exceptionally well? And were there parts of it that you thought were not communicated as clearly and cleanly as you desired?

Oris: There were both sides, so I can say that there were some stories done very well that all of my information was represented carefully and correctly. Those reporters and media people did the right thing; they called me, we talked, they wrote their story, they did fact checking afterwards, and everything was fine, but there were also some sensational reports: "all the fish are going to die," "the economy of the lake is going to go away because we can't put boats on the lake anymore," and so there were extreme views as well. By and large, the interviews I had and the stories about my work were done pretty well.

Bailer: That's great.

Long: I'm just kind of curious. I know you're focused more on aquatic issues, but we're all concerned about the carbon emissions in the world and some of the reporting that goes on with that. I'm kind of curious of your take on where the United States, we won't talk globally at first, we'll talk about the United States, what kind of progress you feel we've made on this issue since we got started with Earth Day way back in the 1970s when we had far more smog and pollution in the air.

Oris: Well a few years ago, one of my PhD students was looking at mercury in lakes and how that ends up in fish. Well coincidentally it turns into that was a Clean Air Act issue, so the Clean Air Act worked on getting as much sulfur out of the air from coal-fire power plants as possible. Well it turns out that an unintended consequence of the Clean Air Act, by reducing sulfur emissions and particulates; it also reduced mercury in the environment as well, so he was able to show how, through looking at lake sediments and sediments in lakes and record what happens in the atmosphere. Those sediments showed that the amount of sulfur and the amount of mercury decreased significantly from around 1965 to 1970 through present time. So we're able to show that air pollution in the US, at least in the Midwest part of the US, has significantly declined over those years.

Long: How about globally though, I think that's a big concern, especially as China and other nations have grown.

Oris: Yeah, so everyone wants to have the same standard of living as we do in the United States and the Western world. In order to do that, they need to burn a tremendous amount of fossil fuels to maintain that. If you go to Beijing right now, you would be lucky to see across the street on a good day. I was in Jakarta, Indonesia last year and I was there for a week and I didn't see blue sky one day. So there are developing nations in the world that have severe health consequences and air pollution consequences.

Bailer: You know, there are many ways to study environmental hazards or frameworks for approaching these one that we hear about are things like ecological risk assessment. Could you sort of give a sense of what that is and how that might work?

Oris: I had a little conversation about this this morning with some friends. Risk assessment is like the lottery, you know that someone is going to win; it's just not going to be you. We try to figure out probabilities and so the framework for ecological risk assessment in the United States has three parts: the first part is a problem formulation, where you try to figure out and focus in on a specific problem, and then in order to do the risk assessment there are two pieces you have to put together, one is what we call the hazard assessment, to find out how toxic or how dangerous something is, then the second part is the exposure assessment which provides how much of the material or stress you're going to be exposed to, once you know how dangerous it is and how much you're going to be exposed to, then you can assess a probability that something bad is going to happen in that situation.

Campbell: How much is this related to something else I would like you to translate for me, where is says that one of your research interests is in the modeling and statistical analysis of toxicity-dose response relationships.

Oris: So one of the things that is of interest to me is figuring out how to best represent that hazard assessment part of how toxic or how dangerous something is, and when we do that, we look at different levels of the hazard, so a toxic chemical, you look at no chemical to really high concentration of chemical with intermediate steps in between and you look to see how large of an effect on the organism that you're studying that has those different concentrations. So the dose is the milligrams per kilogram of material given to the animal or plant, and then you do different levels of doses, in the simplest terms, you take that and you plot it on a piece of graph paper where concentration is on the bottom axis and level of effect is on the vertical axis and you draw a line between the points. What makes that predictive then, is that's your laboratory experiment and you use that as a model to go out into the environment, measure what the exposure is, and then you put that on the graph where it belongs to predict what the hazard or the effect is, so that's the dose-response relationship.

Campbell: Very good, I understood that.

Long: One final question, still, from John Bailer.

Bailer: Jim, you know we talked about how there are lots of ideas we try to communicate, and you were asked earlier about that, if there's a certain experimental and/or statistical concept that you would like to see better communicated or have the public understand better, what might that be?

Oris: That's a hard one.

Bailer: At least it was the last one.

Oris: Yeah, yeah, yeah. So here's one that I think would be really useful for the general public. I've done a fair number of conversations with attorneys; I've done depositions for environmental situations, and more than one lawyer that I've talked to has said scientists have too many hands because we're always saying, "on one hand, it's this, and on the other hand it's that." So it's this idea that we can never be 100% certain about anything that we say in science. Science is a decision by probability; there are chances that you're right and chances that you're wrong, and the public really has a hard time understanding why you can say, "I'm only 95% certain about something."

Bailer: Thank you.

Long: All right Jim Oris, we want to thank you very much for sharing your insights with us for our Earth Day program, discussing the environment on this edition of Stats and Stories. If you'd like to share your thoughts on the program, you can send us an email to Be sure to listen for future editions of Stats and Stories, where we'll discuss the statistics behind the stories and the stories behind the statistics.