Lois Gibbs, Executive Director of the Center for Health, Environment & Justice and consultant with the Cross Currents Foundation, authored this post. She looks back at 35 years since the Love Canal neighborhood of Niagara Falls, NY’s fight for state, local and federal recognition and action on health problems caused by toxic chemical leakage from the landfill on which the neighborhood was built and forward to investments in the next grassroots movement on environmental health and justice.
No, I’m not talking about a shot of whiskey. I’m referring to the way change happens.
Thirty-five years ago at Love Canal, in Niagara Falls, NY, my working class community introduced the nation, and to some extent the world, a new understanding of how environmental chemicals adversely impact people’s health. Love Canal is a toxic waste dumpsite containing over 20,000 tons of chemicals, which leaked into the surrounding residential neighborhood where residents developed an alarming number of health problems that they believed were caused by chemicals leaking from the landfill. At the time, state health investigators repeatedly told residents that it was unlikely that their health problems are related to Love Canal since their exposures were much lower than workplace standards.
Yet the evidence was strong. One study found that 56% of the neighborhood children born in one stretch had birth defects. Not willing to accept that environmental chemicals were responsible, investigators concluded the birth defects were more likely caused by a “random clustering of genetically defected people.” Leaders at Love Canal refused to accept this explanation and organized protests, forums and accountability hearings, some targeting the Governor and even President Carter’s re-election campaign. Eventually, health investigators were forced to accept that chemicals from the leaking dumpsite did cause serious public health problems. In the wake of Love Canal came other communities like Woburn, MA where 28 children developed leukemia from drinking contaminated water. Ann Anderson, a mom with a sick child, knocked on doors, circulated a petition and followed the blue print of Love Canal until authorities acknowledged the connection between the well water and the childhood cancers.
Grassroots leaders and workers have amplified awareness of the impact of environmental chemicals on health. You see this clearly today with consumers demanding information on chemicals in products such as biphenol-A in baby products or PVC in children’s toys as workers did years earlier when they won the right-to-know.
Love Canal, Woburn and workers have all helped set the stage for new chemical policy and labeling reforms that are now moving at various levels of government. Those directly affected have always inspired, energized and led a broad range of supporters in successful movements throughout history, such as anti-slavery, women’s suffrage, labor rights and civil rights. A foundation I work with, CrossCurrents Foundation, has joined a number of other funders including members of HEFN that invests heavily in non-partisan civic participation knowing that change begins at the bottom where alliances are built.
Still the front line groups are the very groups within the health and environmental movement that are starved for resources. In a report last year, the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy detailed how many environmental funders mainly support large, professionalized environmental organizations instead of grassroots, community-based groups heavily affected by environmental harm (Also see this recent blog post). Organizations with annual budgets greater than $5 million make up only 2% of all environmental groups, yet they receive more than 50% of all grants and donations. The report makes a profound argument that the current funding strategy is not working and that, without targeting philanthropy at the community level, the movement will not succeed.
Investing in building capacity at the local and state level can lead to the significant change needed to protect public health, the environment and our democracy. The time to make this investment is now.
As environmental health funders, we have invested a great deal in identifying the problem and supporting chemicals policy reform, but vastly less in materials solutions. In 2012, the Forsythia Foundation decided to understand what it would take to accelerate innovation of “benign by design” materials and avoid regrettable chemical substitutions. Forsythia hired the consulting firm, California Environmental Associates, to investigate the barriers to developing solutions and what investment opportunities could address them.
There were numerous barriers identified in our first analysis. For rapid adoption, a new material or process must be cost competitive or perform better. In addition, chemical manufacturers have significant investments in current production facilities and displacing that capacity could cause large economic losses.
An equally critical barrier is that funding evaporates in the “valley of death”—the development stage after a new molecule is discovered and needs to be tested to make sure it is cost competitive and has a big enough market. Figure 1 below depicts the area of opportunity for philanthropy and early investors.
This funding stage is often out of scope for government funding and too early for chemical companies, most angel investors, and other private investors. But without this early funding, the potential “deal flow” for innovation does not materialize. This is the gap the Forsythia Foundation is looking to target.
CEA presented two primary investment options for Forsythia to address the target area: 1) develop a competition or prize, and 2) support a benign by design chemistry incubator.
Forsythia has decided to focus on an “incubator” or “accelerator” that supports an ecosystem of talent and resources to identify, vet, and scale benign by design technologies. HEFN funders have supported tremendous efforts to help create demand for safer products. Forsythia Foundation hopes that by investing in an incubator, we can help to accelerate the supply of safer materials to meet that demand.
Because Forsythia cannot act on all opportunities to accelerate green chemistry, we invite you to join in a funder call on March 7th at 2 p.m. ET to learn more. The call will explore the growing field of green chemistry and options for philanthropic and impact investing to support the development of safer materials. Register here.
This post was authored by Ruth Hennig, Executive Director of the John Merck Fund. In addition to management responsibilities, Ruth functions as the director of the Environment program for the Fund and serves on the board of SmartPower. She was a founding advisory committee member of the New England Grassroots Environmental Fund, and until recently, a member of HEFN’s Steering Committee.
I’ve been thinking a lot about the part of the environmental health movement that focuses on policy development and market shifts aimed at making our homes and workplaces safer.
Our grantees have made amazing progress against formidable opponents in the last ten years. They’ve mobilized diverse constituencies with science associating low-dose, everyday chemical exposures to a range of health conditions. Eighteen states have responded with almost 100 new laws, aligning them with EU reforms and applying pressure for US federal action. Forward thinking businesses are responding to consumer demands and seeking safer chemicals for their products. And polls repeatedly show that Americans rank Big Oil and Big Chemical as low as Big Tobacco.
So with all this success, why are many NGOs struggling financially? Why are key groups downsizing when they should be expanding to take advantage of the opportunities they’ve generated?
As usual, the answer is simple but the reasons are complicated. The simple answer is that new funders aren’t coming on board at the same rate as funders are cycling out with normal philanthropic attrition and issue migration.
But with all the successes from our environmental health investments so far, why have other funders been so slow to enter such a dynamic field? As I see it, there are two main reasons that new foundations are reluctant to join the party.
First, we’re Lilliputians: NGOs and funders alike are small, feisty and running rampant over a giant with many body parts. Chemicals: we’ve got 80,000! And campaigns are underway on cosmetics, cleaning supplies, baby products, electronics, furniture, clothing, cars, and buildings. And those are just the ones I can rattle off without thinking.
From the inside, we know this dizzying diversity is a powerful social movement. But for a new funder on the outside looking for a strategic entry point, it can look confusing and even chaotic.
It’s time that we Coalesce around common priority targets; discuss Consolidation where operations overlap; and consider Centralizing and upgrading some core functions. It’s time to stop being Lilliputians and grow in proportion to the Toxic Giant.
One very positive step is a new Hazardous Hundred Initiative that is unifying policy and market campaigners around 100 priority chemicals. It’s possible to envision the Hazardous Hundred also providing an orientation for body burden research, alternatives assessment and green chemistry. For more information contact Safer Chemicals Healthy Families.
Unified priorities and operations could also help address the second reason I believe our field is having difficulty attracting new donors: We don’t have yardsticks. Without metrics, it is hard to demonstrate impact, measure a return on investment, or make a compelling case for a new generation of social investors.
Prospective funders are asking for evidence of the causal relationships between chemical exposures and health impacts, and for metrics to guide investments aimed at improving health outcomes.
We may not be fully equipped to provide that information, but we need to figure it out. Because talking about multiple factors, simultaneous and ubiquitous exposures, and the limits of epidemiology and animal studies lead potential funding partners to wonder if resources would be better spent elsewhere.
We know the elements of a compelling case for improving health by reducing toxic exposures are out there. But we have to make this case more effectively to attract major new donors for this under-resourced field. I’m confident that we can and will meet this challenge together.
This post opens with an introduction by Diane Ives, Kendeda Fund:
Innovations in science, as in cooking, come about when knowledge, curiosity and experimentation come together. TiPED, the Tiered Protocol for Endocrine Disruption, is the result of a cooking lesson; in 2010 a select group of world renowned environmental health scientists and green chemists spent the first session of a retreat preparing their dinner. The trust building exercise resulted in a delicious meal, and the world’s first testing protocol for chemists to use to determine if new chemicals have the potential to be endocrine disruptors.
Pete Myers, Chief Scientist at Environmental Health Sciences (EHS), and Karen Peabody O’Brien, Director of Advancing Green Chemistry (AGC), are the head chefs of this collaboration. The Kendeda Fund, along with the Marisla Foundation, Passport Foundation, Forsythia Foundation, Johnson Family Foundation, John Merck Fund, and Cedar Tree Foundation were early investors, believing that creative problem solving opportunities can yield ground-breaking and transformative tools to improve the health of our planet.
Karen and Pete share more about TiPED:
Imagine you are a manufacturer of something – baby bottles, or canned food, or cosmetics. Now let’s imagine that – maybe because you follow science or maybe because you’re worried about consumer campaigns — you want to make sure your product is not made out of endocrine-disrupting chemicals (EDCs).
What are your options? Tell your local supplier “no gender-bending chemicals please?” Or ask your company chemist to make a safer material?
But what if your chemical supplier or in-house chemist has no idea whether the alternative chemicals on the shelf are EDCs, how to design safer chemicals, or even knows what you’re talking about? Now what?
Green chemistry is an effort to make chemicals that are safe(r) for humans and the planet. What if chemists could deliberately make safer products, instead of finding out after the fact that a chemical punches a hole in the ozone, let’s say, or turns boy frogs into girl frogs? Green chemists are working hard to try to do this and make things that they know (as much as one can know) are inherently benign.
But a student can get a PhD in chemistry without ever taking a single course in toxicology or even hearing about endocrine disruption. And standard toxicology – the “dose makes the poison, so how much does it take to kill a lab rat?” toxicology — has not kept up with later endocrine disruption research helping explain how even small exposures to the wrong stuff can lead to health or environmental problems.
After five years of bringing environmental health scientists to speak at green chemistry and engineering meetings, and hearing chemists say (to paraphrase) “Holy #$^%! I never heard about this kind of thing before! How can I design materials that are NOT endocrine disruptors?!” the team of EHS and AGC moved from informing to problem-solving.
Chemists needed a coherent picture of the endocrine disruption field in order to figure out where and how to plug in, and practical tools for applying this to their work. So we called together a science advisory board made up of leading green chemists and environmental health specialists and set about creating a design tool for chemists. Over the course of a year and a half, we held on average two conference calls a month, and held two larger face-to-face meetings. (One of these included the cooking class Diane refers to above; at another we had a Halloween jack-o-lantern contest with an endocrine-disruption theme.)
Thus TiPED (rhymes with “biped”) was born.
TiPED (“Tiered Protocol for Endocrine Disruption”) is a new tool for answering the question, “how can I test whether my new chemical is a potential endocrine disruptor?
TiPED is a five-tiered system, starting with faster, cheaper tests with options for increasingly specialized tests. Tiers 1 and 2 use predictive computer modeling and high-throughput screening to quickly flag a potential problem chemical. Tier 3 uses cell-based tests to look for endocrine activity. Tiers 4 and 5 are whole animal tests for more complex systemic responses. A hit anywhere along the tiered system means the chemical could be an endocrine disruptor, signaling that chemists need to pull back, reanalyze, re-design the molecule, or throw the chemical out.
Some of our colleagues from the chemicals testing world pointed out to us that TiPED is literally revolutionary since it turns testing on its head. Rather than testing chemicals that score badly more intensively, TiPED submits those that pass the early stages to ever increasing scrutiny to make sure that they are okay.
What this means for environmental health science:
- It is no longer possible for anyone to claim that endocrine disruption can’t be tested. This is important for both decision-makers and activists.
- One doesn’t have to wait till something is out there to test it. One can test way upstream in the design process by using TiPED.
- Companies can test something they are making now, get ahead of the curve, and ultimately profit.
TiPED and the scientific thinking behind it were unveiled in January 2013 in a peer-reviewed paper by 23 authors from the US, Canada and Europe published in the Royal Society of Chemistry journal Green Chemistry (the leading journal in the field). It’s been written up in Chemistry World, FastCompany, Environmental Health Perspective and Chemical & Engineering News. Check out the TiPED website for more detail and to learn about how TiPED will change with the science. Check this news feed for more stories on endocrine-disrupting chemicals.
Lots of people resolve to get healthier in a new year, but some find it hard to stick to their resolutions. I think the best resolutions, whether on health or something else, are just about picking changes we are actually motivated to make, and ones we know we can achieve by steadily focusing energy for months.
HEFN’s resolutions for 2013 are about things we plan to focus energy on so that everyone can live in healthy environments. We are aiming at big goals and fundamental changes, not quick fixes. Some are well within reach, others not easy to achieve. But they will be fun to tackle, and well worth the effort. Here are some of our resolutions to make everyone’s lives more clean and green during 2013:
Resolved: We will sustain philanthropy’s support for fights to make chemicals safer for families and the environment. HEFN will work with funders supporting policy campaigns, market shifts, base-building, and investments in green chemistry.
Resolved: We will make it easier for philanthropy to help communities assess and address local environmental health and justice challenges. HEFN plans to work with place-focused partners on grantmaker resources to aid investment in healthier conditions where people live, work and play.
Resolved: We will help funders concerned about fracking strengthen awareness and action on adverse health, environmental, and community impacts. HEFN will support funders in learning and working together across affected states and in amplifying environmental health values in decisions about climate and energy issues.
Resolved: We will help funders who value public health, environmental protection, and social equity to connect across various issues and geographies. HEFN will provide space for funders to learn, network, and collaborate – and to help their grantee communities connect for greater collective impact.
Resolved: We will engage more funders and donors in grantmaking to make people healthier, environments greener, and citizens and communities more engaged. HEFN will work with funder group partners and through expanded social media, to build philanthropic awareness and investment in environmental health and environmental justice.
HEFN’s member foundations tend to focus on places where people are most vulnerable, on pollutants or activities that are harming public health and the environment. That makes it really easy to be highly motivated to work on issues like toxics or dirty energy. We also have seen so many results from our members’ investment and collaboration – from local successes, policy wins and marketplace shifts to science discoveries, advocacy base-building and public engagement – that we know big changes are within reach. We are excited about the roles HEFN can play in philanthropy to help maximize the impact of grantmaking, for a cleaner, greener 2013.
And we look forward to conversations on this blog and in other venues: what do you resolve?