It’s the little things that truly mark the horrors of any Republican presidency, such as not allowing people to see where toxic waste might exist.
On December 16, the National Library of Medicine is retiring the revelatory environmental mapping tool known as ToxMap. Ever so quietly, the door will close on what has arguably become the most accessible and user-friendly portal created by the federal government for letting Americans know about the toxics lurking next door.
When EDGI colleague Sara Wylie informed us of the NLM’s decision, my initial shock flowed from my years of relying on ToxMap in the classroom. On the very first day of the environmental history class I teach at my university, I open it up to show students just how many toxic releases are happening on or near their own university campus and in the towns where they had grown up. Students snap to alertness, and a few jaws drop. Toxmap serves as an effective reality check, alerting them to just how pervasive and proximate toxic chemicals have become across the American landscape.
But with the National Library of Medicine now apparently abandoning this project, via a shuttering of their “Specialized Information Services” and a divvying up of the rest of the “Toxnet” website it maintained, those lessons suddenly become harder to teach. Instead of a front-page map with locations, toxic releases, enforcement actions, and health effects all available at a glance and a click, the only substitutes provided by the government are harder to find, often more partial and difficult to navigate, and frequently culminate in eye-glazing spreadsheets of numbers. With very little ado, access is corroding to a kind of information that is not just my students’ but all Americans’ right to know.
Disheartening as the demise of ToxMap itself is, still more worrisome is how its disappearance only extends that larger pattern of decreasing transparency of environmental data during the Trump era which our group EDGI continues to track. Certainly there is a chance that the retirement of ToxMap, after an updating just this past year, is simply an inadvertent by-product of a bureaucratic reshuffling at NLM. Yet ToxMap’s end accords with a larger pattern spanning federal environmental agencies whose intentions have been far from quiet, even loudly trumpeted. The dismantling of such a usable public platform connecting health and environmental data certainly accords with the EPA’s own declared strategies, of seeking to exclude so many environmental health studies from policy-making and to neglect or defund on-going environmental health investigations. Whether these parallels are intentional or not, our National Library of Medicine has now joined this administration’s ideologically-driven anti-science crusade, effectively shrinking the public’s access to environmental as well as disease and mortality data.
As with so many other fronts in the Trump Administration’s interlocking wars against science and environmental regulation, the prevailing hope seems to be that pushing the facts out of sight will diminish Americans’ concerns about the environment. But when a government actively makes it harder for people to know about toxic contaminants nearby, and word gets out, what happens then? Once enough people and organizations become aware, once they step up to resist the undermining of science as well as this on-going burial of vital public data, the effects may well run in the opposite direction. Our hope at EDGI is that thereby, the federal government’s commitment to Americans’ environmental right-to-know can be reborn, to flourish in ways it never truly has.
Every time a baby gets cancer from toxic exposure, a Republican operative has a great orgasm.