Federal Toxmap Shutters, Raising the Ire of Pollution Researchers

December 16, 2019 by Michael Schulson

The loss of the federal pollution tracker, supporters say, will inhibit public access to data on environmental hazards.
Top: The National Library of Medicine’s Toxmap application shed light on pollution nationwide. It’s no longer available to the public. Visual: NLM

Fifteen years ago, the U.S. National Library of Medicine launched Toxmap, a free, interactive online application that combines pollution data from at least a dozen U.S. government sources. A Toxmap user could pan and zoom across a map of the United States sprinkled with thousands of blue and red dots, with each blue dot representing a factory, coal-fired power plant, or other facility that has released certain toxic chemicals into the environment, and each red dot marking a Superfund program site — “some of the nation’s most contaminated land,” according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

Toxmap allowed users to pull up detailed EPA data for each toxic release site, and to overlay other information, such as mortality statistics, onto those maps. And it’s precisely those capabilities that earned Toxmap a devoted following among researchers, students, activists, and other people keen to identify sources of pollution in their communities.

Those capabilities appear to no longer be available to the public.

Earlier this year, with little explanation, the NLM announced that it would be “retiring” the Toxmap website on Dec. 16, 2019. The library did not respond directly to queries on Monday about what was meant by “retiring,” but by Tuesday morning, the Toxmap website had been taken down and visitors to the former URL were met with a message acknowledging the closure and pointing visitors to other potential sources of information. (An archived version of the old Toxmap landing page is preserved at the Internet Archive.) The decision to sunset the application has upset some of Toxmap’s most loyal users and raised concerns among environmental data advocates, who say that Toxmap’s demise would inhibit reliable public access to essential data about environmental hazards.

“I think it’s really sad that they’re getting rid of this,” said Claudia Persico, an environmental policy scholar at American University who studies the impact of pollution on children’s health, and who uses Toxmap in her research. That sentiment was shared by Chris Sellers, an environmental historian at Stony Brook University and a member of the Environmental Data and Governance Initiative (EDGI), which monitors federal environmental data sources and advocates for greater public access. “It was stunning to me that the National Library of Medicine is actually retiring this pretty essential tool for our environmental right-to-know.”

NLM has offered only brief explanations for its decision. In a statement to Undark, NLM communications staff wrote that, in order to meet the goals of a new strategic plan, the Library “had to make some difficult organizational changes,” adding that “selected Toxmap data” could be found scattered among nine other U.S. and Canadian government websites. (The map includes data from Canada’s National Pollutant Release Inventory.) “Part of the decision was prompted by the increasing availability of the underlying data from their original sources,” NLM added. “Many sources such as the EPA, among others, offer several products that provide similar geographic information system (GIS) functionality.”

In particular, the EPA’s Enforcement and Compliance History Online (ECHO) site allows people to enter a zip code and view nearby pollution sources, along with some data about their toxic releases.

But those alternatives, researchers say, simply do not offer the same scope and simplicity as Toxmap. “Because this information has gotten so complex, and there’s so much of it, it’s very difficult for someone who’s not really trained in the area to navigate it,” said Sellers. “This tool actually cut through all the jargon, all the different interfaces that EPA, for instance, puts up before you get to the actual data that you’re interested in.”

Data-sharing tools like Toxmap have their roots in the 1980s, when a toxic gas leak at a Union Carbide plant in Bhopal, India, killed thousands of people. (Estimates range from 2,200 victims to more than 10,000.) In response to the Bhopal disaster, lawmakers in the United States called for legislation that would give Americans information about potential toxin sources in their communities, under a principle called “right-to-know.” The Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act, passed in 1986, required companies using certain hazardous chemicals to report that information to the EPA, and for the EPA to make that information available to the public.

Much of that data came to form the backbone of Toxmap, which was launched in 2004 by the NLM, part of the National Institutes of Health. While this data was available in other formats, the NLM tool brought it together in one place and made it accessible to the general public. From the start, the tool “was developed to be easy to navigate and to understand,” a group of NLM affiliates wrote in a 2014 paper marking Toxmap’s 10th anniversary.

Since then, Toxmap has been used for everything from student projects to figures in academic papers. “It’s a great resource for teaching students,” said Sara Wylie, a science and technology studies scholar at Northeastern University and a cofounder of EDGI. Wylie uses Toxmap in her environment, technology, and society class. Among other things, she told Undark, the tool offers a vivid demonstration for students of how widespread toxic releases are in the U.S. The dots on Toxmap cluster around major cities, forming dense agglomerations in the country’s most populated corridors. They speckle quiet suburban neighborhoods, trail out along interstate highways, and dot the rural West. “It’s always shocking for students to find out that there are emissions happening near them, to see the complexity of them, and so it’s a pretty unique resource.”

Persico said she has found the tool helpful for research. “Being able to go to a place and actually see what the geographic landscape looks like, of the dispersion of pollution,” she noted, “is really, really valuable.” She uses the tool to visualize toxin sources and to generate figures for papers and for presentations. A new scientific paper she has pending publication in a journal, for example, uses Toxmap to show how EPA registered sites in Florida line up with population density statistics.

In 2018, the NLM launched a major update to Toxmap. But then, earlier this year, the Library announced that it would be shuttering the Toxicology Data Network, or Toxnet, the database collection that includes Toxmap. Many of its components would migrate to other NLM sites. But Toxmap, the organization announced, would be retired.

When asked about the concerns of researchers and other Toxmap devotees, as well as for more information about the upkeep cost and usage rate of Toxmap, the National Library of Medicine declined to answer questions, saying only in an email message: “We are not scheduling interviews regarding the sunsetting of Toxmap.”

This dearth of information has contributed to suspicions that the demise of Toxmap may have political motivations. “I hope people will understand what’s happening out there, that the government is gradually cutting off these very valuable tools that are really essential to our democracy,” said Sellers, citing trends under the Trump administration that include a reduction of mentions of climate change on EPA websites, and an administration effort to restrict the health data that can be used to inform government regulations.

Members of the public, he added, “have a right to know what chemicals are being released and stored, that are potentially dangerous, next door.”

Political suspicions aside, there is little evidence that Toxmap’s demise serves some higher political agenda — and indeed, leadership of the National Library of Medicine, including its director Patricia Flatley Brennan, predate the Trump administration. And in an email response to questions that arrived Tuesday afternoon, the library said that “the decision to retire the site was made by NLM, and not by the administration.” Still, the site’s closing does highlight that, more than 30 years after the passage of federal environmental right-to-know legislation, and more than 30 years into the internet era, finding simple, accessible, easy-to-use presentations of reliable pollution data can be difficult, if not impossible. Tools like Toxmap, Wylie said, could be clunky — even if they are, as she put it, “the best we’ve got right now.”

And yet the site’s basic principle — an interactive map, with toxic release sites clearly labeled, extensive health and demographic data ready for overlay, and extensive government data available at the click of a mouse — had a clear appeal. Asked what her ideal-world toxic data platform would look like, Persico laughed.

“Honestly,” she said, “I would build something like Toxmap.”

UPDATES: This story has been edited to reflect the actual removal of the Toxmap website, which was still available at first publication, and to add a response from the National Library of Medicine to the suggestion by some researchers that Toxmap was closed for political reasons. Undark may add further updates as additional information becomes available.

This article was originally published on Undark. Read the original article.

For purposes of preservation here is the original site url list for alternative sources for data previously consolidated and available on Toxmap.

Federal Toxmap Shutters, Raising the Ire of Pollution Researchers

December 16, 2019 by Michael Schulson

Fifteen years ago, the U.S. National Library of Medicine launched Toxmap, a free, interactive online application that combines pollution data from at least a dozen U.S. government sources. A Toxmap user could pan and zoom across a map of the United States sprinkled with thousands of blue and red dots, with each blue dot representing a factory, coal-fired power plant, or other facility that has released certain toxic chemicals into the environment, and each red dot marking a Superfund program site — “some of the nation’s most contaminated land,” according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

Toxmap allowed users to pull up detailed EPA data for each toxic release site, and to overlay other information, such as mortality statistics, onto those maps. And it’s precisely those capabilities that earned Toxmap a devoted following among researchers, students, activists, and other people keen to identify sources of pollution in their communities.

Those capabilities appear to no longer be available to the public.

Earlier this year, with little explanation, the NLM announced that it would be “retiring” the Toxmap website on Dec. 16, 2019. The library did not respond directly to queries on Monday about what was meant by “retiring,” but by Tuesday morning, the Toxmap website had been taken down and visitors to the former URL were met with a message acknowledging the closure and pointing visitors to other potential sources of information. (An archived version of the old Toxmap landing page is preserved at the Internet Archive.) The decision to sunset the application has upset some of Toxmap’s most loyal users and raised concerns among environmental data advocates, who say that Toxmap’s demise would inhibit reliable public access to essential data about environmental hazards.

“I think it’s really sad that they’re getting rid of this,” said Claudia Persico, an environmental policy scholar at American University who studies the impact of pollution on children’s health, and who uses Toxmap in her research. That sentiment was shared by Chris Sellers, an environmental historian at Stony Brook University and a member of the Environmental Data and Governance Initiative (EDGI), which monitors federal environmental data sources and advocates for greater public access. “It was stunning to me that the National Library of Medicine is actually retiring this pretty essential tool for our environmental right-to-know.”

NLM has offered only brief explanations for its decision. In a statement to Undark, NLM communications staff wrote that, in order to meet the goals of a new strategic plan, the Library “had to make some difficult organizational changes,” adding that “selected Toxmap data” could be found scattered among nine other U.S. and Canadian government websites. (The map includes data from Canada’s National Pollutant Release Inventory.) “Part of the decision was prompted by the increasing availability of the underlying data from their original sources,” NLM added. “Many sources such as the EPA, among others, offer several products that provide similar geographic information system (GIS) functionality.”

In particular, the EPA’s Enforcement and Compliance History Online (ECHO) site allows people to enter a zip code and view nearby pollution sources, along with some data about their toxic releases.

But those alternatives, researchers say, simply do not offer the same scope and simplicity as Toxmap. “Because this information has gotten so complex, and there’s so much of it, it’s very difficult for someone who’s not really trained in the area to navigate it,” said Sellers. “This tool actually cut through all the jargon, all the different interfaces that EPA, for instance, puts up before you get to the actual data that you’re interested in.”

Data-sharing tools like Toxmap have their roots in the 1980s, when a toxic gas leak at a Union Carbide plant in Bhopal, India, killed thousands of people. (Estimates range from 2,200 victims to more than 10,000.) In response to the Bhopal disaster, lawmakers in the United States called for legislation that would give Americans information about potential toxin sources in their communities, under a principle called “right-to-know.” The Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act, passed in 1986, required companies using certain hazardous chemicals to report that information to the EPA, and for the EPA to make that information available to the public.

Much of that data came to form the backbone of Toxmap, which was launched in 2004 by the NLM, part of the National Institutes of Health. While this data was available in other formats, the NLM tool brought it together in one place and made it accessible to the general public. From the start, the tool “was developed to be easy to navigate and to understand,” a group of NLM affiliates wrote in a 2014 paper marking Toxmap’s 10th anniversary.

Since then, Toxmap has been used for everything from student projects to figures in academic papers. “It’s a great resource for teaching students,” said Sara Wylie, a science and technology studies scholar at Northeastern University and a cofounder of EDGI. Wylie uses Toxmap in her environment, technology, and society class. Among other things, she told Undark, the tool offers a vivid demonstration for students of how widespread toxic releases are in the U.S. The dots on Toxmap cluster around major cities, forming dense agglomerations in the country’s most populated corridors. They speckle quiet suburban neighborhoods, trail out along interstate highways, and dot the rural West. “It’s always shocking for students to find out that there are emissions happening near them, to see the complexity of them, and so it’s a pretty unique resource.”

Persico said she has found the tool helpful for research. “Being able to go to a place and actually see what the geographic landscape looks like, of the dispersion of pollution,” she noted, “is really, really valuable.” She uses the tool to visualize toxin sources and to generate figures for papers and for presentations. A new scientific paper she has pending publication in a journal, for example, uses Toxmap to show how EPA registered sites in Florida line up with population density statistics.

In 2018, the NLM launched a major update to Toxmap. But then, earlier this year, the Library announced that it would be shuttering the Toxicology Data Network, or Toxnet, the database collection that includes Toxmap. Many of its components would migrate to other NLM sites. But Toxmap, the organization announced, would be retired.

When asked about the concerns of researchers and other Toxmap devotees, as well as for more information about the upkeep cost and usage rate of Toxmap, the National Library of Medicine declined to answer questions, saying only in an email message: “We are not scheduling interviews regarding the sunsetting of Toxmap.”

This dearth of information has contributed to suspicions that the demise of Toxmap may have political motivations. “I hope people will understand what’s happening out there, that the government is gradually cutting off these very valuable tools that are really essential to our democracy,” said Sellers, citing trends under the Trump administration that include a reduction of mentions of climate change on EPA websites, and an administration effort to restrict the health data that can be used to inform government regulations.

Members of the public, he added, “have a right to know what chemicals are being released and stored, that are potentially dangerous, next door.”

Political suspicions aside, there is little evidence that Toxmap’s demise serves some higher political agenda — and indeed, leadership of the National Library of Medicine, including its director Patricia Flatley Brennan, predate the Trump administration. And in an email response to questions that arrived Tuesday afternoon, the library said that “the decision to retire the site was made by NLM, and not by the administration.” Still, the site’s closing does highlight that, more than 30 years after the passage of federal environmental right-to-know legislation, and more than 30 years into the internet era, finding simple, accessible, easy-to-use presentations of reliable pollution data can be difficult, if not impossible. Tools like Toxmap, Wylie said, could be clunky — even if they are, as she put it, “the best we’ve got right now.”

And yet the site’s basic principle — an interactive map, with toxic release sites clearly labeled, extensive health and demographic data ready for overlay, and extensive government data available at the click of a mouse — had a clear appeal. Asked what her ideal-world toxic data platform would look like, Persico laughed.

“Honestly,” she said, “I would build something like Toxmap.”


UPDATES: This story has been edited to reflect the actual removal of the Toxmap website, which was still available at first publication, and to add a response from the National Library of Medicine to the suggestion by some researchers that Toxmap was closed for political reasons. Undark may add further updates as additional information becomes available.

This article was originally published on Undark. Read the original article.

For purposes of preservation here is the original site url list for alternative sources for data previously consolidated and available on Toxmap.

Cruelty-Free Cosmetics Act Passes in California Senate

SB 1249 makes it illegal for cosmetics manufacturers to sell any finished product or component that was knowingly tested on animals after January 1, 2020.  The bill states that “Existing law prohibits manufacturers and contract testing facilities from using traditional animal testing methods within this state when an appropriate alternative test method has been scientifically validated and recommended by the Interagency Coordinating Committee on the Validation of Alternative Methods (ICCVAM) or other specified agencies.”

The current law left a huge loophole regarding the import of products that violate the existing anti-cruelty laws.  This next step by California law-makers which was backed by organizations such as  Social Compassion in Legislation (SCIL) and the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM) will serve as an example for legislation in other states or for the country as a whole.

The battle is not over yet.  It is still yet to pass the state’s appropriation committee.  PETA is calling for support fom the California residents to urge their legislators to pass the appropriations necessary to make this bill effective.  A link is provided below to contact the appropriate individuals for appropriations.  This link is limited to California residents. If you are a resident of California, please take action or share with a California resident to take action.

The sale of beauty products and ingredients that are tested on animals may soon be banned in California.

Source: Cruelty-Free Cosmetics Act Passes in California Senate

California residents, please urge your state assembly member to vote YES on S.B. 1249.

Source: Help California Go Cruelty-Free! | PETA

SB 1249 (Galgiani), the California Cruelty-Free Cosmetics Act, passed by a vote of 21 to 9 on the Senate floor on Wednesday.

Source: SB 1249 California’s Cruelty-Free Cosmetics Act Passes Senate with 21-9 Vote | The Physicians Committee

The California Cruelty-Free Cosmetics Act (SB1249) just passed in the California Senate yesterday. The proposed bill would ban the sale of all cosmetics tested on animals by 2020, making the state a leader in the movement for vegan and cruelty-free cosmetics.

Source: Cruelty-Free Cosmetics Act Passes in California Senate

Legislative Information header image: click to go to the home page

Source: Bill Text – SB-1249 Animal testing: cosmetics.

Source: California Cruelty Free Cosmetics Act passes the Senate | Cruelty Free International

Personal Care Products Safety Act

On May 11, 2017 Senator Feinstein of California and Senator Collins of Maine introduced S.1113 the Personal Care Products Safety Act.  This is the first bill introduced to improve or update the Food Drug and Cosmetic Act which was passed in 1938.  As we all can imagine it is woefully inadequate to address the huge changes that have occurred in this industry in the 80 years since then.  Also this act did not give guidance or regulation to the cosmetic industry regarding transparency of ingredients.

The S.1113 act has not progressed much since its introduction and subsequent referral to the Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions.  The lack of movement is disappointing in itself, but also will not correct many of the aforementioned issues.  Having said this, I prefer that they still move forward on this act for a few reasons.

First, it has the potential to help reduce animal testing for cosmetics.  The act specifically states that it encourages

“the use of alternative testing methods that provide information that is equivalent or superior in scientific quality to the animal testing method”,

to “use fewer animals than conventional animal-based tests when non-animal methods are impracticable”,

as well as “encourage… the sharing of data across companies and organizations that are testing for safety in cosmetics ..to avoid duplication..”  Since we know that most of the cosmetic brands are already owned by the same seven companies this should be a no-brainer. 7 companies own 182 beauty brands – INSIDER

The National Anti-Vivisection Society (NAVS) would like to go much further and encourages you to contact your representatives to support a ban on the use of live animals for cosmetic and personal care testing.  I agree with them on this however would like to see any movement that would prevent unnecessary cruelty.  The NAVS link below provides a means to make your voice heard on banning animal testing for cosmetics.  Demand that Personal Care Products Safety Act Includes Ban on Animal Testing – National Anti-Vivisection Society

According to Women’s Voices for the Earth there are a number of other positive impacts if the bill gets passed.

  • Manufacturers must register their facilities, products and ingredients to the FDA.
  • It closes labeling loopholes except for fragrances
  • Reverses coal tar’s protected status
  • The FDA will be required to assess the safety of five chemicals per year starting with the following
    • Diazoidinyl urea
    • Lead Acetate
    • Methylene glycol/methanediol/formaldehyde
    • Propyl Paraben
    • Quaternium 15

These five ingredients are mostly related to preservatives which help increase shelf life for their products, however there are a number of safe preservatives available that they can use to reformulate safer products.

There are some provisions that were included to prevent overwhelming compliance issues for small businesses and small batch manufacturers.  This is seen as a positive by some and a negative by others who are concerned that it leaves too great a gap.  I like to support small batch suppliers and would not like to see any of them driven out of the industry.

———-Sources———-

The bill is intended to fix the deeply flawed system currently in place that is supposed to oversee cosmetic and salon product safety. But is it enough?

Source: Will the Personal Care Products Safety Act Ensure Safety of Cosmetics?

What the Handcrafted Soap and Cosmetic Guild is doing about the Personal Care Products Safety Act 2017 sponsored by Senator Diane Feinstein

Source: What We Are Doing – Personal Care Products Safety Act 2017

Summary of S.1113 – 115th Congress (2017-2018): Personal Care Products Safety Act

Source: S.1113 – 115th Congress (2017-2018): Personal Care Products Safety Act | Congress.gov | Library of Congress

Details for S. 1113: Personal Care Products Safety Act

Source: Details for S. 1113: Personal Care Products Safety Act – GovTrack.us

Sponsored by Dianne Feinstein D-Calif. Introduced to the Senate on May 11, 2017 — Personal Care Products Safety Act This bill amends the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act to require cosmetics companies to register their facilities with the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and to submit to the FDA cosmetic ingredient statements that include the amounts of a cosmetic’s ingredients.

Source: S.1113: Personal Care Products Safety Act | Represent | ProPublica

Finally, some positive news out of DC!

Source: The clean beauty bill (PCPSA) is back on track | Well+Good

Demand that Personal Care Products Safety Act Includes Ban on Animal Testing – National Anti-Vivisection Society