News & analysis at the convergence of health, science, technology and innovation
Innovation Ecosystem/Opinion

In dreams began responsibilities

Making the connections between an EPA fine against a chemical firm in ProvPort, a toxic dumping charge against a highway construction firm, the regulatory failures to protect health, efforts to jumpstart the biotech sector in RI, and plastic pollution – and their intimate relationship with chronic health problems

Photo by Richard Asinof

The first page from the New York Times magazine article I wrote published in October of 1979.

By Richard Asinof
Posted 1/23/23
In these perilous times, as the dangers from climate change caused by fossil fuels and plastic production threaten to overwhelm the foundations of our lives, how do we tell the stories and change the news narratives around what is happening to us?
What has been the collateral damage to the research engine caused by the fallout from the falling investment into the biotech industry in the region – the cutbacks at law firms, at health care enterprises, at universities, at tech companies? When will CommerceRI create an index of the innovation economy in Rhode Island to create the metrics needed to better understand what investments are needed? What new investments are needed to support the basic functions of government – the worker bees at the human service agencies and the nonprofit community agencies – functioning? If a toxic cloud of pollution were to descend upon Providence and its surrounding communities as a result of an accident at ProvPort, would it resemble the fictional story created by Don DeLillo in “White Noise?” How will the recent policy brief produced by RI Kids Count on racial disparities in Rhode Island schools lead to more, better investments in public education – beyond the growth of charter schools? What kinds of budgetary supports are needed to improve the quality of life for health care workers in Rhode Island?
The next “Fresh Fridays” virtual session being held by ONE Neighborhood Builders on Friday, Feb. 3, will focus on Health Equity Zones, collaborative efforts of residents, community organizations, health professionals and others to address the root causes of health disparities. There are currently 15 HEZs operating across then state.
The discussion will feature HEZ practitioners from Newport, Woonsocket, Central Falls, and Central Providence, where ONE Neighborhood Builders serves as the backbone agency.
At some point, Gov. McKee will need to move forward and announce his picks for the directors at the R.I. Department of Health, at R.I. EOHHS, at R.I. DCYF, among others, agencies that operate at the fulcrum of public health in Rhode Island. The apparent lack of focus on these critical jobs underscores what continues to be a need to have an uncomfortable conversation about racial equity in Rhode Island, particularly at the leadership levels of government.
The appointment of Stefan Pryor to be the new Housing Secretary should require some reporting by the news media about what his role was when he was CommerceRI secretary with responsibility for overseeing Housing RI. Members of the legislative leadership, if no one else, should at least be able to ask questions about this time – about how investments were structured.
Finally, beyond the state’s plans to evict the Community Care Alliance from the state-owned facility at 181Cumberland St. in Woonsocket, there is a similar controversy brewing with the MAP rehabilitation and behavioral health services building, a state-owned building. Stay tuned.

ELY, Minnesota, somewhere 20 miles north of the town, in a canoe, in late September of 1986 – I am paddling in the Boundary Waters in northern Minnesota, approaching one of the many points of portage, where the flow of waters between lakes changes directions, with the current abruptly shifting, pushing against the canoe, instead of pulling it toward the shoreline.

I am stunned to find myself entering a recurring dreamscape from my childhood, vivid in all of its details, where I had once found myself paddling in a canoe against an imagined current of an icy blue stream.

But this was no dream. Later that night, at our campsite, drinking a concoction of boiled coffee and hot chocolate, I attempted to explain to my fellow traveler, Sandy, a park ranger from California, what had transpired. My storytelling was punctuated by the eerie cries of a rutting bull moose somewhere in the distance, scraping his antlers against a tree, which kept interrupting the narrative of my story, a reminder that we were not at the center of the universe.

To this day, I am perplexed as to what actually happened – encountering a dreamscape from my past, a dream that was more than 30 years old, which had been imprinted and then retained in my synapses, but which then appeared in a real world encounter, unplanned and unscripted. Call it a time and place in my life when synchronicity and serendipity converged.

I have learned to pay heed to my dreams when I am writing my stories, covering the news, during five decades working in the profession of journalism. I have learned to recognize when there is a different kind of gravitational force at play, forcing me to pay attention to my relationship with the land [and the water and the sky] where the stories were taking place – in the upriver and downriver in the narrative of my life.

When landscapes disappear
The onslaught of storms ravaging the California coastline this winter brought me back to thinking anew about the story of my encounter with a dreamscape in real life, and with it, a desire to change the way we tell our stories. Our own personal stores are our most valuable possession we have, and the act of sharing them is what makes us human. As a reporter, I believe I have a responsibility to bring those convergences to life.

But what happens when the landscapes – and the memories attached to those specific landscapes – are washed away by climate change? Whole chapters in my life are wrapped up in the memories I carry with me from close encounters on the California coastline – such as eloping at Julia Pfeiffer State Beach Park in Big Sur.

I am not alone in pondering such questions. “Avoiding climate breakdown will require cathedral thinking,” Rebecca Solnit tweeted recently, quoting activist Greta Thunberg. “We must lay the foundation while we may not know exactly how to build the ceiling.”

In Olga Tokarczuk’a recent Nobel Prize acceptance speech, “Storytelling and the Art of Tenderness,” she wrote: “Tenderness is the most modest form of love. It is the kind of love that does not appear in the scriptures or the gospels, no one swears by it, no one cites it… It appears wherever we take a close and careful look at another being, at something that is not our ‘self.’”

As Maria Popova wrote in The Maginalian about Tokarczuk’s speech, “Our present bind,, Tokarczuk observes, is that the old narratives about who we are [and] how the world works are un-tender and clearly broken, but we are yet to find tender new ones to take their place.”

Popova continued: “Observing that in our sense-making cosmogony “the world is made of worlds” yet “we lack the language, we lack the points of view, the metaphors, the myths and the new fables,” she lamented, about the tyranny of selfing that has taken their place.

The speech by Tokarczuk and the story by Popova were tweeted out by Dr. Rebecca Altman, a Providence-based science writer whose words have been frequently featured in ConvergenceRI. Altman’s book in progress, The Song of Styrene, a narrative about the history of plastics in the 20th century, is forging a new kind of storytelling, a new kind of narrative.

Her comrades in words and in shape-shifting narratives – authors Kerri Arsenault and Bathsheba Demuth, retweeted Altman’s tweet, catching my attention. To which I replied: “Changing the narrative requires new storytelling.” Which, in turn, Arsenault replied: “This is my contention, yes.” Arsenault and Demuth have convened TESS, The Environmental Storytelling Studio at Brown, to help academics marry scholarship with storytelling.

But, what format exists for reporters to change the narratives around storytelling when it comes to the news? It is not a small question to ask.

When narratives collide, converge, and change course
In the last two weeks, there have been any number of stories reported and published that have exposed the limits of traditional news narratives to make the connections between the stories and the people who inhabit the communities where the stories were taking place, leaving the readers in the dark about what the stories meant – and how they are converging and connected.

• A global chemical distributor with two facilities along the [Providence] waterfront will pay $600,000 in fines and at least $200,000 for emergency response equipment for violating federal chemical safety protocols, as Frank Carini of ecoRI News reported on Jan. 10.

Carini’s story continued: The recent consent agreement between the Environmental Protection Agency and Univar Solutions, Inc., comes after allegations that the Illinois-based corporation failed to follow industrial accident-prevention requirements in the federal Clean Air Act, putting neighborhoods, including some in Providence, at higher risk.

As Carini reported, the neighborhoods at risk in Providence were communities already overburdened with environmental justice concerns: In total, five Univar facilities in three states — two in Rhode Island, two in Pennsylvania, and one in Colorado — were cited. Four of the five facilities, including the two in Providence, are in overburdened communities with environmental justice concerns, according to the EPA.

If an industrial accident were to occur, Carini’s story continued, the consequences could prove to be catastrophic: Univar’s waterfront facility in ProvPort has a 14-mile hazard radius — the area that would need to be evacuated in the case of an accident at the plant — because some 3 million pounds of chemicals, such as ammonium, chlorine, and formaldehyde, are stored there, according to the EPA.

Translated, the dangers of such a chemical industrial accident would swamp the city of Providence and surrounding communities with clouds of dangerous industrial chemicals. The questions are: What were the existing health consequences created by this facility in ProvPort on the health and well being of residents? What are the metrics that such health dangers would become visible as chronic illnesses and disease?

The questions are not idle ones, given the efforts by the ProvPort to extend its operating license and tax stabilization agreement with the city.

• On Wednesday, Jan. 18, R.I. Attorney General Peter Neronha announced that his office has charged a Massachusetts-based construction firm and a former employee with illegally dumping thousands of tons of contaminated fill at project sites in Providence during the construction of the Route 6/10 Interchange construction project.

The Attorney General charged Barletta Heavy Division, Inc. [Barletta], with two counts of illegal disposal of solid waste, one count of operating a solid waste management facility without a license, and one count of providing a false document to a public official. Barletta is a Canton, Mass.-based construction firm, overseeing the ongoing $247 million highway construction project that began in 2018, according to the news release.

Attorney General Neronha said he was acting on behalf of protecting Rhode Island’s public health: The defendants allegedly “used the 6/10-site as an environmental dumping ground, and not only for Rhode Island waste. Worse yet, they made Rhode Island a dumping ground for Massachusetts waste,” Neronha said. “Their actions come at the expense of Rhode Islander’s public health and their environment. Rhode Island’s environmental and public health laws exist for a reason – to keep Rhode Islanders safe, and to preserve our environment. We will continue to aggressively enforce those laws. Because Rhode Islanders deserve nothing less.”

How much toxic material was dumped, allegedly illegally? More than 4,500 tons of stone and soil contaminated with hazardous materials, according to Attorney General Neronha.

The story had originally come into the light of day, thanks to reporting by GoLocalProv and ecoRINews, among others. In response to those initial news reports, the director of the R.I. Department of Transportation, Director Peter Alviti, had claimed the allegations about illegal dumping were “lies,” according to a recent GoLocalProv editorial.

The dumping of contaminated waste material occurred in one of the poorest neighborhoods in Rhode Island, Olneyville, a community already beset by racial and health disparities.

Despite the aggressive stance by Attorney General Neronha, the questions about the health consequences for a population already overburdened by environmental justice concerns remain unanswered.

Are there metrics to measure the health consequences of such illegal dumping of toxic materials? The Attorney General’s office suggested that the question would be best answered by the R.I. Department of Health.

The problem, of course, is that many of the cause-and-effect of the health consequences may not become visible as chronic disease afflictions until years later.

Translated, the health consequences of the alleged illegal dumping on the residents of Olneyville, like the health consequences for residents of South Providence because Univar Solutions violated federal chemical safety protocols, remain an unknown metric.

The failure of regulation, regulators to protect us
Anyone who watches TV has no doubt seen the ubiquitous ads from predatory law firms, hawking legal representation for damages from asbestos, from chemicals in drinking water at Camp Lejeune, and from talc-laced products linked to ovarian cancers, among other legal tort class-action cases.

The problem remains that industry, as has been shown repeatedly with climate change and with forever chemicals such as PFAS, have contested their legal liability, challenging the government’s ability to regulate them.

• In a ProPublica story published on Dec. 15, 2022, by reporter Sharon Lerner, entitled “As workers battle cancer, the government admits its limit for a deadly chemical is too high,” she began the story about a worker at the Goodyear Tire and Rubber [factory] peeing into a cup, which was then shipped to a lab to measure the amount of a chemical called orthotoluidine. The results showed that the worker’s level put him at an increased risk for bladder cancer – nearly five times as high after his shift.

“It’s no secret that the plant’s workers are being exposed to poison,” Lerner wrote. “Government scientists began testing their urine more than 30 years ago. And Goodyear, which uses ortho-toluidine to make its tires pliable, has been monitoring the air for traces of the chemical since 1976. A major expose even revealed, almost a decade ago, that dozens of the plant’s workers had developed bladder cancer since 1974.”

Lerner continued: “What is perhaps most stunning about the trail of sick Goodyear workers is that they have been exposed to levels of the chemical that the United States government says are perfectly safe.”

On the good news side of the ledger
On the good news side of the equation, there are breakthroughs occurring, thanks to medical and biotech researchers, many based here in Rhode Island. There are those who would like to see new investments by the state in promoting the life sciences industry as a pipeline for new jobs and new economic growth.

• The Lifespan Cancer Institute recently released the results of a vaccine trial for aggressive brain cancer. “Lifespan said that a Phase II clinical trial of the DCVax-I cancer vaccine shows the vaccine extended the median survival rate of both newly diagnosed and recurrent glioblastoma — the most common and lethal form of brain cancer, according to a news story reported by ABC6.

The story continued: [It is] a form of cancer that’s more prevalent in Rhode Island than anywhere in the country according to Dr. Henrich Elinzano, “We see about 60-70 cases per year just here at Rhode Island Hospital alone,” Elinzano said.

• In another potential breakthrough, GreenLight Biosciences and EpiVax Therapeutics announced that they had signed an exclusive collaboration agreement to develop personalized cancer vaccines. EpiVax, which will celebrate its 25th anniversary this year, is one of Rhode Island’s pioneering biotech firms.

The new personalized cancer vaccine effort will combine Greenlight’s mRNA design and manufacturing expertise with EpiVax’s advanced Ancer™ pipeline for personalized cancer vaccine design, according to the news release. Epivax Therapeutics, Inc. will contribute a proprietary set of immunoinformatics tools for rapidly identifying and differentiating highly immunogenic neo-antigens from epitopes that induce immune tolerance.

In turn, GreenLight will contribute proprietary RNA technology allowing mRNA design, formulation, and manufacturing.

Translated, the breakthrough collaboration will enable the development of personal cancer vaccines through the latest biotech advances.

• A third research development here in Rhode Island seeks to shed new light on identifying disruptions in the microbiome in newborns. Women and Infants Hospital and General Biomics, Inc. announced a collaborative agreement to study the role of the human microbiome in diseases found in neonatal intensive care units.

The study will be co-managed by Dr. George Weinstock, EVP & CSO of General Biomics, and Dr. Jill Maron, Pediatrician-in-Chief at WIHRI and the William and Mary A. Oh/Anna Elsa Zopfi Professorship in Pediatrics for Perinatal Research, Warren Alpert Medical School of Brown University.

Under the terms of the agreement, WIHRI will collect samples from NICU patients, which will be transferred to General Biomics for analysis, and develop novel tests to predict major maladies affecting neonates. General Biomics will fund the effort at WIHRI and obtain commercial rights to the output of the study.

“The microbiome is a crucial key in our understanding of human disease. Our work showed many ties between the microbiome and disease,” said Weinstock. “General Biomics is pleased to be able to collaborate with Dr. Maron and WIHRI. This joint project is an outstanding opportunity to move this toward clinical application, enabling us to develop novel, patentable tests, which will greatly reduce the costs of hospitalization and dramatically reduce the mortality and morbidity in these patients.”

The General Biomics test will address medical disorders that affect newborns and young infants, especially premature infants who require hospitalization “The Women & Infants’ NICU is thrilled to partner with General Biomics on this important area of research,” said Dr. Maron, in the news release. “This partnership is a continuation of a productive collaboration that I have had with Dr. Weinstock and his team exploring the role of the microbiome in neonatal health and disease. It is extremely exciting to continue this research to develop improved diagnostic approaches for the vulnerable neonatal population.”

Translated, there is great promise within the research engine in Rhode Island to promote better health care outcomes to chronic diseases, focused on developing better vaccines.

What is missing from the equation, it seems, is a better understanding of the connection between the pollution pipeline that connects fossil fuels and plastics manufacturing and dumping of toxic waste to the chronic afflictions. But, as the headline in a recent story in The Boston Globe reported, the biotech industry is “holding on by its fingernails,” bracing for another tough year.” Adding more wet lab space, one of the Governor’s new budget investments, as part of the build-out of the commercial real estate development that will house the state’s new public health lab misses the mark when it comes to protecting public health – particularly when the entire health care delivery system continues to be disrupted by workforce shortages and low reimbursement rates for Medicaid, in ConvergenceRI's opinion.

On the oblivious side of the ledger
Nowhere is the connection between accelerated climate change, the increasing toxic hazards and the health consequences of such of man-made decisions more visible than with the flood of plastics into our world, our oceans, our air, and our own bodies. [See link below to the ConvergenceRI story, “”What’s entangled and enmeshed in the plastic is us.”]

In his state of the state address, Gov. Dan McKee spoke at length about the opportunities to reduce litter in Rhode Island as one of the major initiatives his administration will undertake over the next four years. Yet, nowhere in his speech did the Governor address the cause of much of the litter we see: the abundance of single-use, throw-away plastics. Gov. McKee also failed to mention the intimate relationship between the plastics industry and the fossil fuel industry, which is responsible for tipping the balance in the dramatic climate changes the world is now experiencing in its weather patterns – and in its chronic health conditions. [See link below to ConvergenceRI story, “A conversation with the next Rachel Carson.”]

As she moves toward completion of her book, Dr. Rebecca Altman has been diligently posting her archival searches conducted for her book about the history of plastics. Altman recently posted a story from the 1955 LIFE magazine, entitled “Throwaway Living: Disposable items cut down on household chores,” featuring the photographs of Peter Stackpole, which captured the way that plastics were sold to the American consumer.

Altman also shared a definition of plastic-related pollution from a Minderoo Foundation report: “Plastic-related pollution refers to plastic materials [macroplastics, micro/nanoplastics], chemicals/additives, and gases, leaked into the environment during the process of primary and secondary plastic production, consumer use, and post-consumer use. It also includes the chemicals that can absorb onto plastic materials after they leak into the environment.”

Trying to address “litter” without understanding the role that plastics play is like trying to address climate change without acknowledging the dominant role that fossil fuels play. The level of misinformation around “litter” was best exemplified by the performance of WPRO’s Matt Allen following the Governor’s speech, who used his radio talk show platform to blame litter on two forces: municipal garbage collection and homeless encampments. To quote WPRO’s ace reporter Steve Klamkin, “Really?

The question is: What would it take for Gov. McKee, and for that matter, Senate President Ruggerio and House Speaker Shekarchi, to have a conversation with Dr. Rebecca Altman, Bathsheba Demuth, and Kerri Arsenault to change the conversation. Throw in Dr. Jill Marin, Attorney General Neronha, and Dr. Megan Ranney to the conversation, and an entirely new narrative could emerge to be told?

For ConvergenceRI, the question is: What new form of storytelling can be created where the voices of Altman, Demuth, and Arsenault can be heard amidst the “he says this, she says that” reporting that dominates the airwaves? Are there Rhode Island investors who would be willing to create a challenge to the status quo of political news reporting?

Back to the dreamscape
I began this story with a dreamscape that became an encounter in real life. Let me end with an encounter in real life – reporting on the consequences of mercury poisoning on the Cree tribe in northwestern Quebec that, in turn, now frequents my dreamscapes.

• It is August of 1977, and I have just arrived in Miquelon, a small town in northern Quebec that straddles the rushing waters of the River Waswanapi, covering the impact of mercury poisoning on the indigenous Cree, who have had to stop eating fish because of mercury contamination.

The story would grace the pages of The New York Times Magazine in October of 1979, two years after I first wrote it. [See first image above.] But the landscapes of what I saw and felt and heard– as a witness to the decline of a native culture because of industrial pollution – still haunt me in my dreams.

When I arrived, there was a small plane parked in front of the Hotel Miquelon, speaking to the distance between the small village and the surrounding communities in James Bay. That night, our Cree guide, Alan Saganash, held court at the local hotel bar, as the beer flowed freely. One of Saganash’s neighbors, Jimmy Blackfoot, told an apocryphal story of attempting to swim across Lake Waswanapi, 20 miles across, only to stop halfway and turn back, because he was tired [it was meant to be humorous], as a way to demonstrate his prowess as a swimmer.

When some at our table continued to question Blackfoot about his swimming, he want back to his car and came back with his fins, and told us one of the most somber tales I have ever heard: a woman in Miquelon had killed herself, drowning at a nearby falls. Blackfoot had been the one asked by the villagers to retrieve the body. He dove repeatedly into the deeper water beyond the turbulence of the falls to pull the body back up to the surface.

Translated, as a corollary to Maya Angelou, we need to learn to trust what people share about themselves.

Our landscapes and coastlines are being disrupted by climate change, our health care delivery systems are failing financially, because the economic foundation is unsustainable, our political systems are being challenged by those who would gladly trade the messiness of democracy for more autocratic rule.

I keep thinking: What more proof do we need to change the narrative in our reporting, to stop doubting the prowess of our community activists? 


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