ABOUT THE SPEAKER
Michael Hendryx - Research investigator
Michael Hendryx is focused on the impacts of uneven environmental exposures faced by socioeconomically disadvantaged groups.

Why you should listen

In 2006, Michael Hendryx started a research program on public health disparities for people in Appalachia who live in proximity to coal mining, with a focus on mountaintop removal. This research has shown that people who live close to mountaintop removal are at increased risk for a wide set of health problems including respiratory illness, cardiovascular disease, birth defects, cancer and more. Hendryx has published more than peer-reviewed research papers and has been an investigator on numerous grants and contracts. He is currently a Professor in the Department of Environmental Health at Indiana University Bloomington’s School of Public Health.

More profile about the speaker
Michael Hendryx | Speaker | TED.com
TEDMED 2017

Michael Hendryx: The shocking danger of mountaintop removal -- and why it must end

Filmed:
1,032,224 views

Research investigator Michael Hendryx studies mountaintop removal, an explosive type of surface coal mining used in Appalachia that comes with unexpected health hazards. In this data-packed talk, Hendryx presents his research and tells the story of the pushback he's received from the coal industry, advocating for the ethical obligation scientists have to speak the truth.
- Research investigator
Michael Hendryx is focused on the impacts of uneven environmental exposures faced by socioeconomically disadvantaged groups. Full bio

Double-click the English transcript below to play the video.

00:25
Let's say that you wanted
to conduct an experiment.
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In this experiment,
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you randomly assign people
to live in blasting zones
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or in control locations without explosives
going off over their heads.
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They live in the community for years,
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just downwind and downstream
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from sites where tons of explosives
are used almost daily.
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And millions of gallons
of water contaminated.
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With random assignment,
you could carefully study
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the long-term health effects
of living in these blasting communities
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without a bunch of annoying
confounders and covariates.
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Random assignment does wonders.
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That would be a rigorous,
powerful scientific inquiry
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into the effects of these
environmental exposures.
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Of course, such a study
could never be done.
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Most scientists wouldn't have
the stomach for it.
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The institutional review board
would never approve it;
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it would never pass human subjects review,
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because it would be unethical, immoral.
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And yet in effect,
it is happening right now.
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In my mind, this prompts some questions.
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What is the ethical obligation
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of the scientists who believes
populations are in danger?
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How much evidence is enough
to be confident of our conclusions?
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Where is the line between
scientific certainty and the need to act?
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The unplanned experiment
that is happening right now
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is called mountaintop removal.
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The abbreviation for it is MTR.
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It is a form of surface coal mining
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that takes place in Appalachia,
here in the United States.
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MTR occurs in four states: Virginia,
West Virginia, Kentucky and Tennessee.
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Over 1.2 million acres
have been mined in this way.
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This is an area about the size of Delaware
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but it is spread over a footprint
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as large as Vermont
and New Hampshire combined.
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The process involves clear-cutting
ancient Appalachian forest,
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home to some of the richest
biodiversity on the planet.
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The trees are typically burned
or dumped into adjacent valleys.
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Then, to reach the buried coal seams,
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explosives are used to remove
up to 800 feet of mountain elevation.
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Over 1,500 tons of explosives
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are used for coal mining
in West Virginia alone.
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Every day.
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Rock and soil debris
is dumped over the valley sides
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where it permanently buries
headwater streams.
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So far, over 500 mountains
have been destroyed.
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About 2,000 miles of streams
have been permanently buried.
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Water emerging from the base
of the valley fills is highly contaminated
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and remains contaminated for decades.
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The coal then has to be
chemically treated,
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crushed and washed before it can be
transported to power plants and burned.
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This cleaning takes place on-site.
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The process produces more air pollution
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and contaminates billions
of gallons of water with metals,
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sulfates, cleaning chemicals
and other impurities.
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All of this to produce three percent
of US electricity demand --
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only three percent
of US electricity demand.
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As you can appreciate, this prompts
all sorts of other questions.
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What are the health impacts
of mountaintop-removal mining?
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There are over a million people
who live in counties where MTR takes place
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and millions more downstream and downwind.
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What has been the response
of industry and government
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when these issues are documented?
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And again, what is the ethical
obligation of science
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when faced with this disturbing situation?
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I began to research this issue in 2006.
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I had just taken a job
at West Virginia University.
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Before then, I hadn't done
any research related to coal.
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But I started to hear stories
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from people who lived
in these mining communities.
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They said that the water
they drank was not clean,
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that the air they breathed was polluted.
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They would tell me
about their own illnesses
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or illnesses in their family.
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They were worried about how common
cancer was in their neighborhoods.
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I met with many people
in southern West Virginia
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and eastern Kentucky
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to listen to those stories
and hear their concerns.
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I searched the scientific literature
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and was surprised to learn
that nothing had been published
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on the public health effects
of coal mining in the United States.
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Let me say that again --
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nothing had been published
on the public health effects
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of coal mining in the US.
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So I thought, "I can make
a new contribution,
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no matter what I find,
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to either confirm these concerns
or to alleviate them."
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I had no personal
or organizational agenda.
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Many of my colleagues
initially were skeptical
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that there would be any link
between public health and mining.
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They predicted that the health problems
could be explained by poverty
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or by lifestyle issues,
like smoking and obesity.
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When I started, I thought
maybe they would be right.
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We started by analyzing existing databases
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that allowed us to link
population health to mining activity
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and to control statistically for age, sex,
race, smoking, obesity, poverty,
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education, health insurance
and others we could measure.
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We found evidence that confirmed
the concerns of the residents,
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and we started to publish our findings.
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As a very brief summary,
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we found that people who live
where mountaintop removal takes place
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have significantly higher levels
of cardiovascular disease,
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kidney disease and chronic
lung disease like COPD.
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Death rates from cancer
are significantly elevated,
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especially for lung cancer.
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We've seen evidence
for higher rates of birth defects
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and for babies born at low birth weight.
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The difference in total mortality
equates to about 1,200 excess deaths
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every year in MTR areas,
controlling for other risks.
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Twelve hundred excess deaths every year.
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Not only are death rates higher,
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but they increase
as the levels of mining go up
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in a dose-response manner.
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Next, we started to conduct
community door-to-door health surveys.
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We surveyed people
living within a few miles of MTR
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versus similar rural
communities without mining.
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Survey results show higher levels
of personal and family illness,
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self-reported health status is poorer,
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and illness symptoms across
a broad spectrum are more common.
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These studies are only associational.
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We all know that correlation
does not prove causation.
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These studies did not include data
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on the actual environmental conditions
in mining communities.
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So we started to collect
and report on that.
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We found that violations
of public drinking-water standards
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are seven times more common
in MTR areas versus non-mining areas.
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We collected air samples
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and found that particulate matter
is elevated in mining communities,
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especially in the ultra-fine range.
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The dust in mining communities
contains a complex mixture,
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but includes high levels of silica,
a known lung carcinogen,
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and potentially harmful organic compounds.
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We used the dust in laboratory experiments
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and found that it induced
cardiovascular dysfunction in rats.
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The dust also promoted the development
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of lung cancer in human
in vitro lung cells.
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This is just a quick summary
of some of our studies.
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The coal industry does not like
what we have to say.
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Neither does the government
in coal country.
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Just like the tobacco industry
paid for research
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to defend the safety of smoking,
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so the coal industry
has tried to do the same
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by paying people to write papers
claiming that MTR is safe.
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Lawyers have sent me harassing demands
under the Freedom of Information Act,
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eventually denied by the courts.
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I'd been attacked at public testimony
at a Congressional hearing
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by a congressman
with ties to the energy industry.
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One governor has publicly declared
that he refuses to read the research.
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And after a meeting
with a member of Congress,
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in which I specifically
shared my research,
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I later heard that representative say
they knew nothing about it.
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I worked with scientists
at the US Geological Survey
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on environmental sampling
for more than two years.
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And just as they were starting
to publish their findings,
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they were suddenly instructed
by their superiors
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to stop work on this project.
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In August of this year,
the National Academy of Sciences
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was suddenly instructed
by the federal government
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to stop their independent review
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of the public health consequences
of surface mining.
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These actions are politically
motivated, in my view.
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But there is opposition
from researchers, too.
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At conferences or meetings,
they express skepticism.
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OK, we are all taught,
as scientists, to be skeptical.
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They ask, "What about
this possible explanation?"
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"Have you considered
that alternative interpretation?"
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They wonder, "There must be
some confounder that we missed.
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Some other variable
we haven't accounted for."
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"An in vitro study, what does that prove?"
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"A rat study -- how do we know the same
effects would be found in people?"
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Maybe so.
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Technically, you have to acknowledge
that they could be right,
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but you know, maybe these health problems
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are not the result
of some unmeasured confound.
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Maybe they result
from blowing up mountains
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over people's heads.
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(Laughter)
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(Applause)
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There can always be doubt,
if doubt is what you seek.
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Because we can never do that
defining experiment.
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Any next study
must always be associational.
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So perhaps you can understand
why I've started to wonder,
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how much evidence is enough?
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I've published over 30 papers
on this topic so far.
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Along with my coauthors, other researchers
have added to the evidence,
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yet government doesn't want to listen,
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and the industry says
it's only correlational.
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They say Appalachians
have lifestyle issues.
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As though it had never occurred to us
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to control for smoking or obesity
or poverty or education
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or health insurance.
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We controlled for all of those and more.
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There comes a point
where we don't need more research,
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where we can't ask people
to be unwilling research subjects
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so we can do the next study.
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As scientists, we follow
the data wherever it goes,
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but sometimes data can only take us so far
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and we have to decide,
as thinking, feeling human beings,
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what it means and when it is time to act.
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I think that is true, not only for MTR
but for other situations
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where evidence is strong
and concerning but imperfect.
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And when failing to act if you're wrong
means people's lives.
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It may seem strange
that there is any controversy
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over the health effects
of mountaintop-removal mining.
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But somehow, this subject has wound up
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in a scientific
and political twilight zone
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alongside the debate over climate change
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or the argument years ago
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about whether or not
smoking caused cancer.
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In this twilight zone, much of the data
seems to point to one conclusion.
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But the economics or the politics
or the prevailing public view
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insist on the opposite conclusion.
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When you're a scientist
and you think you have a valid insight
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where the health
of entire populations is at stake
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but you find yourself trapped
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in this twilight zone
of denial and disbelief,
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what is your moral and ethical obligation?
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Obviously, scientists are responsible
for telling the truth as they see it,
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based on evidence.
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Simply stated, we have an obligation
to stand up for the data.
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It can be extremely frustrating
to wait around for public opinion
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or political consensus to catch up
to the scientific understanding.
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But the more controversial the subject
and the more frustrating the debate,
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the more critical it is for scientists
to preserve our objectivity
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and our reputation for integrity.
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Because integrity is the coin of the realm
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in scientific and public policy debate.
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In the long run,
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our reputation for integrity
is the most powerful tool that we have,
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even more powerful than the data itself.
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Without an acknowledged integrity
on the part of scientists,
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no amount of data
will ever convince people
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to believe painful or difficult truths.
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But when we cultivate and guard
our reputation for integrity,
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when we patiently stand up for the data
and keep doing the studies
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and keep calmly bringing
the results to the public,
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that's when we have our greatest impact.
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Eventually, scientific truth
does and will win out.
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How many lives will be lost while we wait?
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Too many already.
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But prevail we will.
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Thank you.
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(Applause)
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ABOUT THE SPEAKER
Michael Hendryx - Research investigator
Michael Hendryx is focused on the impacts of uneven environmental exposures faced by socioeconomically disadvantaged groups.

Why you should listen

In 2006, Michael Hendryx started a research program on public health disparities for people in Appalachia who live in proximity to coal mining, with a focus on mountaintop removal. This research has shown that people who live close to mountaintop removal are at increased risk for a wide set of health problems including respiratory illness, cardiovascular disease, birth defects, cancer and more. Hendryx has published more than peer-reviewed research papers and has been an investigator on numerous grants and contracts. He is currently a Professor in the Department of Environmental Health at Indiana University Bloomington’s School of Public Health.

More profile about the speaker
Michael Hendryx | Speaker | TED.com