Statistics For Action

In dealing with any environmental issue, at some point you come face to face with data and statistics - from reading reports of pollutants coming out of a smokestack, to deciphering whether or not chemical contamination means that the water is unsafe. More often than not, these reports are overwhelming and difficult to understand without a math or science degree. Yet environmental activists know that being able to understand and explain the numbers can play a key role in convincing decision-makers and neighbors to clean up a pollution problem, or prevent a toxic threat. 

Being able to describe a problem and explain it with numbers builds credibility. Statistics add power to a story. Statistical data can play a key role in persuading decision makers and neighbors.

Toxics Action Center has partnered with TERC, a nonprofit educational research organization, to launch Statistics for Action - a project designed to tackle this need head on. Together, TERC, Toxics Action Center and community groups across the region are developing tools and resources that will help all of us read, interpret, and understand environmental reports and regulations, as well as explain relevant data and statistical concepts to neighbors and decision-makers in meaningful and simple ways. Statistics for Action is made possible because of a grant from the National Science Foundation to TERC, and this project is funded in part by the Massachusetts Environmental Trust.

With Statistics for Action (SfA), environmental groups can make sense of data and use it to convey effective messages in flyers, press releases and everyday conversations. To use the Statistics for Action resources no special background is needed.

No Technical Background Needed

No special background is needed to use Statistics for Action materials. You don’t need a textbook or technical skills. You can adapt data and statistics relevant to your local campaign based on community members' questions and needs.

Learning from Others

You might also benefit from reading about how SfA has been used in real communities. If you use any of the materials yourself, please let us know what you did and how it went! The tools and resources we develop with groups through SfA will be used as a model for helping communities nationwide working to protect their homes and families from pollution.

Formal Facilitator Training

Toxics Action Center is currently piloting SfA materials in real communities. Toxics Action Center staff may be available to help train you, your staff, or colleagues. Please contact us for more information at 617-292-4821 or



With the resources of Statistics for Action (SfA), the goal is for everyone to become a savvier, stronger advocate. Use the materials and guides to help you and others you work with:

  • understand environmental reports and regulations
  • use data to support or refute a claim
  • communicate data and statistics in a simple way to others

SfA Facilitator's Manual: Math Education Meets Environmental Organizing

Nearly 40 activities that organizers and others can use to help communities understand, analyze, and communicate environmental issues, including:

  • An Introduction to SfA, including Smart Moves for facilitators and participants
  • A First Look at... workshop-length activities to help a community deal with a complex problem, and to decide where to go next.
  • Short Activities to illustrate simple ideas and skills that come up again and again.
  • Feedback Forms to tell us how it went, so we can improve!

Browse our materials through the links above or download and print the whole manual.

Guides to Environmental Testing and Health Resources


A First Look At...

These activities are all workshop-length (75–120 minutes). They are most useful when a community is facing a big complicated problem, and is not entirely sure where to start. These workshops help community members assess their situation in general, and decide how to narrow their focus. After A First Look activities, it may become clearer which Short Activities would be most useful to the group. They can be downloaded individually below or find them within Facilitator's Training Manual.

A First Look at Challenging Claims

Participants identify quantitative claims made by a potential polluter. They then prioritize the claims they would like to question or challenge.

When to use it: When a potential polluter makes claims that might be challenged, but you don't know where to begin. Can be used as a jumping-off point for other SfA activities.

A First Look at Communicating with Numbers

Participants look at examples of ways to use numbers in media talking points. Then they brainstorm facts they could make into messages for their campaign.

When to use it: When you need an effective message using data from your community, but you don't know where to begin. Use as a jumping-off point for other SfA activities.

Variations/Examples: Dioxin in drinking water, truck trips to the incinerator, TCE in drinking water, asthma rates, recycling and energy, mercury in incinerator ash, pesticides.

A First Look at Environmental Test Results

Participants look carefully at selected pages from test results. Then they identify and categorize their questions and observations, and make a plan for following up.

When to use it: When you get test results, and don't know how to begin reading them. Can be used as a jumping-off point for other SfA activities.


Short Activities

Each of these activities might take 15–30 minutes. How long each takes will depend on whether the group picks the ideas up quickly, or needs more time to explore. Depending on your situation, you could do one activity with the whole group, have a number of small groups each doing the same activity, or small groups each a different activity. They can be downloaded individually below or find them within Facilitator's Training Manual.

Assessing Conditions Before and After

Participants compare levels measured at an earlier time to higher levels found later. They choose two methods to communicate the increase, such as drawing a graph or using a ratio.

  • When to use it: When challenging a claim that will result in an increase (in traffic, emissions, or a health effect); when characterizing a change over time.
  • Variations/Examples: Air quality, trash in tons, water contamination

Assessing Conditions by Comparing Levels

Participants compare data from test results to a legal limit, objective, background level, or standard.

  • When to use it: When a group has received test results and want to identify a few findings to focus on.
  • Variations/Examples: Soil Near Incinerators and Background Levels; VOCs and Groundwater Objectives; Lead in Lipstick

Assessing Conditions Using Maps

Participants copy data from a table onto a map. Then they use the map to identify trends and hot spots.

  • When to use it: When a group wants to analyze test result data for geographic patterns.
  • Variations/Examples: Landfill by the River (simplest); Pond Sediment (medium); Salvage Yard (most complex)

Averages: Imagine the Extremes

Participants imagine numbers and make a graph with low, high, and middle values that could be represented by the average.

  • When to use it: When reported results include averages that seem to conflict with suspected problems.
  • Variations/Examples: Opacity; Soil Composites; Trihalomethanes in the Drinking Water

Averages: Scrutinize the Data

Participants start with a data set and its average and match them with common questionable practices in arriving at an average.

  • When to use it: When community members are suspicious of reported results involving averages.
  • Variations/Examples: Air Emissions; Groundwater Pollution; Truck Trips

Background Levels: Explore

Participants identify the background level for lead by testing five samples from a playground with a magnet.

  • When to use it: When community members want to make a claim or challenge related to background levels .
  • Variations/Examples:

Design a Poster

Participants think of a few ways to compare and represent the numbers.

  • When to use it: When you have important data that you want to bring to people's attention.
  • Variations/Examples: N/A


After reading about four children who spend time at or near a contaminated place, participants figure out which child has the highest exposure to the contaminated site.

  • When to use it: When reviewing or preparing input on a risk assessment.
  • Variations/Examples: The Orchard (Soil Contamination); The Park by The Paint Factory (Air contamination); The Pond (Water contamination / swimming)

Health Data

Participants respond to guiding questions to interpret data gathered from body burden studies, cancer registry data, surveys.

  • When to use it: When choosing a health study design; when exploring the data a health study could yield.
  • Variations/Examples: Body Burden Studies, Mapping, Surveys


Participants see and touch the measurement units commonly used in environmental testing.

  • When to use it: When documents use unfamiliar units.
  • Variations/Examples: Cubic Meters, Grams, Kilograms, Liters

Media Talking Points

Participants summarize their findings and highlight important statistics using sentence starters for media talking points.

  • When to use it: When the group has a key fact to communicate, but they want to polish the message.
  • Variations/Examples: N/A

Messaging by Scaling up and Down

Participants read examples of dull facts turned into memorable messages, and practice doing the same.

  • When to use it: When an important fact is too dull to capture the public's attention.
  • Variations/Examples: N/A

Messaging with Analogies

Participants consider analogies for units commonly found in environmental science. They choose which analogy best completes a statement: "A part per million? That's like ...".

  • When to use it: When a group seeks to understand or communicate very large or very small numbers.
  • Variations/Examples: Acres; Parts per Million; Parts per Billion; A Billion Dollars; Grams; Tons

Not Detected

In order to find a scale's detection limit, participants add objects to the scale until the reading changes.

  • When to use it: When a contaminant you expected in test results is ND or not detected.
  • Variations/Examples: N/A

Percents at a Glance

Participants use visuals to estimate amounts in percents and fractions.

  • When to use it: When you have a group that will engage with data in percents, use this as a warm-up.
  • Variations/Examples: Cancer by County, Land Allocated (Walden Pond, Airport), Recycle Rates in a Bar Chart, Trash Contents in a Circle Graph, Trash Contents in Stacked Bar

Risk Ranking

Participants rank several everyday activities that pose various levels of risk of exposure to contamination.

  • When to use it: When the group needs to understand risk from different kinds of exposure.
  • Variations/Examples: VOCs, PCBs

Sampling Plans

Participants evaluate several sampling plans and discuss the advantages and disadvantages to each.

  • When to use it: When preparing input for a sampling plan or when challenging an inadequate plan.
  • Variations/Examples: Soil/Water

Scrutinizing the Tables

Participants check the consultants' work, looking for common mistakes.

  • When to use it: When you suspect a mistake in a report of test results, but don't know what to look for.
  • Variations/Examples: N/A

Sorting Out the Units

Participants move between units, for example, between milligrams per kilogram and parts per billion.

  • When to use it: When comparing figures in one unit to figures given in a different unit.
  • Variations/Examples: N/A

Toxic as...?

Participants compare an unfamiliar contaminant with the standards for something more familiar, like lead and cyanide.

  • When to use it: When you are trying to call attention to an unfamiliar but dangerous contaminant.
  • Variations/Examples: Drinking Water, Groundwater, Soil

Guides to Environmental Testing and Health Resources

Detailed guides to the issues in environmental testing and health, including:

Soil Quality Guide: Digging into the Dirt

Water Quality Guide: Read Before You Drink

Guide to State Cancer Profiles: The Ins and Outs

Guide to Hazardous Waste: Containing the Danger

Environment and Health: Learn about the Environment Where You Live. Protect the Health of Your Family and Community