Tag Archives: databases

Tools help reporters follow tax dollars that fund medical research

Brenda Goodman

About Brenda Goodman

Brenda Goodman (@GoodmanBrenda), an Atlanta-based freelancer, is AHCJ’s topic leader on medical studies, curating related material at healthjournalism.org. She welcomes questions and suggestions on medical study resources and tip sheets at brenda@healthjournalism.org.

Image by Pia Christensen

Image by Pia Christensen

Why did the chicken cross the road? We’ve never known, but we may soon find out thanks to a United Kingdom project that aims to study human-chicken interactions.

It’s no joke, and it’s caused quite a flap across the pond because it’s costing taxpayers there £1.95 million, or roughly $3.1 million. Not everybody thinks it’s a crazy idea. Nature recently ran an editorial defending the research. The journal editors write:

We know surprisingly little about the history of human–chicken relations, such as how chickens first came to Britain.

Reading about that project got me thinking … in this era of sequestration cuts, what research projects have wrangled scarce public dollars in this country, and how much are we paying for them?

You can search government grants for research in a few places. Grants awarded by the federal department of Health and Human Services can be searched using the TAGGS tool, for Tracking Accountability in Government Grants.

A quick advanced search on the keyword “chicken” turned up four studies of chickens, but no foul play. Two studies deal with chicken genes, one is using chickens as a model for human disease, and the last is researching how chickens become colonized with bacteria that gives humans food poisoning.

You can also search grants by state, institution, and the name of the investigator.

The NIH has a different grant searching tool called RePORTER (Research Online Grant Reporting Tools). Using the advanced search there, the term “chicken” turned up 132 results, mostly because it also pulled up studies of chickenpox.

In addition to the keyword search you can search by funding category, location, and the names of investigators.

Have you used these tools to enterprise stories? Tell us about it in the comments section below. Don’t forget to include a link to your story.

Leaded aviation fuel a threat to public health, children

Andrew Van Dam

About Andrew Van Dam

Andrew Van Dam of The Wall Street Journal previously worked at the AHCJ offices while earning his master’s degree at the Missouri School of Journalism, and he has blogged for Covering Health ever since.

KUOW’s John Ryan used federal data and a few key sources to delve deep into issues surrounding one of the few remaining sources of airborne lead in the United States, a leaded aviation fuel known as “avgas.” In the process, he reveals damage that even low levels of lead exposure could be doing to children.

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Avgas accounts for less than 1 percent of the nation’s liquid fuel use. Yet enough piston–engine planes fly enough miles on avgas to belch out half of all the lead going into the nation’s air.

Lead paint in old buildings remains a bigger threat, but even low levels of childhood exposure, one source tells Ryan, can manifest itself in “Decreases in IQ, changes in test scores, changes in attention, hearing threshold, all sorts of things like that.”

Earlier this month (January), an expert panel advising the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention cut in half the levels of lead in children that should alarm parents or doctors. Researchers have yet to find any level of lead exposure that doesn’t cause harm.

Michael Kosnett, a medical toxicologist at the University of Colorado, told Ryan, “In any one child, it’s not something that’s going to necessarily cause them to display any kind of signs and symptoms. But if you can lower the lead exposure of a population of children, you’re going to give that population more of an opportunity to have gifted children and to have children who have higher IQs, and that’s certainly a desirable public health goal.”

Marie Lynn Miranda, an environmental health scientist and a dean at the University of Michigan, points out that “Living close to an airport can increase your blood lead level anywhere from 2 to 4 percent,” acknowledging that is a small amount but that evidence indicates even small amounts of lead are bad. She also notes that “lead is especially a problem for the low–income families that are most likely to live near airports.”

Pilots who still use avgas say their businesses would be dead in the water if they couldn’t get the leaded fuel, an argument Ryan contrasts with quotes from a Europe-based lead-free avgas producer, who sells it for 40 cents less a gallon, but hasn’t been able to break into the U.S. market “Because no one thinks that there will be demand for an unleaded–grade aviation gasoline.”

The federal database Ryan used, The National Emissions Inventory, is posted online by the EPA.

NYT reporters tease hip replacement numbers from difficult data

Andrew Van Dam

About Andrew Van Dam

Andrew Van Dam of The Wall Street Journal previously worked at the AHCJ offices while earning his master’s degree at the Missouri School of Journalism, and he has blogged for Covering Health ever since.

Writing for The New York Times, Barry Meier and Janet Roberts analyzed a particularly tricky batch of federal reports detailing a variety of complaints with popular metal-on-metal hip replacements. They found that, since January, the FDA has received more complaints (5,000-plus) about the devices than it did, total, from 2007 to 2010.

kidsPhoto by Michael Simmons via Flickr

While processing the data, the paper’s staff did their best to parse duplicate reports, international filings and other inconsistencies, but the reporters make it clear that the numbers are still best viewed in general terms. Even so, they demonstrate that the surge in complaints and lawsuits involving metal-on-metal hips — and the resulting mass defection of doctors who once implanted them — signals a broad shift in hip replacement surgery, one of the most common such procedures in the country. It also signals another blow for device manufacturers and patients, and a related windfall for the legal profession.

The vast majority of filings appear to reflect patients who have had an all-metal hip removed, or will soon undergo such a procedure because a device failed after only a few years; typically, replacement hips last 15 years or more.

The mounting complaints confirm what many experts have feared — that all-metal replacement hips are on a trajectory to become the biggest and most costly medical implant problem since Medtronic recalled a widely used heart device component in 2007. About 7,700 complaints have been filed in connection with that recall.

As problems and questions grow, most surgeons are abandoning the all-metal hips, saying they are unwilling to expose new patients to potential dangers when safer alternatives — mainly replacements that combine metal and plastic components — are available. Some researchers also fear that many all-metal hips suffer from a generic flaw. Current use of all metal devices has plummeted to about 5 percent of the market, though a few of the models are performing relatively well in select patients.

Reporter finds the story behind food code violations

Andrew Van Dam

About Andrew Van Dam

Andrew Van Dam of The Wall Street Journal previously worked at the AHCJ offices while earning his master’s degree at the Missouri School of Journalism, and he has blogged for Covering Health ever since.

All the time that The Muskegon Chronicle‘s Brian McVicar has been spending with his county health department’s inspection records has paid off with a slew of stories, with the most recent turning the spotlight on the thousands of food code violations area businesses have racked up in recent years.

ozPhoto by bookgrl via Flickr

For this particular story, McVicar crunched the numbers on 22,000 violations, 37 percent of them critical, logged over a four-year period. Among the most salient, he writes, were “Raw chicken and crabmeat sitting out at room temperature, food kept past its expiration date, cockroaches, mice and fruit flies living in kitchens, employees not following proper hand washing procedures.”

In addition to the typical rogue restaurants, McVicar found that a wide range of local businesses were guilty of health code violations, including “Schools, hospitals, and food stands found in places such as Michigan’s Adventure Amusement Park.”

With his broad-based, data-oriented methodology, McVicar provides a model for other local reporters looking to move beyond the typical “cherrypick the cockroach horror stories” approach that is so often found in inspection-record stories.

Stories in the series:

Reporter FOIA’s database further exposing the toll war takes on returning vets

Andrew Van Dam

About Andrew Van Dam

Andrew Van Dam of The Wall Street Journal previously worked at the AHCJ offices while earning his master’s degree at the Missouri School of Journalism, and he has blogged for Covering Health ever since.

Writing for the Bay Citizen and The New York Times, Aaron Glantz brings a new, data-based take on the mental and physical toll the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have taken on returning veterans, thanks to what he calls “an obscure government database called the Beneficiary Identification Records Locator Subsystem death file,” which he obtained via FOIA.

The database, which reveals a high rate of suicide and fatally risky behavior, lists all veterans who earned Veterans Affairs benefits since 1973.

Records from that database, provided to The Bay Citizen under the Freedom of Information Act, show that the VA is aware of 4,194 Iraq and Afghanistan veterans who died after leaving the military. More than half died within two years of discharge. Nearly 1,200 were receiving disability compensation for a mental health condition, the most common of which was post-traumatic stress disorder.

Names were redacted, but Glantz nonetheless managed to identify a number of veterans, including a troubled 26-year-old man who threw himself under a train just three days after being turned away by the VA. In the course of his investigation, Glantz has managed to fill in some of the gaps in the federal records, a process which has shown just how lacking the VA’s data can be.

In October, The Bay Citizen, using public health records, reported that 1,000 California veterans under 35 died from 2005 to 2008 — three times the number killed in Iraq and Afghanistan during the same period. At the time, the VA said it did not keep track of the number of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans who died after leaving the military.

The VA database does not include veterans who never applied for benefits or who were not receiving benefits at the time of their death, according to the agency. The VA said it also did not keep track of the cause of death.

When confronted with his agency’s shortcomings, a VA representative responded in a manner that belied his agency’s lack of focus on recordkeeping.

David Bayard, a VA spokesman, said the agency was working hard to treat veterans with mental health issues. “VA has some pretty fine programs,” Mr. Bayard said, “but unfortunately we aren’t always successful.”