Tag Archives: InvestigateWest

Investigation delves into Wash.’s prescription drug problem

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.

Everything time we think prescription drug abuse stories have peaked, something comes along to push the story further. This time, InvestigateWest’s Carol Smith sets herself apart by starting from square one and clearly explaining the origins and dimensions of Washington’s particularly nasty drug issues, tracing back each facet of the problem to its source and spotlighting what makes the Evergreen State unique.prescription-drugs

Washington has been one of the hardest hit states in the country, in part because of aggressive prescribing practices. That, coupled with lack of oversight of doctors who over-prescribe, has led to the spectacular run-up in the number of deaths from prescription overdoses.

The backdrop for her work is an epidemic that shows no signs of abating, despite a recently implemented state law Smith calls “a bold attempt to reduce overdose deaths by launching the first-ever dosing limits for doctors and others who prescribe these medicines.”

Prescription drug abuse is at epidemic levels throughout the state, and elsewhere in the country, despite lawmakers’ attempts to get a grip on it. Washington now has one of the highest death rates in the nation. Deaths from prescription drug overdoses in this state have skyrocketed nearly twenty-fold since the mid-1990s, and now outstrip those from traffic accidents.

Why caused it to leap so quickly? Smith tracks down several key tipping points. “There’s plenty of blame to go around for what caused the epidemic,” she writes. “Aggressive marketing of opiates by drug companies, nonexistent tracking of overprescribing, lack of insurance coverage for alternative treatments for pain, and demand by patients for quick fixes, to name a few.”

She drills down into many of those causes, with my personal favorites being two key origin stories:

  • How marketing by OxyContin maker Purdue Pharma led to relaxed guidelines for chronic pain treatment and a “1999 law specified ‘No disciplinary action will be taken against a practitioner based solely on the quantity and/or frequency of opiates prescribed,'” both of which helped cause a jump in prescriptions.
  • How “the rise in the death rates of Medicaid patients tracks along with the state’s cost-saving decision to move many of its poorest residents to the cheapest, most potent pain reliever available: Methadone.”

See the upper right-hand sidebar for more stories from the six-month investigation.

Blame trucks, not just factories, for industrial pollution in Seattle

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.

Spurred by a few recent studies, InvestigateWest’s Robert McClure and KCTS-Seattle’s Jenny Cunningham launched an investigation to figure out just what has made Puget Sound’s air some of the most toxic in the nation. Their work centered on the heavily polluted, industrial Seattle neighborhoods of Georgetown and South Park, where residents “face an onslaught of toxic airborne pollutants that according to a recent study exceed regulatory caution levels by up to 30 times.”

Where is this toxic air coming from? The answer may surprise you. The majority of the pollution, government regulators and scientists say, comes not from the large concentration of industrial facilities in South Park and Georgetown. Rather, it’s from the cars, trucks and buses whizzing by these neighborhoods – especially those with diesel engines. Fumes from ships in Elliott Bay and the Duwamish, as well as diesel-powered equipment at the Port of Seattle and elsewhere, add to the toxic mix. In the fall and winter, wood smoke from fireplaces becomes a significant contributor.

The problems here have implications in other neighborhoods, too: Anywhere people are living close to major roadways, they’re likely breathing unhealthy air, studies show. Anyone living within about 200 yards of a major roadway is thought to be at increased risk, with the first 100 yards being the hottest pollution zone.

Watch the full episode. See more KCTS 9 Connects.

Reporters looking to localize the story will probably want to scroll first to the “The Effects” section, which gets into the practical science of how this sort of pollution takes its toll. You’ll probably also enjoy Cunningham’s sidebar on what she learned in reporting the piece (it’s at the bottom of the page). If you’re also looking to understand the regional and national regulatory structure which governs diesel and related emissions, the “Solutions” subheading is also worth a pit stop.

For more on the big picture issues impacting health in South Seattle, see Carol Smith’s recent piece on the related Superfund site.

InvestigateWest receives $40,000 grant

Pia Christensen

About Pia Christensen

Pia Christensen (@AHCJ_Pia) is the managing editor/online services for AHCJ. She manages the content and development of healthjournalism.org, coordinates social media efforts of AHCJ and assists with the editing and production of association guides, programs and newsletters.

InvestigateWest, a nonprofit investigative journalism site based in Seattle, has received a $40,000 grant from the Bullitt Foundation.

AHCJ members Daniel Lathrop and Carol Smith are among the founders of the site, which “rose from the ashes of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer” in July.

The grant will support in-depth reporting on environmental issues, one of the site’s main focuses. InvestigateWest also reports on social justice and health issues, especially as they relate to the Pacific Northwest and the West.

The Bullitt Foundation’s mission is to “safeguard the natural environment by promoting responsible human activities and sustainable communities in the Pacific Northwest.”