Tag Archives: seattle

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.

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.

Seattle hospitals love building costly ERs

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.

The Puget Sound emergency room construction boom is in full swing, and Seattle Times reporter Carol Ostrom has taken a pointed look at the cost-related consequences of local hospital expansion.

She examines why hospitals are opting for more and glitzier ERs over lower-cost alternatives such as clinics and urgent care facilities. She also considers why state efforts to guide hospitals toward more efficient spending have failed, and explains how hospitals justify their actions. If you don’t have time for the full story, here’s a relatively tame excerpt:

The ER building boom has prompted a backlash from some lawmakers and advocates of affordable health care, who complain that nearly all Washington hospitals get substantial tax breaks and construction financing through tax-exempt bonds.

Free-standing ERs, these critics charge, are cash cows for hospitals, strategically built in affluent areas to lure busy, well-insured patients and collect fat reimbursements.

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.

Should Seattle Superfund site address health as well as pollution?

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.

InvestigateWest’s Carol Smith writes in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and InvestigateWest.org that the focus on the environmental disaster of Seattle’s industrial Duwamish River obscures another, equally potent, long-simmering health crisis. For the folks who live near the Superfund site, pollutants from the river are just one of many health risks. Access to groceries and health care is limited, and obesity and poverty rates are higher than surrounding neighborhoods while expected lifespans are years shorter. As Superfund recommendations begin to take shape, the health side of the cleanup is bubbling to the forefront.

While there’s been exhaustive analysis of the environmental impact of historical polluters on the river and the health of creatures that live in it, as well as theoretical risk assessments of individual pollutants on human health, relatively little attention has been paid to the actual health status of residents living within the 32-square-mile Superfund site. Nor has there been consideration of the cumulative impact of the many health hazards they face.

The big question, Smith writes, is “Should the area be held to a higher cleanup threshold because the people living in its midst are already more vulnerable to the health risks posed by the toxic chemicals in their environment? ”

The answer might lie in the area’s status as an “environmental justice neighborhood,” which means it is “subject to the 1994 executive order by President Clinton that directed federal agencies to address inequities in communities where low-income or minority communities were experiencing health disparities caused by their environment.”

Berens wins Nieman award for adult homes series

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.

The Harvard-based Nieman Foundation for Journalism has selected AHCJ member and Seattle Times reporter Michael Berens for the $20,000 2010 Worth Bingham Prize for Investigative Journalism. Berens earned the prize for his “Seniors for Sale” series, which focused on Washington State’s booming adult home industry and the dangers of the regulatory gray area it often seems to fall into.

We’ve featured quite a bit of the series here on Covering Health, and here are a few posts to help you catch up on Berens’ award-winning work:

Gates’ funding of journalism raises ethical questions

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.

In our coverage of the Kaiser Family Foundation’s report on the present and future of the global health beat, we noted the influx of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s largesse ($1 billion in the past decade) [correction] into that particular sphere of the health journalism world. The foundation has gone beyond supporting the training for journalists to now funding specific reporting enterprises – such as a recent ABC News special “on an incubator to boost preemie survival in Africa and a new machine to diagnose tuberculosis in the developing world.”

Now, Seattle Times reporters Sandi Doughton and Kristi Heim look at the logical question brought about by all that money: “Does Gates funding of media taint objectivity?

I don’t think there’s a journalist among us who will be able to resist reading the whole thing, if only to see just how much certain organizations have been given and which stories the foundation has been pushing. Nonetheless, I’ll run through a few of the highlights.

The Seattle Times reporters touch on some high-profile pieces funded through partnerships between the foundation and top media organizations, but write that the Gates effect runs much deeper than investigations that say “Funded in part by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation” at the end. After all, they write, “The Gates Foundation spends more on policy and advocacy than most big foundations — including Rockefeller and MacArthur — spend in total.” It accounts for a tenth of their annual $3 billion budget.

To garner attention for the issues it cares about, the foundation has invested millions in training programs for journalists. It funds research on the most effective ways to craft media messages. Gates-backed think tanks turn out media fact sheets and newspaper opinion pieces. Magazines and scientific journals get Gates money to publish research and articles. Experts coached in Gates-funded programs write columns that appear in media outlets from The New York Times to The Huffington Post, while digital portals blur the line between journalism and spin.

As the reporters note, their sources point that that, “While the aims may be laudable, the ability of one wealthy foundation to shape public discourse is troubling to some.”

“Even if we were to satisfy ourselves that the Gates Foundation were utterly benign, it would still be worrisome that they wield such enormous propaganda power,” said Mark Crispin Miller, professor of media, culture and communications at New York University.

For their part, foundation folks say they’re trying to raise the profile of undercovered issues, not manipulate the world’s media.

“We’re trying to do everything we can to make sure people understand not just the need, but the opportunity, to make a huge difference in the lives of millions of people around the world,” said Joe Cerrell, who oversees the foundation’s policy, advocacy and communications work in Europe. “For us, it’s about making sure that these stories get told.”

For a more critical take, see Humanosphere blogger Tom Paulson’s review. In addition, David Jacobs, director of foundation information management at the Foundation Center, raises the question of whether it’s ethical for media outlets to accept donations from large foundations whose activities they may have to scrutinize one day.

Oh, and by the way, the reporters write, “The Seattle Times received a $15,000 Gates grant through Seattle University for a series of stories on homelessness in 2010.”

Update:

Christopher Williams, senior communications officer of The Gates Foundation, has written to Covering Health to clarify: “In fact, the foundation has spent approximately $50 million on media grants and partnerships over the past decade. We have spent approximately $1 billion on all advocacy efforts, for all of the issues that are important to the foundation. This includes research, policy work, and other advocacy of our issues that is not necessarily media focused.”

Nonprofit hospitals pay country club dues for execs

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.

In what would seem a logical follow up to last year’s piece on hospital salaries, KUOW’s John Ryan has used public records to look at the top salaries at Seattle-area nonprofits this year.

This time, he focuses on the job perks given to nonprofit executives as much as he does their paychecks. Among them, Ryan writes, “Eight hospital systems in our region reported paying membership dues for their executives at clubs like the Columbia Tower Club and the Kitsap Golf and Country Club.”

A PDF of the salaries is also available. For more on how Ryan puts it all together, see the how-to he posted with last year’s edition.

Erdely wins for story of bone marrow donation

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.

AHCJ member Sabrina Rubin Erdely won a 2010 Clarion Award [press release] from the Association for Women in Communications for her piece in Self magazine about bone marrow donation. The award also cites AHCJ member Sara Austin, who is the magazines features director, news and health.

The story, of a bone marrow donor meeting the young woman whose life she helped save, is an arresting one, but the piece’s real strength is its focus on the mechanics of such donations. From the unlikely match to the surprisingly non-invasive extraction, Erdely uses the women’s story to demystify an otherwise intimidating process.

The piece is filled with moments like this, which cause less informed readers (like myself), to read the paragraph again just to make sure we’re understanding it right.

Say the words bone marrow transplant to anyone and the first reaction is probably a wince. “People imagine drilling through bone and pain and a long recovery,” says Katharina Harf, executive vice president and cofounder of the donor-recruitment organization DKMS Americas in New York City. In fact, nearly three quarters of so-called bone marrow donations involve no removal whatsoever of bone marrow—they’re done by extracting blood stem cells intravenously from the arm, like giving plasma. (Some doctors now prefer the term “stem cell transplant,” because both marrow and blood house these vital cells.)

How prescription drugs dethroned heroin 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.

Heather Bosch, of Seattle radio station KIRO, dedicated a five-part series to explaining why “Prescription drugs – used incorrectly – are killing more people in King County than all other illegal drugs, combined.”

It’s the latest in a string of prescription drug localizations; one which distinguishes itself with an emphasis on the move from heroin to prescription pills.

In part one, Bosch explains how prescription opiates overcame their illicit cousin, heroin, to become the drug of choice in the Seattle area. In part three, she talks to a recovering opiate addict about the toll the pills took on his life and psyche. And in part four, Bosch looks into how ready access has made it easier for teens to become addicted to prescription drugs.