Why environmental health is public health

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The impact of spills, runoff, emissions and soil contamination goes far beyond the environment and often affects the health of people who may live, work or travel in the vicinity.

Polluting activities that intersect with policy, science, accountability and access are a great nexus for reporting on environmental health, said Kris Husted, senior content editor of NPR’s Midwest Newsroom, who moderated the “Investigating local environmental health issues” session at Health Journalism 2023 in St. Louis.

While the panel focused on Midwest investigations, the stories exemplified the kinds of investigations reporters in any city or state could explore.

Critical and comprehensive coverage of environmental health stories is grounded in data, documents, history and interviews. It relies on thoughtful questioning and expert sources, said Husted and the expert panelists.

Panelist Tara Rocque, a professor and assistant director of the Interdisciplinary Environmental Clinic at the Washington University School of Law, advised journalists to “think like a lawyer.”

With an idea in hand, first, determine the overseeing government agency. Is it federal, state or local? Next, determine the applicable laws and reporting requirements and ask what has been violated.

Regarding data, start with government agencies but don’t forget nonprofits, academics and advocacy groups with an interest in the topic. Often, these groups or researchers are constantly collecting data and analyzing it, and they want to share it.

Government websites like those of the Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Census Bureau offer searchable in-depth data and information. Private companies, not so much.

The best way to find data on private companies is to find their touch points with regulatory agencies.

“Private companies don’t have to tell you much,” said Steve Vockrodt, investigative editor for the NPR Midwest Newsroom. “If they are publicly traded, you can get SEC reports. But one of the ways to get inside a private company and see what they are doing is to see how they intersect with the government.”

That’s what Vockrodt and his reporting partner did when they covered a story about how the state of Missouri knew about the contamination in the groundwater in Springfield for decades but did not disclose it to residents. The pair drove to the state capital to review a 20-foot-high stack of files that the state had not digitized to find the historical evidence that became a crucial piece of their investigation.

Often, finding one piece of data or pulling on a thread can lead to an in-depth and revelatory story.

For Allison Kite, a reporter for the Missouri Independent and Kansas Reflector, her investigation into childhood lead poisoning started with a surprising stat: Midwestern kids in Nebraska, Missouri, Iowa and Kansas have some of the highest percentages of elevated blood lead levels.

History is often an essential piece of these stories, and Kite found that concerns about lead safety went back to the 1920s with the debate around using lead in gasoline.

By studying data, history and maps, Kite learned that the children at greatest risk are poor children, children of color and the children of refugees. She also outlined how attempts to eradicate lead are scattershot.

The story also led Kite to examine the status of lead water pipes. In Trenton, Mo., town leaders found that there was lead seeping into the drinking water, but the city had never mapped out where the toxic pipes were.

“Trenton — like many other water systems — doesn’t know where all of its lead service lines are. State governments have only a fraction of the picture. And while President Joe Biden has prioritized removing remaining lead service lines, water utilities aren’t required to finish finding them for almost two and a half years,” Kite wrote in the 2022 story.

Environmental health stories can also go beyond direct contamination or pitting a company against a neighborhood. It is essentially the study of how the environment in which people live can impact their health. 

Shalina Chatlani, a New York Times investigative fellow, opted to approach a story differently. She looked at social determinants of health and how they might impact a person’s mental and physical health. The social determinants include economic stability, education access and quality, and health care access and quality.

Specifically, she looked at how the acreage of land farmed by Black farmers has decreased significantly due to encroachment and the loss of land leases. Those left behind are struggling to hang on.  

“I wanted to go beyond those families to show that this had happened to them and impacted their health and ability to thrive,” Chatlani said.

She found that Black farmers in Louisiana struggled to hold onto the farmland either owned or leased by their families for generations, and many others had already been pushed out. As a result, the farmers she spoke with said their mental health was deteriorating. Chatlani was able to report how the farmers connected their financial and land struggles to their mental and physical health.

Environmental health crosses a wide range of beats, and journalists can find tips in documents and sources, but the main point is to keep digging.

 “Go where the truth is and report it,” Vockrodt said. “You’re pissing some people off with that reporting. If you are not pissing them off, you are putting them to sleep. Don’t worry about the criticism.”

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