Tag Archives: environment

Covering climate change and health: A primer for journalists

Kris Hickman

About Kris Hickman

Kris Hickman (@the_index_case) is a graduate research assistant for AHCJ, pursuing a master’s degree in public health. She has a bachelor's degree in anthropology, with a minor in journalism, from the University of Missouri. She spent two years in Zambia as an HIV/AIDS community education volunteer in the Peace Corps. She aspires to be an epidemiologist and science writer.

Climate change has been making the headlines.

More than 300,000 people kicked off Climate Week NYC 2014 with a march through the streets of New York, in what has been called the largest demonstration on climate change ever. The march coincided with U.N. meetings on climate change and the introduction of the Climate Change Health Promotion and Protection Act by Sen. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.).

Photo: NASA Goddard Space Flight Center via Flickr

Photo: NASA Goddard Space Flight Center via Flickr

During Climate Week, Jonathan Patz, M.D., M.P.H., director of the Global Health Institute at the University of Wisconsin, presented an extensive literature review on the health consequences of climate change at the Civil Society Event on Action in Climate Change and Health. The paper was published in the Journal of the American Medical Association on Sept. 22.

The study focused on the ways in which climate change affects health and is especially important for health writers.  If you want to cover the intersection of climate change and health in your area, but don’t know where to start, you might find these areas of Patz’s research especially helpful: Continue reading

Almost 40 years later, fallout from Mich. contamination disaster continues

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.

Four decades after polybrominated biphenyl (PBB), a dense, flame-retardant toxin, was accidentally dumped into a Michigan cattle feed supplement, Detroit Free Press reporter Robin Erb looks into the aftermath of what she calls “one of the most catastrophic agricultural disasters in U.S. history.”

Today, despite decades of cleanup efforts, the contamination lives on in the sites of mass burials of livestock who were exposed to the toxin and thus slaughtered and, as Erb writes in the second part of the series, in the massive superfund site that has grown up around the property of the company responsible for the fatal mixup in the first place. Continue reading

Your money or your life? Missouri town had to choose

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.

On KBIA public radio, Jacob Fenston tells the story of a Missouri town faced with a brutal, impossibly high-stakes catch-22. For decades, thanks to pervasive pollution, the Doe Run lead smelter was slowly destroying Herculaneum physically. At the same time, that lead plant, the continent’s largest, was the only thing keeping Herculaneum afloat economically. Residents had to choose: fight the polluter and take their own livelihoods down in the process, or live with the pervasive, toxic lead dust and its consequences. Continue reading

In Northwest, wood stoves run afoul of EPA

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.

When setting out to explain the difficulty in improving the region’s air quality, InvestigateWest’s Robert McClure and Katie Campbell of EarthFix and KCTS found that old wood stoves, with an assist from fireplaces and their ilk, produce half the soot fouling Puget air during still winter days – a contribution five times great than that of heavy industry. It’s a common problem in the Northwest, where wood is a cheap (free, for many rural residents) alternative to electric or oil-fueled heaters.


Photo by Ken_Mayer via Flickr

Those old wood stoves are to blame, in large part, for putting Tacoma, Wash., and other cities in violation of the Clean Air Act. With the potential for tighter federal regulations to be drafted in 2012, the pressure is on for local governments to take on local wood burners, an unpopular prospect in tough economic times, especially in regions with little appetite for government interference and federal regulation.

Where There’s Smoke, There’s Sickness from EarthFix on Vimeo.

Restricting use of wood stoves that heat so many homes across the Northwest is a difficult proposition, though, because many people can get wood for cheap or for free, and using a wood stove can greatly reduce electricity and natural-gas bills that run wild in the winter. Installing a new clean-burning stove typically costs $2,000 or more – and many argue that it’s lousy timing to launch an expensive campaign to clean the air, federal standards or no federal standards.

Yet that’s the recommendation of a task force representing local governments, industry, the military and others involved with soot pollution levels in and around Tacoma. Last week the group voted to recommend removal of all wood stoves that don’t meet current government standards by 2015 in the area violating the Clean Air Act.

Currently, the Clean Air Act requires that cities like Tacoma clean up their soot by 2014, but the Puget Sound Clean Air Agency is already, in the reporters’ words, “counting on” the EPA to extend the deadline “until as late as 2019.” That agency’s director says, given the costs involved, “This is a Western problem, and we need federal help.”

That’s because of the size of the task. The Puget Sound agency estimates it needs to persuade or force some 15,000 of the 24,000 owners of uncertified wood stoves to remove them in order to comply with the Clean Air Act.Just to remove and patch up the walls where those 15,000 stoves now stand would cost about $7.5 million – and at least some families would need to install a new wood stove at a cost of $2,000 or more each.

According to McClure and Campbell, the sooty particles of that winter tradition we used to call “The Inversion” in Boise can contribute to “heart attacks, strokes, high blood pressure, asthma attacks and premature death – in addition to cancer.”

In Washington, the state Ecology Department estimates that sooty pollution from sources including wood smoke and diesel exhaust contributes to 1,100 deaths and $190 million in health costs annually.

Ecology says a conservative estimate of the annual number of deaths attributable to soot pollution in Pierce County alone is 140.


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.

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.

Sapien wins award for natural gas impact coverage

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.

An investigation into the environmental impact of natural gas drilling, conducted by AHCJ member Joaquin Sapien and his ProPublica colleagues Abrahm Lustgarten and Sabrina Shankman, earned a second place, print, Kevin Carmody Award for Outstanding Investigative Reporting in the Society of Environmental Journalists’ Awards for Reporting on the Environment.


Photo by arimoore via Flickr

In its announcement of the award, SEJ cited four particular entries in the extensive series (64 parts!), including Sapien’s “With Natural Gas Drilling Boom, Pennsylvania Faces an Onslaught of Wastewater.”

This exhaustive ProPublica series into the environmental impact of natural gas drilling on water resources raised public awareness of an important, but largely overlooked, environmental issue and helped to spur politicians to action. The methodical and well-written stories were easily understandable, neatly melding the human experience with the investigative paper chase. Importantly, the series exposed not just problems, but also pointed to solutions.