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Start digging into the hidden chemicals polluting your community

Start digging into the hidden chemicals polluting your community

Picture of William Heisel
(Photo by Joshua Lott/Getty Images)
(Photo by Joshua Lott/Getty Images)

At the time I was proud of the story.

“Arsenic and Old Laws,” the headline read. It was a reference to a novel by one of my mom’s favorite authors, Agatha Christie. My mom, a journalist, is the reason I went into journalism. And the story was the kind of story I thought would make her proud, too. It showed me questioning the orthodoxy. In this case, the orthodoxy was the science around water quality. What did we really know about how safe certain chemicals were in the water supply? My story suggested the evidence was less conclusive than previously thought.

The problem was, I was being played. The giant petrochemical company, Arco, had the city of Butte and the state of Montana outmatched. The company had inherited the environmental disaster that was and is the damage done by the copper mining done by the Anaconda Company. Arco had persuaded local regulators to reconsider how much arsenic could be reasonably allowed to be in the water supply because the science to date appeared to be inconclusive.

But remember that companies of this size often have resources and scientific know-how that dwarfs anything a regulatory agency can bring to bear. Remember, too, that environmental damage has been shown to have a disproportionate health impact on Black communities and lower-income communities.

And here’s where my regret lies in that kind of reporting, even as a young reporter just a few years out of college. And where my plea to journalists everywhere is centered. Tell your audiences about toxins that are regularly being dumped into our streams and pumped into our air, and work to understand what the science says about these chemicals. If the science is inconclusive, work to understand — and to help your audience understand — why.

It can seem an impossible task to tackle. But a film that came out last year based on a piece from the The New York Times magazine offers a starting point. In “Dark Waters,” the attorneys going after the very real Dupont chemical company focused on one chemical that had been, up until the early 2000s, entirely off the radar for any regulatory agency. That chemical was PFOA, which has been linked to birth defects, cancers, and other health effects. In the story, writer Nathaniel Rich explains:

PFOA was only one of more than 60,000 synthetic chemicals that companies produced and released into the world without regulatory oversight.

What? Aren’t all of these laws that we take for granted – the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act, and the like – supposed to keep us safe from such chemicals?

The relevant law in this case is the 1976 Toxic Substances Control Act. Under that law, a chemical is, essentially, presumed innocent. It does not matter if it is a variation on a chemical known to have harmful effects on human health. It does not matter if, by its very nature, the chemical requires extensive safety precautions in its creation and handling. In order for it to become a regulated substance, someone else has to do the homework for the Environmental Protection Agency. Give the EPA a track record of illness or death related to the chemical, and perhaps the chemical will make the regulated list. The burden of proof doesn’t rest on the manufacturer or regulator.

As of the time of the writing of the piece that became “Dark Waters,” the EPA had restricted just five chemicals since the 1976 law went into effect. Four months after the Times article was published, the EPA issued a health advisory for PFOA and its cousin PFOS. The advisory reads:

Studies indicate that exposure to PFOA and PFOS over certain levels may result in adverse health effects, including developmental effects to fetuses during pregnancy or to breast-fed infants (e.g., low birth weight, accelerated puberty, skeletal variations), cancer (e.g., testicular, kidney), liver effects (e.g., tissue damage), immune effects (e.g., antibody production and immunity), and other effects (e.g., cholesterol changes).

What can you do as a reporter to uncover similar health threats in the environment near you? Find out what kinds of chemicals are being dumped into your own water systems, stored in landfills that can create exposure in the air, water and food supply, or other otherwise handled in a way that can have negative health impacts. You can start with PFAS, the class of chemicals to which PFOA and PFOS belong.

In July this year, the Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit group founded in 1993 with a focus on public health and the environment, launched a new report that showed as many as 110 million Americans – about one out of every three people in the country – are living in areas with water shown to be contaminated with PFAs. You can use the group’s interactive map to see if you are near a contaminated area.

Then you can go there. Find out about the sources of the contamination. Check state and federal court records for lawsuits against the companies involved. Talk to personal injury lawyers about whether they know of cases or have cases pending. Talk to local activist groups. Develop a paper trail. See if you can find what Rich found with PFOA: that the companies knew about the health damage unfolding over decades, and that regulators had ignored compelling evidence showing that was the case.

We all benefit from advances in chemical technology. I’m typing this blog on a small tablet that holds more computing power than all the computers in my college computer lab combined. I’m sitting on a chair that is stylish and sleek and only possible through a combination of old-school carpentry and high-tech chemical processes. I’m looking through windows at a beautiful sky full of purplish-blue clouds, my skin protected from the sun by an imperceptible film on the windows to block ultraviolet rays. My son is playing by my feet with his favorite toys: a set of plastic Legos.

The benefits and conveniences we receive from the products are undeniable. But so is the environmental and human health damage when chemicals and their byproducts are not adequately handled. As a journalist, you can explain what happens when basic regulatory oversight fails, and toxins slowly poison communities.

There are 60,000 stories out there waiting for you.


Picture of

I find that American and Canadian elected heads of state are mostly symbolic leaders, second to the greatest power-entrenched big money interests.
It may be reflective of why those powerful interests generally resist proportional representation electoral systems of governance, the latter which tends to dilute the corporate lobbyist influence on the former.
It's basically why a Joe Biden/Kamala Harris governance, however well-intentioned, would not be able to adequately improve low-income Americans' status any better than her Democratic predecessors of recent history.


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