Covering Environmental Health

Published on
October 19, 2010

Want to grab a new mom's attention? Mention that the breast milk she's mainlining into her newborn contains tiny amounts of flame retardants, pesticides, even an obscure chemical, known as Bisphenol-A, originally developed as a synthetic hormone.

You'll get her attention, all right. And she's going to fire three quick questions right back you: How much is there, what's it doing to my baby, and how do I get rid of it?

And with that you're off on a discussion with roots in one of the most rewarding yet challenging beats in journalism.

Environmental health reporting sheds light on some of the most important decisions a person can make – about their health, their ability to have children, the health of their children, the health of their world.

You get to mine stories sitting at the juncture of two important areas, health and environment. Good environmental health stories probe the impact of lifestyle decisions on our environment while simultaneously making environmental issues extraordinarily personal.

But first you have to get the story right. You have to know your science. You can't be afraid of the methods section of a journal article. You have to wade into what often is a fiercely politicized debate.

And then once you have this data, you need, above all, to transform the arcane, the opaque and the conflicting into a simple story.

The work involved is not for the faint.

Bisphenol-A Controversy

Martin Mittelstaedt knows this. In April 2008 he dropped a bombshell on readers of the Toronto Globe and Mail: Canadian health authorities were moving to declare Bisphenol-A, a key ingredient in shatter-proof plastic water and baby bottles, a chemical harmful for human health. (The formal declaration came two years later.)

Industry and university scientists had battled over the compound for years. Identified as an estrogenic hormone in the 1930s, it started to gain widespread use in the 1950s as chemists discovered the compound magically transformed soft and brittle plastic into something virtually unbreakable. It also improved epoxy resins for lining cans and hundreds of other products.

U.S. regulators and industry repeatedly insisted its use was benign. University scientists and health advocates, armed with increasingly sensitive instruments and a mounting body of evidence, warned that even minute doses leaching out of products could wreak havoc with reproductive systems.

The news out of Canada had manufacturers scrambling and consumers scared: What was safe? What wasn't? Wal-Mart, REI and other big retailers pulled products with BPA, as the compound is known. Seemingly overnight Nalgene, the bottle manufacturing company, had a new line of "BPA-free" products. The market for metal water bottles ballooned.

Mittelstaedt had been on the story for years, covering it in the incremental steps you'll find on any beat: Dailies and weekenders on new findings coming out of labs, the shifting regulatory debate in the United States and Europe, the battle between environmentalists and industry. He was well-placed to break the story, and as other environmental health reporters piled on, readers got journalism at its best: Solid information on a matter of considerable public concern.

Know Your Science

There are many keys to being a successful environmental health reporter, but first and foremost you have to know your science. You can't read just the press release; you need to digest the paper. Instead of relying on the university flack, you have to sit down with the scientist in her lab, or talk to the graduate students. You need, plainly, to get to work: Follow the footnotes, read the key papers, understand the differences between control animals, laboratory blanks and limits of detection.

The Bisphenol-A story came after years and months of groundwork patiently laid by a small legion of environmental health reporters – individuals at outlets large and small who read through the literature, stayed in contact with scientists, followed up with regulators.

Fail to do so, and you end up with he-said-she-said pablum. You're not writing about a diet trend or a lifestyle choice. You're tackling issues where industry has millions of dollars at stake, regulators can retreat behind incomprehensible disclosures and the consumer more often than not is left in the dark.

Where do you find these stories? Almost anywhere you look. Researchers in scores of labs across the country are racing to understand how synthetic chemicals ubiquitous in modern life interact with our endocrine system. What they're finding, in many cases, gives reason for concern and caution. You need to understand why.

Regulators daily weigh the health impacts of pollution against the economics of cleaning it up. Somebody will lose; what's the cost?

Sunscreens carry nanoparticles deep into our pores. Gore-Tex jackets and boots that keep us comfy are made with fluorinated compounds, which have somehow leached into our bodies, where they have a four-year half life. Should we be concerned? Wouldn't you want to know what they're doing there?

You don't want to raise panic or alarm. That's why you need to be grounded in the science.

In the summer of 2010, Environmental Health News editor Marla Cone got a call from an investigator with the California Water Resources Board. New tests, he said, showed water wells in the rural hamlet of Hilmar, Calif., were being contaminated by the local cheese processing plant.

The call came because Cone, who has spent 30 years as a journalist and pioneered the environmental health beat at the Los Angeles Times, had invested a good deal of her time attending water board meetings, wading through reports, developing contacts.

Cone didn't have a story yet. Hilmar is 100 miles from anywhere in California, a tiny town off the radar or all the major state media outlets. But Cone, intrigued, asked Jane Kay, the equally experienced former San Francisco Chronicle reporter, to go to Hilmar, talk to families and factory managers and put a face on these test results.

Kay's story for EHN portrayed the plight of longtime residents who have watched their wells degrade and their property values sour. The Chronicle picked it up, running it above the fold on their front page. The story incensed cheese plant executives but has withstood their complaints. Kay's piece is, in short, a classic example of environmental justice reporting, illustrating the power the environmental health beat has to give voice to those at society's margins.

Tell A Story

And that's the second key to success: Tell a story. Water board meetings are dull. So many scientific experiments are conducted in mice or, worse, Petri dishes. Those stories will never make Page 1. The best reporters have a knack for spinning yarns their moms easily understand.

My aim, always, is for a "My God, Marsha!" lede – wherein a typical husband, reading the morning paper, clutches his chest, chokes on his coffee, and blurts to his wife, "My god, Marsha, you have to read this!"

Those are rare. But when I'm having trouble translating a technical topic, I often stop and think a moment about the very first thing I'd tell my wife about this. That answer, often verbatim, becomes my story.

In 2003, while I was at the Oakland Tribune, the Environmental Working Group released a report showing contaminants it had found in the hair and urine of 10 volunteers. I saw in the story a glimmer of the "My God" lede: I wanted to know where these compounds came from, what they were doing there. Over the next few months I made calls to sources in spare moments, chipping away at the issue via small dailies as I continued to juggle other, more pressing issues on my beat.

Eventually a plan emerged: No one had ever analyzed contaminants in a whole family before. What, I wondered, could be said about differences among four or five people all living in the same place? I found a family in Berkeley, Calif.: Mom, dad, young daughter, breast-feeding son.

I found a lab, worked up a protocol and enlisted scientists to help. Somehow my publisher agreed to ante up the $17,000 I needed for the lab work.

We showed that levels in kids can be dramatically higher than adults and can border on concentrations that give health experts cause for concern. The findings and methodology – thanks the groundwork – were so robust that I rewrote and republished the findings in one of the leading peer-reviewed public health journals. My original report has receded deep into the Tribune's archives. But the journal article has been cited 54 times by other researchers. (Editor's note: Doug also won an Association of Health Care Journalists award and a Grantham Prize Award of Special Merit for his "Body Burden" project.) Not all stories can have such a result – or a budget. But good environmental health stories often start small. They grow, aided by your curiosity and knowledge. And in the end, the work often pays handsomely with journalism of extraordinary immediacy and impact.

Douglas Fischer is editor of, a nonprofit, foundation-funded news service focusing on climate change. He has spent 16 years in journalism, including stints at the Oakland (Calif.) Tribune and Newsweek. His 2005 investigation into our chemical body burden won an Award of Merit from the inaugural Grantham Prize, the world's largest journalism prize. He lives in Bozeman, Mont.