Testing the Air: Lessons Learned from Hunt Fund Reporting

Published on
November 8, 2011

Science – like journalism -- is rarely neat or straightforward, and the elements that are confounding and aggravating are sometimes what yield the most important insights, provided you are willing to have an open mind when results lead you in directions different than your original idea or plan.

As a journalist who covers science, I was already well aware of these tenets, but the air testing I did for a story thanks to support from the Hunt Fund for Health Journalism drove the message home in a very direct way, and also shed light on the reasons that air pollution from non-point sources is such a hard problem to tackle.

For the centerpiece of my three-story project on the health impacts of goods movement, I tested for black carbon around rail yards and trucking routes in the Chicago area. Black carbon is an indicator of the level of diesel pollution from vehicles including trains and trucks, known to have a range of serious health impacts on nearby residents. That story along with my other piece on the health impacts of the BP refinery expansion in northwest Indiana – in order to process more Canadian tar sands – appeared in The New York Times Chicago edition, produced by the Chicago News Cooperative. My third piece, for The Progressive Magazine, looked at the health impacts of truck, train and ship emissions on low-income communities around the port of San Diego.

Based on my own and others' previous anecdotal reporting and studies in California including by the California Air Resources Board and University of Southern California scientists, I expected to find high levels of black carbon around massive rail yards in the Chicago area, which with a few exceptions are in poor black and Latino neighborhoods.

Compared to background levels I did find slightly elevated levels of diesel pollution around the rail yards, but they were not as high as I had expected, and weren't uniformly higher than other parts of the city I tested.

In talking with experts about my results I learned more about the extreme and highly variable effect that wind patterns and weather have on the distribution of diesel emissions even around ground-level sources like rail yards. The fact that it was an especially windy and rainy spring week in Chicago probably meant I got vastly different results than I would have on a still, dry summer day. But more importantly, my results showed just how difficult using testing to support a hypothesis in a story can be. (For more details on my testing and specific tips on making the most of hands-on testing in journalism, please see the end of this blog.)

I had not originally planned to make trucking routes a focus of my story, since I was most interested in the emissions from locomotives and equipment within rail yards. But lacking dramatic results around rail yards, I also tested along busy trucking routes and found significantly elevated black carbon levels on busy streets lined with homes, schools, parks and day care centers. These trucking routes were disproportionately but not exclusively in low-income, black and Latino neighborhoods. A few of the city's trendiest and most upscale neighborhoods also have busy trucking routes running through them, exposing people who live in expensive homes and diners in expensive sidewalk cafes to high levels of diesel emissions – indicating that such emissions are an environmental justice issue but also affect people in high-income communities.

Also by coincidence during my week of testing the Chicago city council was considering an ordinance to limit diesel emissions from construction equipment, and road work was going on on my block, where I logged temporary black carbon levels up to 100 times or more background levels. On the same block, children were leaving an elementary school and a number of elderly and disabled individuals spent long hours, as is their habit, sitting on the sidewalk watching the world go by.

Hence between the rail yards, construction equipment and trucking routes, I ended up with interesting and potentially significant results, but results that lacked a systematic plan involving controls and enough samples to make anything close to an academically respectable conclusion. I of course had such a plan to begin with, but at the outset I did not understand the equipment I was using or the variables enough to realize that it would take probably a year of testing, not a week, to do a decently rigorous study.

I had originally conceived of the air testing in part because I was shocked that there seemed to be no previous attempt to quantify the public health impact of rail yards in Chicago, one of the nation's primary rail hubs. I can't help here quoting the inane refrain that plays constantly over the speakers at my gym: "What gets measured gets improved." If the level of air pollution around rail yards specifically has never been quantified, it is that much harder to argue that it is a health risk and an environmental justice issue, even if various factors and anecdotal evidence would suggest it is.

However my experience with air testing helped me better understand why such studies have not to my knowledge been done in the Chicago area or most other urban areas. The huge variety of factors involved – weather, wind, seasonal economic fluctuations, specifics of a given rail yard's equipment and layout, the lifestyles of nearby residents – would make statistically significant and methodical testing a hugely expensive and time-consuming undertaking.

It was also a reminder of one of the main challenges in reporting on public health and environmental issues in general: we can almost never prove causation, and even scientific studies exploring correlation rarely yield clear, unequivocable, unassailable results. Even when we do have test results that provide real reason for concern, it can be hard to make them sound dramatic enough to attract attention and spur action. For many pollutants including diesel emissions, there is no "safe" level – even normal urban background levels like those I found in Chicago could harm one's health. The levels I found around rail yards, for example 3 micrograms per cubic meter compared to background levels of 1.5 micrograms, could represent a real health risk to some nearby residents, depending on their level of exposure, age and other factors. But such numbers are hardly going to strike fear in residents or light a fire under policymakers.

Actually the lack of knowledge or concern about rail yard diesel emissions among Chicago residents partly attracted me to the topic and also frustrated me. Unlike in Oakland or Los Angeles where environmental justice groups have embraced the issue, it is barely on the radar screen among Chicago activists and neighborhood groups, who are also dealing with more "obvious" environmental threats like coal plants and oil refineries, not to mention crime, unemployment and other problems.

Reporting my other two stories for the Hunt Fund project was an antidote on this front – in northwest Indiana and in San Diego, relatively small but highly active groups of residents are very concerned about the health impacts of the oil refinery and the port, respectively, and have gained concrete improvements because of their activism. In San Diego, residents affiliated with the Environmental Health Coalition have over the years logged a number of victories related to the port, including forcing an end to the spraying of toxic chemicals on shipped produce near an elementary school, and changing the routes of trucks through residential neighborhoods. In northwest Indiana, BP is in the process of making considerable improvements to its expansion plans, including greatly reducing flaring of toxic gases, thanks to action by environmental and citizen groups (along with the US EPA).

I know that my air testing results in Chicago will not likely provide the fodder for groups to demand increased emissions controls from rail companies, as I might have ideally hoped. But I know the project greatly expanded my own understanding of an important issue I will continue to cover, and also hopefully created some increased awareness and motivation for future study and dialogue -- all part of the slow and non-linear process of exploring and addressing inequities in and threats to public health. This experience will make me personally more methodical, cautious and selective in doing hands-on testing in the future. While it showed me such testing is much more challenging and resource-consuming than I previously realized, it also drove home the importance of first-hand testing as a journalistic tool, and makes me grateful that the Hunt Fund continues to help make this tool available to reporters.

Tips for Hands-On Testing in Reporting:

When I decided to do my own air testing for pollution around rail yards in the Chicago area, I really didn't know what I was getting into. I assumed hiring a consultant, renting equipment and/or teaming up with a university would be a relatively straightforward undertaking. I soon found things to be a lot more complicated. After months of searching online and asking around, I signed a contract with a non-profit that partners with community organizations to do their own testing and activist campaigns around a number of different pollutants. While I admire the group's work greatly, I eventually realized that it was not the right fit given that I was not looking to explicitly launch a campaign or deeply involve community members in my project. Committing to that plan without adequately considering whether it was really appropriate ended up wasting my and their time and costing me some money, though it was all part of a learning process for me. I ended up renting a hand-held black carbon monitor called a Microaeth from a California company, which was relatively affordable and offered instant results though also had some disadvantages for the kind of open-air testing I was doing -- it is more commonly used for tests in tail pipes and small confined spaces. Even with the best preparation, hands-on testing for stories will likely always involve some measure of risk and luck. Keeping the below tips in mind as one considers and executes a project should help.

1. Along with thoroughly understanding the larger issue you are covering, do copious research on the specific testing methods and equipment available, including all the practical factors that might make them more or less appropriate for your project. Factors to consider include cost, length of time needed for testing, number of locations and controls needed, method of getting results (will something need to be sent to a lab?), and availability of data for comparison – do government agencies and/or academics use the same equipment and units of measure?

2. As much as possible reduce the number of "wild card" factors that could throw your testing off course. For example in collecting and analyzing your results, avoid relying on untrained helpers, the weather, the postal service or other parties out of your control when possible.

3. If little or no previous testing or data exists on your topic, try to understand why.

4. Once you have decided on a certain type of equipment or test, interview people who have used this equipment to get specific advice on how best to make use of it and what pitfalls to avoid.

5. Make sure an official representative of the company or other entity which provides the testing equipment is available for tech support and advice in interpreting results.

6. Also share your results with various independent experts for interpretation and comment.

7. Resist the temptation to emphasize or de-emphasize any results or expert comments because of how they fit or do not fit with your original story angle.

8. In your story, strike the delicate balance of explaining key points for your audience while also honestly conveying both the uncertainty and variables inherent in all testing and the specific methodological limits (ie weaknesses) of your own testing.

9. Ultimately, do as much preparation and planning as possible before starting your test while also being ready to switch directions and revise plans as complications or new situations arise.