When Data to Support Claims Are Scant

Published on
March 27, 2013

I moved to Louisville, Kentucky, in 2011, and ever since then I have been itching to report on Rubbertown, the city’s notorious industrial area. Rubbertown was built on Louisville’s West End during World War II to supply the troops with rubber and other products. But it was built in close proximity to several residential neighborhoods, and for the past seventy years, residents have been exposed to a high concentration of toxic air pollutants. The area is also generally less affluent and has a higher minority population than the east side of the city. It has been labeled a federally recognized environmental justice area.

Over the years, researchers have documented a link between former Rubbertown vat cleaners’ exposure to vinyl chloride and liver disease, in particular an extremely rare form of liver cancer. Nearby residents’ complaints about the foul-smelling air have also resulted in clean-up efforts and an innovative city air pollution control program known as STAR. I wanted to look at the recent history of the area and reported health problems, examine whether pollution issues had improved and determine what, if any, toxins that residents were still being exposed to. Being awarded a California Endowment Fellowship as a 2012 National Health Journalism Fellow gave me the room I needed to spend several months brainstorming and researching and a month to write and produce the stories for the series.

Not surprisingly, Rubbertown had received a lot of local coverage over the past decade, but claims of injury and disease seemed largely anecdotal. My challenge was two-fold: I needed to find new voices to tell the story of Rubbertown, and I needed hard data that would support residents’ claims of unusually high rates of disease -- including cancer -- from their exposure to Rubbertown emissions.

Finding new voices took time and planning. In the several months I spent researching my project, I spent a lot of time in the neighborhoods around Rubbertown. For reporters doing a similar story, I’d suggest reaching out to community groups. In my case, I contacted both homeowners associations and a local environmental activism group, and both were helpful in connecting me with residents.  I conducted about 10 interviews at residents’ homes, where many shared photos that later became part of the multimedia series. I also conducted many more interviews with regulators and advocates in my studio and in their offices.

“My wife and I, if we had the money, we’d leave,” resident Sherwood Weir told me in his sister-in-law’s home in Park DuValle, one of Louisville’s newly planned communities located near Rubberville.  “We’d leave. Without any question. Because [the air pollution] is that bad. She can’t sleep at night. It’s the worst smell I’ve ever smelled, and I’m 61 years old.”  

Other residents echoed his anger and frustration, saying that their eyes burned at night from the air and that the odors were so unbearable that they had to leave their homes until the stench dissipated. The interviews left little doubt that despite the documented reduction in some Rubbertown emissions, quality of life, for many residents, was abysmal. But I was still looking for the hard data to anchor the series.

Originally, I had planned to do a health survey of the neighborhoods around Rubbertown. I was looking into partnering with community groups and the University of Louisville, sending volunteers door-to-door to gather the information. This would probably be ideal if you had a year or more to work on a project, but it quickly became clear that that would take weeks of time and wasn’t guaranteed to produce any usable results.

Instead, I enlisted a state health monitoring agency, which turned out to be a better use of my limited time. Over the course of several conversations with the head of the Kentucky Cancer Registry, he agreed to see if he could cull the necessary data about cancer rates for me. That was huge, because it meant that I wouldn’t have to go through the time-intensive institutional review board (IRB) process to get my own survey approved. But it also meant that I was restricted to the registry’s data, which only includes all the cases of cancer that were diagnosed in the state since 1994, and the most specific geographical information that was available was by ZIP code. It wasn’t ideal, but it worked. The data established that two types of cancer -- lung cancer and colorectal cancer -- were significantly higher in zip codes near Rubbertown than in five other Louisville communities with comparable median household incomes.

Once I had that information, the rest of the series came together. I was able to trace the toxic legacy of Rubbertown through the residents’ eyes, explaining how Louisville has succeeded in reducing the toxic pollution from the factories. I also profiled communities that still deal with foul odors, unsafe levels of certain contaminants, and health concerns, despite the new regulations. Among other things, I found that although levels of 1.3 butadiene, a known human carcinogen, have dropped by 80 percent after the city’s new regulations, independent air monitoring shows that ambient levels of the cancer-causing chemicals are still 20 times higher than what’s considered a “healthy” level.

Each story was a balancing act—because they were for radio, they had to be rich in sound and details and include personal stories, but also explain the facts and science, and be less than four minutes long. In some of the more technical stories I produced—like the cancer story, the piece about Louisville’s air toxics regulations and the story about vinyl chloride exposure in Rubbertown workers—the biggest challenge was working with researchers to reach the necessary level of scientific understanding so I could be accurate in explaining it to listeners. I was, perhaps, overly cautious in explaining the science at times, because I didn’t want to sensationalize any of the results. I’d recommend that if you’re doing a similar story, consult with epidemiologists about your findings to make sure your interpretations are correct.  

The biggest hurdle I faced was reconciling the fact that science is just not advanced enough to answer all the questions the community has about the connections between their exposure to toxic chemicals and chronic health problems. The link between vinyl chloride and liver cancer was well established, for example, but the association between Rubbertown air pollutants and other kinds of cancer was not. In my story, data from the state cancer registry clearly showed that two types of cancer were disproportionately high in neighborhoods near Rubbertown. But according to the scientists I interviewed, that finding didn’t mean the chemical exposure necessarily caused the cancers -- although the researchers did not rule out that possibility.

This means being especially sensitive to the people you are interviewing. I had to incorporate the voices of real people who have lived near Rubbertown all their lives, and they were definitely exposed to a toxic soup of chemicals in the past. They’re angry, they’re upset, and they’re anxious. I had to convey all that in a compelling and sensitive way, and at the same time I had to point out that -- with the exception of those exposed to vinyl chloride -- there’s still no proof that Rubbertown made them sick. That was frustrating, both for me and for the people who live there, but it would have been irresponsible not to report the uncertainty that still permeates most of the research on health in the area.

So far, the feedback on the series has been positive. I’ve gotten emails from people who live or have lived in Rubbertown thanking me. Most poignant are stories like this one, from a woman who grew up in Rubbertown and whose uncles, father and grandfather all worked at one of the plants: “Most all of my 8 uncles (who also grew up there) have had cancer of some sort and my sister and I both needed hysterectomies in our early 30's,” she wrote. “We joke about playing with ‘foam’ that used to float in the air...”

I always intended to end the series with a forward-looking story about possible solutions for Rubbertown’s residents. It was a tough piece to write because there’s no perfect answer. The industries aren’t going to leave, and neither are the people (though some would like to). Large-scale buyouts are impractical and can cause other problems, such as disrupting a community’s social structure. One thing is clear: it’s urgent that Louisville take a harder look at the problems Rubbertown has caused among the people who live nearby and take steps to improve their safety and quality of life. As Elizabeth Crowe of the Kentucky Environmental Foundation says, “The burden of [scientific] proof should not be on the residents.”

Photo Credit: Erica Peterson / WFPL