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Reporting on Effects of Environmental Health Hazards: Balancing Personal Stories, Available Scientific Data

Reporting on Effects of Environmental Health Hazards: Balancing Personal Stories, Available Scientific Data

Picture of Erica Peterson

I moved to Louisville in 2011, and ever since then I’ve been itching to do more reporting on Rubbertown, the city’s 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 pollution. The area is generally less affluent and with a higher minority population than the east side of the city. It has been labeled a federally-recognized environmental justice area.

I wanted to look at the recent history of the area, and examine what pollution issues had improved and what residents are still being exposed to. Being awarded a California Endowment Fellowship as a 2012 National Health Journalism Fellow gave me the excuse I needed to spend several months brainstorming and researching and a month writing and producing the stories for the series.

As is probably the case with many fellowship projects, the series that emerged was different than the one I proposed.

Over the course of the several months I spent researching my project, I spent a lot of time in the neighborhoods around Rubbertown. There’s been a lot of local coverage of this area over the past decade, and I wanted to find new voices to tell their stories. I reached out to neighborhood associations and sought out residents I had met at community meetings months before. I conducted interviews, and had a fairly wide range of interesting personal stories about industrial pollution to tell. But I was still looking for the hard data to anchor the series, and I had no idea what shape each of my stories would take.

Originally, the plan was to do a health survey of the neighborhoods around Rubbertown. It quickly became clear that that would take weeks of time and wasn’t guaranteed to produce any usable results. So I narrowed the focus. I ed the head of the Kentucky Cancer Registry, and over the course of several conversations 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.

Once I had that information, the rest of the series came together. I did several stories setting the stage, explaining how Louisville has succeeded on reducing the toxic pollution from the factories and profiling communities that are still dealing with odor and health concerns, despite the new regulations. 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 piece about and the story about —the biggest challenge was 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.

The biggest hurdle I faced was reconciling the fact that science is just not advanced enough to answer the questions the community has about the connections between their exposure to toxic chemicals and chronic health problems. I knew this going into the series, but it was still a challenge. I had to incorporate the voices of real people who have lived near Rubbertown for their whole lives, and were definitely exposed to all kinds of nasty chemicals in the past. They’re angry, they’re upset, and they’re worried. I had to convey all that in a compelling and sensitive way, but at the same time point out that 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 sensationalizing the story if I hadn’t reported the uncertainty that still permeates most of the research on health in the area.

So far, the feedback on the series has been positive, and 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 and what could have possibly seeped into the water table during all of those years.”

I always intended to end the series with a forward-looking story about what . I wrote that story, but couldn’t come to many conclusions. 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, like disrupting a community’s social structure. Unfortunately, there’s no perfect answer. Over the next few years, it’s going to be imperative for Louisville to take a harder look at the health effects Rubbertown has caused for those living nearby, and take even more steps to make sure the residents are safe.

Other stories in this series include:

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