In Depth

Digging Deep

Center for Public Integrity Reporters Mine EPA Database for Harm Caused by Pesticides

The Center for Public Integrity has been recognized by the Association of Health Care Journalists for the in-depth online report “Perils of the New Pesticide,” winning first place in the online category.

To hear Mike Pell, data analyst and staff writer at the Center for Public Integrity, talk about how he and James Morris approached this project is to appreciate how tenacious and exacting they were with their health care reporting.

“James learned about an Environmental Protection Agency pesticides incident database while working on an investigative project for U.S. News & World Report published in 1999. He obtained thousands of paper records from the EPA in 2007, but EPA employees told him the data did not exist in an electronic format,” said Mr. Pell.

The reporters worked doggedly and discovered there was an antiquated EPA database on pesticide incidents, but the agency wouldn’t release it.

FOIA Request

“The EPA offered to do an inquiry for me,” Mr. Pell said. “I declined and instead filed a Freedom of Information [Act] request for the database. While waiting for the data to arrive—it took over two months for the EPA to cleanse the data of personal information about the victims—Morris and I interviewed dozens of toxicologists, epidemiologists, poison control center operators, medical doctors, workers rights advocates, state pesticide regulators and former and current EPA employees.”

The judges’ comments noted the Center for Public Integrity had created a rich, multipart report about the dangers to pets, people and the environment posed by pesticides declared “safe” by the EPA.

“By publishing online, the authors were able to explore the issue in depth and from a variety of perspectives. … The editors show good judgment by breaking the story into multiple parts, which is very important for presentation on the Web. In addition, the project leaders invite users to explore the underlying data set of adverse reactions to various chemicals and products with a friendly, attractive navigation.”

Online’s Advantages

“Publishing a searchable database alongside several stories and our methodology section was the primary advantage of a Web production,” Mr. Pell said. “The searchable database is a basic resource for people with questions about specific pesticide products or chemicals. Building a story project page also allowed us to add stories to the original release package and develop a richer narrative.”

Along the way, Mr. Pell and Mr. Morris were surprised that the research did not go where they had anticipated it would. “After interviewing experts for months, we expected to write a story on farm workers injured by fumigants or on the dangers of organophosphate pesticides,” Mr. Pell said.

“But we came away amazed at the number of incidents of the pesticides that largely replaced organophosphates—pyrethrins and their synthetic cousins, pyrethroids. An analysis of the data revealed that the number of reported human health problems, including severe reactions, attributed to pyrethrins and pyrethroids increased by about 300% over the past decade. These chemicals together accounted for more than 26% of all fatal, ‘major’ and ‘moderate’ human incidents reported in the United States in 2007,” Mr. Pell said.

Winning this award from AHCJ is more than just a pat on the back to Mr. Pell. His reaction to hearing that they had been recognized was gleeful. “Fist pumps, a lap around the office while swinging my shirt in the air, and playing Journey’s ‘Don’t Stop Believin’’ at top volume, and a celebratory cocktail hour. We were thrilled. It is an honor to receive an award from the Association of Health Care Journalism.”