Publication No. 2
Major Production: In-Depth Special Report
Title: “The Toxin Connection: The Impact of Rubber Production on Health in Northeast Ohio”
Principal Investigator: Lamb, Yanick Rice
“The Toxin Connection” is an interactive series examining occupational and environmental health in an industrial community as part of a Social Justice Investigative Journalism Fellowship. The focus is on the generational impact of toxins that have resulted in elevated levels of cancer and auto-immune diseases. Multimedia will include photos, video, data visualization and mapping. I have been conducting in-depth interviews with patients, physicians, researchers, environmentalists and politicians as well as health, public policy, industry and public officials who essentially gave corporations a pass by maintaining low regulatory standards.
This is an under-reported environmental and medical story. The goal of “The Toxin Connection” is to provide public service journalism by answering questions long on the minds of local residents who have endured decades of silence and indifference like in Flint, Michigan. My investigation would sort through myths and facts; dig into the data and other research to highlight why disease rates are so high; discuss genomics; and delve into allegations of political inaction, and corporate influence or suppression of possible health risks. I would examine health care over the years, environmental monitoring historically, and the status and impact of legislation, including the Toxic Substances Control Act.
My project has been accepted for publication in Belt Magazine and the Cleveland Plain Dealer. I was awarded a $8,800 grant from the Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism at Brandeis University and the Fund for Investigative Journalism, which includes representatives from leading news organizations such as the Chicago Tribune, Wall Street Journal, Reuters, the Washington Post and the NAACP’s Crisis Magazine. Pro bono support and vetting is also being provided by the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, a data journalist at Kaiser Health News and a correspondent at the New York Times.
Growing up in Akron, Ohio, I clearly remember the scent of rotten eggs as we approached the rubber factories on the East Side. Some residents welcomed the sulfuric stench, calling it the smell of money or the smell of plentiful jobs at Goodyear, Goodrich, Firestone and Uniroyal.
Today, some consider it the smell of death.
The jobs that my stepfather, uncles and neighbors held are gone, but some toxins they worked around every day still linger. The former Rubber Capital of the World is cleaner, but it still made Forbes’ list of “America’s 20 Dirtiest Cities.” Akron residents are convinced that these toxins contributed to cancer or auto-immune diseases like multiple sclerosis and lupus among their family and friends. Some talk of clusters, like the one in nearby Lorain County. Wellington, Ohio, population 3,171, has been identified as an MS cluster with a prevalence rate that’s 10 times higher than national estimates of 58 to 95 per 100,000 people, reports the CDC journal Preventing Chronic Disease.
Clusters are hard to prove, but my interactive series will offer answers, one way or another, instead of decades of silence and indifference like in Flint, Michigan. Similarly, this is an under-reported environmental and medical story. My investigation would sort through myths and facts; dig into the data and other research to highlight why disease rates are so high; discuss genomics; and delve into allegations of political inaction, and corporate influence or suppression of possible health risks. I would examine health care over the years, environmental monitoring historically, and the status and impact of legislation, including the Toxic Substances Control Act. Multimedia would include photos, video, data visualization and mapping. I’ll conduct in-depth interviews with patients, physicians, researchers, environmentalists and politicians as well as health, public policy, industry and public officials who essentially gave corporations a pass by maintaining low regulatory standards.
For example, the National Institute on Occupational Safety and Health indicated that N-nitrosodimethylamine (NDMA) has been a known carcinogen since 1956. Yet, NIOSH didn’t issue recommendations until 1980, only after the United Rubber Workers requested an evaluation of NDMA exposure at Firestone. NIOSH said that nitrosamines are “among the most potent and widespread of animal carcinogens” with no airborne standards and that exposure should be kept to a minimum.
Choosing profits over people, captains of the rubber industry were aware of such dangers. They knew about cancer research on white-collar and blue-collar workers. They heard employee desires to be outside as much as possible after seeing particles in the rays of sunlight streaming through factory windows. And like everyone else in Akron, they could smell it in the air.
“Each year in the United States, tens of thousands of workers are made sick or die from occupational exposures to the thousands of hazardous chemicals that are used in workplaces every day,” the U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration said recently in a statement. “While many chemicals are suspected of being harmful, OSHA’s exposure standards are out-of-date and inadequately protective for the small number of chemicals that are regulated in the workplace.” These chemicals also go home with workers via clothing, shoes and hair.
Federal statistics showed a nearly 10% “excess of cancer deaths” in the rubber industry compared to other types of manufacturing. For specific cancers, this excess ranged from 18% for the respiratory system to 54% for the lymphatic and hematopoietic system. These deaths were centered in Ohio, primarily in the “compounding, milling, calendaring and curing areas,” where African Americans primarily worked. Cancer rates were disproportionately higher for black employees who tended to be assigned to areas that were dirtier, undesirable and less safe.
“The exposure of black workers to many of the chemicals that are now known as carcinogens began in the early 1900s when large numbers of southern blacks migrated to urban industrial areas to work,” said sociologist Beverly Hendrix Wright, Ph.D. Employers would often blame the victim, attempting to transfer corporate responsibility by questioning genetics and lifestyles.
However, rubber factories have experimented with mixtures of organic and inorganic material with unknown side effects and often at high temperature with potentially greater unknown consequences. For example, production of a highly toxic chemical at a Goodyear plant in Niagara Falls resulted in lifelong health problems for workers and birth defects for their offspring, according to medical and legal documents. This chemical was used throughout U.S. plants for Goodyear and other companies. However, genetics haven’t been widely studied as they relate to rubber factories, despite the hereditary aspects of cancer and MS.
Akron contains contaminated lakes and sits near about five Superfund sites in Northeast Ohio. It has had high levels of toxins associated with MS and cancer. Ohio’s cancer rates, though now dropping a bit, were higher than the U.S. average. Rates for Summit and Cuyahoga counties, where Akron and Cleveland are located, respectively, exceeded state and national levels. Both counties have high concentrations of carcinogens such as benzene and acrylonitrile, despite improvements in air quality and the closing of most rubber factories in the 1980s and early 1990s. The Ohio EPA reported that one in every 10,000 people in these counties and at least five others had a lifetime cancer risk from factory and vehicle emissions. This level was higher than is acceptable, the EPA said.
These counties also rank No. 1 and No. 7, respectively, in terms of Ohio’s black population. From 2009-2013, the average cancer incidence rate was 6.5 percent higher for black Ohioians than for whites, and it was double for some types of cancer such as multiple myeloma, according to a 2016 report from the state Department of Health and The Ohio State University Comprehensive Cancer Center. African Americans had the highest mortality rate in the state, with black males being 21 percent higher and black females, 14 percent higher, compared to whites. And although black women develop breast cancer less often than white women, their death rate is higher, mirroring national trends.
Neuroepidemiology has documented links between poor air quality and factory pollution to systemic immune response and inflammation. The rate of lupus is three times higher for African Americans than Caucasians, with more serious and diverse symptoms. The same is true for multiple sclerosis, which is more prevalent in industrial areas. A 2004 study in Neurology also indicates that African Americans require wheelchairs eight years sooner. “A great deal of evidence suggests that most people who are genetically susceptible must still be exposed to some other factor or factors in their environment or life experience for MS to develop,” the National Multiple Sclerosis Society says.
I am researching this topic for my dissertation in Medical Sociology. Additionally, I’ve written articles for the general public for the Center for Public Integrity and Belt Magazine through the Fund for Investigative Journalism grant.