InvestigateWest's reporting fuels two worker safety bills to be signed by governor Wednesday

Gov. Chris Gregoire is expected to sign two bills Wednesday  that will help protect healthcare workers from dangerous drug exposures, making Washington the first state in the country to have enforceable safe-handling standards.

The lawmaking has gotten the attention of the federal government as well, which this week issued a letter to healthcare workplaces, advising them to update their safety practices. The letter, signed by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), and The Joint Commission (the national hospital accreditation agency), highlighted the potential for serious adverse occupational health effects.

“This is a victory,” said Dr. Melissa McDiarmid, Director of the Occupational Health Program at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, whose research has shown chromosomal damage in workers who handle chemotherapy.

Both bills, which passed unanimously through the House and Senate, were sparked by InvestigateWest’s reporting on hazardous drug handling practices, which showed that lack of workplace regulation was resulting in workplace contamination and worker exposures. Such exposures can result in irreversible effects that include cancer, reproductive harm and developmental problems.

SB 5594, sponsored by Sen. Jeanne Kohl-Welles, requires the state to regulate chemotherapy and other hazardous drugs by creating a safe-handling standard for healthcare workplaces. “It is unacceptable that health-care workers risk exposure to deadly chemicals on a daily basis while on the job.  This measure could literally save lives by requiring the development of workplace safety standards for these professionals,” Kohl-Welles said.


College moves toward changing rules for handling sexual assault cases

Officials at Reed College say the institution is likely to loosen confidentiality rules surrounding sexual assault cases on campus, an idea that’s won favor with faculty, staff and students.

The topic came under discussion Monday at a campus forum centered on Reed’s Honor Principle, the century old doctrine by which students conduct themselves. Though it’s separate from policies that govern the university, the Honor Principle is at the heart of Reed’s esoteric culture, which promotes free thought and experimentation, and allows students unique latitude to meter out justice through a Judicial Board.

About 400 students turned out to Monday’s forum, where conversation with a slate of student, faculty, staff and alumnus panelists ranged from philosophical discussion to more practical matters.

In the crowded Kaul Auditorium, personal expression ranged from purple leggings to dreadlocks, leather jackets to “Junior Statesman of America” t-shirts.

Students bristled at the sight of a reporter, however, and pointedly noted the meeting was “private.” They refer to this community as “The Reed Bubble,” and allow few outsiders in. In a tight-knit group of 1,400, students show their school spirit with pride. But they feel besieged by recent media reports about the college.

Since Reed College saw the first of two overdose deaths since 2008, its administration has faced pressure to tamp down on drugs, most notably from law enforcement.


Portland college students demand changes in sexual assault process

A student member of Reed College’s Judicial Board has resigned over the school’s handling of sexual assault, and her public appeal to students and faculty to think critically about how the college is adjudicating sex crimes has inspired weeks of debate on the campus, likely to be central to a student forum April 4.

Isabel Manley served three semesters on the private Portland college’s Judicial Board. She offered a personal critique of Reed’s handling of sexual assault in a letter in the school newspaper The Quest Feb. 11, in which she resigned.

Manley’s resignation has stirred discussion on campus, subsequent letters to The Quest - including a formal response from faculty - and also prompted a group of 20 students identifying themselves as sexual assault survivors to issue a nine-point “manifesto” on sexual assault, outlining lapses in the college’s goal of providing resources to victims and offering solutions.


Measure would ban toxic pavement sealant

OLYMPIA – Washington is poised to become the first state to ban a toxic asphalt sealant made from industrial waste because its ingredients are turning up in ordinary house dust as well as in streams, lakes and other waterways at levels that concern government researchers.

In some places these chemicals have been measured in people’s driveways at levels that would require a toxic-waste cleanup if the same concentrations were detected at a Superfund site, as InvestigateWest reported last year.

The legislation (HB 1721) bans driveway and asphalt sealants derived from a creosote-like substance known as coal tar that is a waste product of steelmaking. The bill has cleared the House and is scheduled for a hearing on Tuesday, March 22, in the Senate Environment, Water and Energy Committee.

The coal tar sealants already have been banned in Washington, D.C; in Austin, Texas; in Madison and surrounding Dane County, Wisc.; and in a succession of towns in the Midwest. U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett, D-Texas, is seeking to ban them nationally.

While levels of many water pollutants have declined in recent decades as a result of the Clean Water Act, levels of the toxic materials found in coal tar have been increasing in hot spots near parking lots coated in the sealant, according to national studies by the U.S. Geological Survey.

Researchers with the Geological Survey also documented the transport of these toxic chemicals into apartments adjacent to coal-tar-coated parking lots, where levels in house dust were high enough to raise a red flag for children’s health, particularly lifetime cancer risks, researchers say.


The high health costs of a Seattle's Superfund site: it can take years off your life

Read the related story on how people continue to eat contaminated fish from the Duwamish despite warnings.

Read the related story on how environmental justice is becoming an emerging issue in King County and the nation.


Living along the Duwamish River can erode years from your life.

The more than 38,000 people tucked into South Park, Georgetown and Beacon Hill neighborhoods along the river’s Superfund site suffer more illness – including asthma, diabetes and colorectal cancer – than elsewhere in King County. Babies born to families along the river are more likely to die and those who survive can expect a shorter life span than people born and raised just a few miles away.

Their obstacles are many. They are often poor. They are frequently overweight. Access to a supermarket, or to health care, can be tough.

But people here also carry the added burden of the river, a toxic stretch that is the legacy of Seattle’s industrial past. And Seattle’s industrial future continues to foul the air that residents breathe.


UNSAFE TO CONSUME: Despite warnings, people fish the Duwamish

People aren’t supposed to eat the fish they catch in the Duwamish. But here’s the dirty river’s dirty secret: They do.

“People fish on the river,” said B.J. Cummings of the Duwamish River Cleanup Coalition, a nonprofit coalition of environmentalists, neighborhood groups, local businesses and Duwamish tribes. “These are people with little or no income and people for whom fishing is a really important cultural practice.”

The river is a source of food for tribal, immigrant and low-income anglers, despite post warnings telling them not to eat the fish.

A recent survey conducted by Public Health -- Seattle & King County confirmed that anglers are eating what they catch. Some because they don’t understand the warnings, or falsely believe that cooking will remove contamination.

Others because they said they don’t believe the warnings, or don’t care.

Morgan Barry, an outreach educator for Public Health – Seattle & King County, who helped organize the survey, recalls an encounter with an older man who was fishing the river. He told her he used to live downwind of the Hanford Nuclear Reservation, she recalled, and that he used to work with asbestos in the shipyards.

“He told me, ‘Everybody gets cancer,’ ” she said. In his world, that was just the way it was.

There are some 42 chemicals above federal standards in the river bed, including PCBs, dioxins, carcinogenic hydrocarbons, and arsenic. They are all chemicals known to cause cancer or other health effects, including reproductive harm, and immune system or neurological disorders.


Environmental justice gets its due along the Duwamish

By Carol Smith


Environmental justice is an old mandate getting a new life under Lisa Jackson, the first African-American head of the Environmental Protection Agency.

Environmental justice refers to the fair treatment of all communities when it comes to enforcing environmental laws and protecting them from health and environmental hazards. It was first made a federal priority with a 1994 Executive Order intended to right inequities in minority and low-income communities that were experiencing a disproportionate share of the nation’s environmental hazards. The order, signed by President Clinton, tasked all federal agencies with incorporating environmental justice into their decision-making processes.

But the mission languished for the next several decades.

A 2007 study by Sandra George O’Neil published in Environmental Health Perspectives, for example, concluded that inequities had not only persisted, but also escalated in the intervening years with fewer polluted sites located in minority and low-income communities being designated for Superfund cleanup funds, compared with those in wealthier areas.

That study along with criticism of the Superfund program by the Government Accounting Office and the U.S. Office of the Inspector General galvanized a call to reform the approach to environmental justice among federal agencies.

Under the Obama Administration, the EPA along with other federal agencies has a strict new edict to take justice into account. Jackson has assumed a high-profile role in evangelizing for environmental justice. She is mid-stream in a well-publicized “Environmental Justice Tour” that is taking her around the country visiting communities beleaguered by toxic waste.

And that in turn has invigorated communities with a new enthusiasm that raising their voices will make a difference.


Budget cuts rip through mental health safety net in state

State budget cutbacks have forced the closure of a little known, but pivotal program at Western State Hospital that allowed difficult psychiatric patients, including those with violent criminal histories, to continue living on its grounds after discharge.

The shuttering of that facility at the end of February followed the closure in January of another 30-bed ward inside the hospital. The cutbacks are a further sign of how state budget cuts are ripping through the mental health safety net both here and nationwide, said mental health professionals.

“We’re in serious trouble,” said Amnon Shoenfeld, Director of King County’s Mental Health, Chemical Abuse and Dependency Services Division, which sends many of its clients to Western when they need long-term psychiatric care.

The lack of beds has meant more people are being held in hospital emergency rooms while waiting out their “involuntary holds.” By law, individuals can be held for 72 hours against their will if they are deemed a danger to themselves or others. During one week last month, the county “boarded” more than 25 people in ER’s throughout King County because they’d been declared a danger to themselves or others, he said. “We had no place to put them.” Boarding means patients are held, in restraints if necessary, in hallways or other spaces until inpatient rooms become available. If their holds runs out before that happens, they are free to leave the hospital.