Carol Smith's picture

Learning from the Duwamish River Communities

Seattle is a city built on water – its identity, its celebrated beauty, and much of its economic lifeblood comes from its relationship to Puget Sound and the rivers that flow into it.

But the Duwamish River, which runs through the center of Seattle’s urban industrial core, is not the one you see on post cards. Now named one of the largest Superfund sites in the country, it is also the river in the backyard of more than 38,000 of Seattle’s poorest and most diverse residents.

The goal of my 2010 National Health Fellowship project was to identify the community health issues that face the people living in two neighborhoods – Georgetown and South Park -- which face each other across the toxic river in the middle of the Superfund site. 

The thinking was that by identifying these problems, we could call out the issue of accountability, and more importantly point the way toward creative solutions for a portion of the population the greater Seattle community has historically ignored. The backdrop for the story was a looming multi-million dollar Superfund decision about how best to clean up the river, and to what extent.

The precipitating event for the story, though, was the closure of the bridge that links the two communities, effectively cutting off easy access to downtown Seattle a few miles away. To me it seemed the perfect metaphor for the attitude of the larger population toward those struggling to carve a life on the banks of the river that built the prosperous city down the road.

Carol Smith's picture

The story behind "Lifesaving Drugs, Deadly Consequences."

When InvestigateWest Executive Director Rita Hibbard and I first met Sue and Chelsea Crump, Sue was suffering from cancer that she and Chelsea suspected may have been triggered by her long history of handling chemotherapy. The tip rang a bell for Rita, who recalled mention years earlier of studies indicating oncologists got certain cancers at higher rates. When Rita asked me to look into the story, it triggered a strong association for me as well. My grandmother had served as an Army nurse in WWI near the trenches in France. Many years later, I remember her recounting the horror of treating young soldiers blistered and burned by mustard gas, the precursor of today’s cancer drugs. I understood their power.

 Between the four of us, we believed there was at least the seed of a story worth examining. That early conversation led to InvestigateWest’s year-long investigation. The story was widely published and broadcast, receiving strong national attention.  It has triggered discussions at state and national levels of how to improve regulation to keep healthcare workers safe.

Through the last two years, Chelsea underwent two profound role reversals. She was a student who became a source, and a daughter who became her mother’s caregiver. Today she is finishing a double major at Western Washington University and learning to live without her mom for the first time. She is the reason we know her mother’s story. This, in her own words, is her own story:

My Mother’s Story: A Daughter’s Journey

By Chelsea Crump

Study sees parking lots dust as cancer risk


Chemicals in a cancer-causing substance used to seal pavement, parking lots and driveways across the U.S. are showing up at alarming levels in dust in American homes, prompting concerns about the potential health effects of long-term exposure, a new study shows.

The substance is coal tar sealant, a waste product of steel manufacturing that is used to protect pavement and asphalt against cracking and water damage, and to impart a nice dark sheen. It is applied most heavily east of the Rockies but is used in all 50 states.

Toxic parking lots shed dust that boosts kids' cancer risk, InvestigateWest says in major story

rm iwest mugOK, folks, it's the moment we've all been waiting for since we launched InvestigateWest last year: Our first big story is running today! And it's on, so we expect a lot of eyeballs to be on this 0ne.

This is an amazing tale about a series of studies that this week revealed that toxic dust from parking lots is making its way into Americans' homes in eyebrow-raising quantities. And because it's ending up in house dust, it's a particular worry for kids, for whom it raises lifetime cancer risks significantly, according to research led by the U.S. Geological Survey.

Please go read the story, will you? We want to get all the clicks we can over at But do come back and visit Dateline Earth in the next week or so, because there was really quite a bit we didn't get to get into, even in the decently in-depth treatment we were able to give the topic for

InvestigateWest has been proud of what we've been able to accomplish so far, including our independent coverage of the Copenhagen climate talks, organizing into a non-profit, getting an incredibly talented board up and running, and landing grants from the Bullitt Foundation and the Fund for Investigative Journalism.

But this toxic parking lots piece is a great example of our main reason for being: In-depth journalism on the environment, public health and social-justice issues (although this coal tar thing, in an unusual twist, seems likely to be more of a problem for well-to-do suburban families than for poor folks.

Fewer Pap smears, safer public?

The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists is now recommending that women wait until the age of 21 to get a Pap smear, regardless of their sexual history, and that women undergo Pap smears less frequently.

The recommendations follow this week's similar advice to scale back breast cancer screenings, counsel which raised the ire of doctors, radiologists and breast cancer survivors (including WA Gov. Chris Gregoire) across the country.

It's hard to figure that eliminating Pap smears in young women is a good idea, given that 74 percent of all Human papillomavirus (HPV cases) occur in people 15 to 24 years old, and that women are typically only screened for HPV if they have an abnormal Pap smear.  Men rarely, if ever, are screened for HPV, even though  HPV can develop into cancers of the cervix, vagina, rectum, anus and penis if left untreated.

Wood smoke top cancer-causing air pollutant in OR

Cuddling up in front of a fireplace may seem romantic, but remember that wood stoves and fireplaces are the leading cause of cancer-causing air pollution in Oregon. The piece in today’s Oregonian by Scott Learn is  one of several recently based on new EPA air-toxics data. And it’s accompanied by a graphic showing that the risk is greatest – no duh – in Portland and Eugene, as well as one showing what parts of Portland are most dangerous.  Learn does a good job putting into perspective the overall risks of death from air pollution.

Meanwhile, in the Puget Sound area, the Port of Tacoma was pounding its chest over air-pollution reductions yesterday, and those sentiments were dutifully passed on by Tacoma News Tribune reporter Kelly Kearsley. In Seattle, wood smoke and pollution from the nearby port – especially old, dirty trucks driven by just-scraping-by independent truck owners – combine with heavy traffic to increase cancer risks from air toxics in the working-class south end of town.