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Online startup breaks health story

A researcher applies coal tar sealcoat at a site in Austin, Texas Credit: Peter Van Metre, courtesy of InvestigateWest

Courtesy of a pioneering Seattle-based effort in investigative journalism online, the public is learning today <>about the potentially serious health threats from a widely used parking lot and driveway sealant.

InvestigateWest today reported on new research that shows the cancer-causing chemicals from the sealant turn up at alarming levels in homes. The coal tar sealant, a waste product of steel manufacturing, is used more frequently east of the Mississippi River. The story was published on MSNBC, creating a national readership for the generally Pacific Northwest-oriented journalism site.

The U.S. Geological Survey has found that the sealant wears off, the story reported, and is then tracked into homes. The scientists focused on the polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, or PAHs, in the tar. McClure noted that coal tar has been known to be associated with cancer since the 1770s, when high rates of scrotal cancer were found among chimney sweeps in England.

InvestigateWest Executive Director Rita Hibbard said the story developed in part out of the environmental expertise of award-winning writer Robert McClure, who is probably best known here for his leading-edge coverage of Puget Sound water-quality issues at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer before the newspaper closed. Hibbard, a former editor at the paper, said the story, with its national reach and impacts, was a “crossover,” also having relevance to the site’s main audiences in the Pacific Northwest and the West. One of the parking lots studied by scientists was in Mountlake Terrace.

In bringing sharp attention to a topic that might otherwise receive scant media notice, the report was very much a part of InvestigateWest’s mission to conduct investigative journalism operate in the public interest. “It is a clear public health issue,” Hibbard said.

Hibbard said that one of the challenges was “that the amount of money that we are paid (for it) … is far less than the cost of reporting it and editing it.” She said that wasn’t at all a criticism of MSNBC. “It is just the economics of the news industry right now,” Hibbard said.

She added, “You need that other layer of support to do it. That is the foundation and the individual donor support.” InvestigateWest has received a $40,000 grant from the Bullitt Foundation and recently completed what Hibbard said was a very successful membership drive.

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