Reporting on Poor, Kids Sickened by Industrial Air Pollution

May 5, 2021

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Kristina Marusic, pictured above right, affixing a wearable air monitor to the sweatshirt of a nine-year-old Pittsburgh-area resident for an ongoing investigation on air quality. Photo: Connor Mulvaney. Click to enlarge.

Inside Story: Reporting on Poor, Kids Sickened by Industrial Air Pollution

Kristina Marusic’s coverage of air pollution in western Pennsylvania for Environmental Health News won an honorable mention for outstanding small market beat reporting in the Society of Environmental Journalists’ 2019 Annual Awards for Reporting on the Environment. Judges said that Marusic provides “thorough, evenhanded coverage of the effects of air pollution on some of Pennsylvania's most vulnerable residents.” SEJournal Online recently caught up with her. Here is the conversation.

SEJournal: How did you get your winning story ideas?

Kristina Marusic: As a resident of Pittsburgh, I was aware that the city and surrounding regions continue to have some of the worst air quality in the country. I also knew that most of the region’s air pollution comes from well-documented Clean Air Act violations committed by a handful of industrial sites due to lack of proper enforcement.

When I learned that a local pediatrician and researcher had discovered that around 22 percent of kids in Pittsburgh’s most polluted neighborhoods have asthma — more than twice the national average — I knew there was an environmental justice story there that hadn't yet been told.

SEJournal: What was the biggest challenge in reporting the pieces and how did you solve that challenge?


ER visits for asthma dropped 38%

the year after one of Pittsburgh's

biggest polluters shut down.


Marusic: The county health department had conducted a report showing that ER visits for asthma dropped 38%, and visits for heart attacks and strokes decreased by 26.5%, the year after one of Pittsburgh's biggest polluters shut down. But they insisted that there must be some other cause for the drop, despite their epidemiologists having accounted for all the other causes they could think of in the study.

This created a challenge because, while the numbers themselves look striking, the agency putting out this report (which is also responsible for enforcing clean air laws in the region) kept saying the reduction in hospital visits couldn't be directly attributed to the drop in particulate matter pollution that resulted from the polluting facility closing.

I was able to solve this challenge by showing their data to other air quality experts familiar with the region's air monitoring network. Their independent analysis indicated that the health department overlooked several critical factors and that the drop in ER visits could be attributed directly to the reduction in particulate matter pollution.


I was most surprised to learn that

there is an alarming percentage

of students with asthma in some

of Pittsburgh's poorest areas.


SEJournal: What most surprised you about your findings?

Marusic: I was most surprised to learn that there is an alarming percentage (60%) of students with asthma in some of Pittsburgh's poorest areas, and that most polluted neighborhoods don't have the students' disease under control — meaning they regularly missed school or other activities due to their inability to breathe or wound up in the hospital following asthma attacks.

SEJournal: How did you decide to tell the series and why?

Marusic: I wrote several pieces exploring the problem of air pollution in Pittsburgh and its associated health impacts, including asthma and cancer, and several pieces exploring solutions to that problem. I felt it was important to highlight the scope of the problem, but also to look at how other regions have successfully tackled similar problems, as well as how local physicians and activists were already taking meaningful steps toward creating positive change.

SEJournal: What would you do differently now, if anything, in reporting or telling these stories and why?

Marusic: One part of the series was a short video. If I was doing this again, I'd love to instead include brief videos in each part of the series.

SEJournal: What lessons have you learned from the project?

Marusic: This was one of the longest investigations I'd conducted to date, and I learned some important lessons about how to structure my time and write as I moved forward with the reporting.

While I typically wait until I'm finished reporting to begin writing a piece, this project taught me the value of crafting scenes and explanations about specific topics, and conducting fact-checking immediately following interviews or events. This lets me do that work while the interview or experience is still fresh in my mind. And having clean copy that's well organized, fact-checked and ready to use makes assembling the final pieces so much easier once a deadline is looming.

SEJournal: What practical advice would you give to other reporters pursuing similar projects, including any specific techniques or tools you used and could tell us more about?

Marusic: I really like Infogram to create compelling data visualizations. It's an online tool that lets you create beautiful, dynamic bar graphs, pie charts, maps, etc. by importing your data sets and editing customizable templates.

Kristina Marusic covers environmental health and justice in Pittsburgh and Western Pennsylvania for the national nonprofit Environmental Health News. She holds an MFA in nonfiction writing and is co-president of the Pittsburgh chapter of the Association of LGBTQ Journalists. Prior to joining EHN, she wrote stories about the environment, LGBT equality, feminism and politics as a freelancer for a wide range of digital media outlets including the Washington Post, Slate, Vice, Women's Health, MTV News, The Advocate and Bustle. For her reporting on these topics, Marusic has received recognition or awards from the SEJ, the Association of Health Care Journalists, the Society of Professional Journalists, the National Institute of Health Care Management, the Press Club of Western Pennsylvania, the Carnegie Science Center and the Pittsburgh-based Group Against Smog and Pollution (GASP). She lives in Pittsburgh, where she spends her free time tracking down delicious vegetarian food, kayaking the city's iconic three rivers and hanging out with her dog, Mochi.

* From the weekly news magazine SEJournal Online, Vol. 6, No. 18. Content from each new issue of SEJournal Online is available to the public via the SEJournal Online main page. Subscribe to the e-newsletter here. And see past issues of the SEJournal archived here.

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