PITTSBURGH — As a journalist who covers environmental health, much of my job revolves around shining a light on difficult problems.
This year alone I’ve written about oil spills in a river that provides drinking water to millions, dangerous train derailments and gaping loopholes in the laws meant to protect us from harmful pollution.
But I also cover solutions to environmental challenges — partly because it’s good for my mental health, and also because paying attention to the people devoting their lives to solving our biggest problems, highlighting the ways they’re protecting human health, and spreading the word about their successes begets more solutions and resources for them.
In 2023, I covered a study that found reducing air pollution in many cities could lower cancer rates as much as completely eliminating smoking would, and I wrote about how health advocates across the country who understand this are pushing regulators to further strengthen federal clean air laws. Several states took action that will lead to clearer air in urban areas with clean transportation laws in 2023, including California, New York, New Mexico, New Jersey and Delaware.
Last year I also wrote about how healthcare leaders across the country are working together to find innovative ways to reduce pollution, tackle climate change and advance environmental justice in their communities. I highlighted the ways that hospitals in Pittsburgh, a self-proclaimed “eds and meds” city, are contributing to the movement, and investigated whether the healthcare industry divesting from fossil fuels could help curb climate change. Since then, the National Academy of Medicine has committed to divesting from fossil fuels.
In May, my book about solutions to a major environmental health challenge was published. “A New War on Cancer: The Unlikely Heroes Revolutionizing Prevention” profiles advocates in a growing movement to prevent cancer by reducing our daily exposure to harmful chemicals. I covered this topic in my reporting, too, through an op-ed on prevention for breast cancer awareness month, a story about how new federal air monitoring investments could lower cancer rates in the Pittsburgh region and conversations about cancer prevention in numerous radio and podcast interviews.
I also dug into the role that local politics can play in protecting people from pollution, speaking with experts across the country about how to build an effective county board of health. In 2024 an entirely new board of health will be appointed in Allegheny County, which encompasses Pittsburgh, because terms for the current board members have all expired and the region just elected a new county executive. In western Pennsylvania, the county executive and the board of health are responsible for enforcing clean air laws and play a significant role in managing the region’s ongoing air pollution problems.
I also covered a new environmental justice policy for Pennsylvania that aims to prioritize environmental health in low-income communities and communities of color; and I wrote about how a Pennsylvania community receiving compensation for pollution from a petrochemical plant is finding innovative ways to spend the fine money while still demanding accountability from polluters.
Sara Innamorato, a progressive Democrat, made history this November, becoming the first woman ever elected as county executive of Allegheny County. Innamorato — who has pledged to prioritize clean air and environmental justice in the region — was one of numerous candidates to make history in 2023, joining the ranks of Cherelle Parker and Connie Boesen, the first women elected as mayors in Philadelphia and Des Moines; and Yvonne Flowers and Deborah Whitfield, the first Black mayors in Poughkeepsie, New York and Marion County, Indiana, respectively. This year also saw the election of more than 230 LGBTQ+ candidates across the country, an all-time high for an odd year election.
The year also saw some big wins for the environment and our health at the federal level, including billions of dollars in funding to curb climate change and advance environmental justice; the closure of a Clean Air Act loophole that allowed excess pollution from fossil fuel plants and new protections against climate-warming methane pollution from the oil and gas industry.
In 2024, I’ll continue shining a light on the problems that pose the gravest threats to our environment and health. I also look forward to telling stories about the people working to make our environment safer and healthier, and chronicling the victories — small and large — that give me hope about what’s possible.