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Disasters - those we see and those we don't
This weekend I was fortunate to have my reporting bylined in The New York Times on Saturday, and then again for a very different story in The Guardian on Sunday.
The two pieces seemingly shared little in common: In the Times piece, I wrote about the monstrous tornado that tore through a Kansas community Friday night, destroying multiple homes even as families huddled inside them, protected - thank God - by stairwells, basement laundry rooms, bathtubs, and the whims of wild weather that tore off the roof to one house, collapsed the walls, but left the kitchen wholly intact, as one homeowner found when she emerged from her basement.
The second story featured a conversation with the intrepid lawyer Rob Bilott. (The Guardian co-published the article with The New Lede, a journalism project of the Environmental Working Group.) Bilott has become famous for his work litigating against the corporate-caused contamination of our environment with hazardous widely used chemicals known as PFAS.
Bilott’s work over 20-plus years has brought to light the unseen danger we are all exposed to through PFAS contamination. The chemicals, which are linked to cancer and a range of other health problems and do not naturally break down but instead accumulate, are so ubiquitous that they are commonly now found in the blood of animals and people around the world.
Now, as President Biden pledges billions of dollars to try to reverse the damage from this manmade PFAS disaster, Bilott has a message for the president, and all of us. This link will take you directly to his letter to Biden.
Two stories - two very different topics. But for me, they hold an important message.
The families I spoke to in Andover, Kansas, had just experienced an obvious calamity. The destruction was visible to everyone. What was also clearly visible was the rush - by public officials, by neighbors and strangers alike - to surround these people with aid, to help them salvage remnants of their homes, to find them shelter, clothing, and food. As daylight broke on Saturday morning, the community was moved to immediate action - to mitigate the loss, to clean up the mess, to make sure people were safe.
In contrast, the chemical contamination mess is largely unseen, visible indirectly through complex litigation and the suffering of far too many people living with, or dying from, cancers and other diseases scientists have shown are linked to exposures to these chemicals.
As Bilott points out in this Guardian piece, rather than rushing to act to keep people safe, we’ve mostly seen decades of complacency from our government leaders and from the companies selling these chemicals.
I would add we have also seen complacency from many consumers who would rather not think too deeply about hard-to-pronounce things such a Per- and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances (PFAS) or the range of other harmful toxins that have become pervasive in our world.
So as the people of Andover come together to clean up and help each other heal after the natural disaster that struck Friday night, I cheer those efforts.
And I hope we can all similarly come together to try to clean up the disasters that we can’t so easily see.