in setting up study, you need first and foremost to stay true to the science: What is your question, and will testing your subjects answer that question. We’re all reporters, so we need a compelling story from your subjects and your science. You need, above all else, to make sure your subjects are fully informed and protected.
This chart was getting a lot of attention when I started reporting on body burdens and environmental health. It shows rising PBDE levels in Swedish moms. Articles I wrote about rising levels of these compounds in our bodies generated tremendous reader feedback. People invariably wanted to know what ’s in them, and how can they find out. This graph represents nursing moms and suggests what infants could be getting. But I was curious about the actual concentrations in children, and I could find absolutely no data. So I had my first question: What happens if you test a nursing child?
More research found a second question: Nobody had ever tested a family. Is there any relationship mom & child, brother & sister, when considering environmental contaminants? Nobody knew. And reporting from the Bay Area offered a chance to test a third hypothesis: Does living green spare you any exposures to contaminants ubiquitous in modern society? So I knew I wanted a family with young children – ideally one who was nursing, one who wasn’t, one boy, one girl, mom & dad both living in the same house, all trying to be green (Dad, as this photo was taken, was in the kitchen, as all good Berkeley dads are). Through contacts at the University of California, I found a family interested in this issue and willing to be tested and to let me tell their story. I thought the hard work was done. It hadn’t even begun.
You’re working with humans. if you make a mistake, you can’t just print a correction. Things can go badly wrong. Scientists have a process in place to protect subjects. If you’re going to become a scientist, play by their rules. Single most important lesson I learned. Get approval from an IRB: Independent review of your methodology and experiment, conducted by scientists and aimed solely at protecting your subjects. Not cheap, not easy, not quick. But absolutely essential: No credibility in the scientific world without it. Need consent form, proper methodology ID lab and exact tests Good idea to have a collaborator on board who can help How much blood can you safely draw from an 18-month old?
Example: You can see on the left how much blood the lab requested from each subject for their tests. But on the right is how much the IRB allowed from the 18-month-old and the five-year-old.
IRB requirements and demands were considerable – and are what made the project credible. Worth the hassle and trouble, no question.
This is why you need experts heavily involved. Data does not arrive in clean bar charts. You’ll need to do the hard work and be able to fully understand and interpret your data. Also need experts who can verify your interpretation, spend time looking over the data to tease out the best, strongest story, then put it all in context. This takes considerable time.
This is what you want: a clear, easy explanation of your findings for your readers. Total PBDEs. Let ’s look at mom & dad first: mom avg: 135. dad avg: 80. together: 100. A little higher than the typical mean for California, but close. Now look at the 5-yr-old child: an avg of 350, three times the level of the parents. Now look at the 18mo. old: an avg of 600, Six times the level of his parents, and twice the level of his older sister.
The work and care we put into the piece allowed me to publish – with my collaborators – a separate, peer-reviewed case study in a leading environmental health journal. This piece has been cited XX times since it was published in 2005, a year after the news report.
The real reason we do this: To inform people
Makes all the work worth it.
Finding subjects, educating them, preparing them: • What is your question? • Will your subjects answer that question? • Is it a compelling story? • Are your subjects protected?
Flame retardant breast milk? PBDEs Swedish mothers, ’72-’97 4 3ppb 2 1 0 1970 1975 1980 1985 1990 1995 Norén and Meironyté, 2000
You can’t afford to make a mistake.• Protect yourself and your subjects• Get Institutional Review Board approval
Blood requested by the lab Blood permitted by IRB
Institutional Review Board impact• $1,300 fee• 22 page protocol• 8 page consent form• Initially rejected• $740 follow-up physician visit (for subjects)• Four month delay• Scientific standing for project• Peace of mind for reporter
Your raw data may arrive fromthe lab looking like this ...
polybrominated diphenyl ethers700 ppb harm in300 ppb lab rats U.S.50 ppb median Dad Mom 5-yr-old 18-mo-old
“I had no idea. Thank you...” Karen Colacicco Union City, Calif.