Every time I think about Diane Cotter’s story, I am inspired. Diane is the person who identified the turnout gear used by firefighters as a major source of exposure to toxic chemicals, with far-reaching impacts on the health of firefighters. When her husband was battling cancer, she tried to find out why. Her questions, persistence, and collaboration with world-class experts led to new understanding of these exposure issues and their significant ability to cause harm. Diane’s story is told in a new documentary titled: “Burn.”
Diane had no training or experience to guide her actions. She was driven by her love for her family and her courage in her beliefs. And a determined woman with a license as a cosmetologist has uncovered the secrets of chemistry that many scientists have missed.
The journey began with a burning question. What is the cause of her husband’s cancer? Kitchen table environmental investigations often begin when a family member suffers from a mysterious health problem.
In that spirit, here are some recommendations for those looking into their environmental situation. There are endless situations for dedicated citizens to investigate, and the good news is that the information and tools to undertake such investigations are available.
1. Look around you. Examine the situation and define the problem or reason for the investigation. Diane started by taking a closer look at her husband’s voting equipment. As a result, many questions arose.
2. Identify the suspect. Learn about environmental influences. From industrial emissions on the outskirts of town to mold under your kitchen sink, we collect data and raise awareness of the underlying causes. Online resources, such as the Environmental Working Group’s Tap Water Database, can help you identify specific contaminants and sources that may be affecting your health or the health of your loved ones. Identify areas that require further research, or testing. Diane was aware of the controversy surrounding the potential health effects of exposure to highly fluorinated chemicals. This realization of hers led her to wonder whether these types of chemicals might play a role in firefighting.
3. Document everything. Track symptoms, changes in the environment (visible changes, smells, etc.), and weather fluctuations. Save your data in a journal for easy access. Use your phone to track information and take photos of relevant data.
4. Collect your own data and perform relevant sampling. In this digital age, many tools are now available that can be used to assess the health of air, water, and more.
5. Work with experts. Groups like Mid-Ohio Valley Climate Action bring together individuals with a variety of experience and expertise on issues that may be relevant to your situation. These people can be a valuable resource in your search for answers.
Finally, don’t be afraid to explore issues that may be critical to your life. If you wait for the government to step in and solve your problems through regulators, you will be disappointed every time. The pace of science, bogged down by politics and institutions, is too slow to bring about meaningful change, especially in the face of crisis. For examples of such failures, we need look no further than the disaster in East Palestine. Institutions established for the benefit of the herd are not about saving your family or loved ones. But you. Therefore, you are in a unique position to make the changes the world needs.
Sometimes, information can lead to simple solutions – water filters that reduce or eliminate the problem, or air filtration systems that enhance the health of your home. These solutions are discovered through research.
It’s not a one-size-fits-all environment. Vulnerable populations, allergies, and a myriad of unknown factors can complicate the situation and potential outcomes. The key is to find answers that fit your needs and improve your loved one’s health and environment.
Callie Lyons is the author of Smudge-Resistant, Non-Stick, Waterproof and Deadly: The Hidden Dangers of C8, published in 2007. The book chronicles her discoveries of PFAS, or highly fluorinated compounds, in water supplies and other areas in the Mid-Ohio Valley. She is a journalist and researcher for FITSNews and her FITSFiles true crime and corruption podcast.