The Backstory: Sharon Lerner

For over three years, reporting fellow Sharon Lerner has investigated corporations that manufactured toxic chemicals and covered up the health risks.

For over three years, Investigative Fund reporting fellow Sharon Lerner has investigated DuPont and 3M, corporations that manufactured toxic chemicals, covered up the health risks, and tried to dodge legal accountability. Lerner’s series titled “The Teflon Toxin,” published in partnership with The Intercept, reveals how exposure to this class of chemicals, known as PFAS, can have serious health implications, including increased risk for cancer and thyroid disease. DuPont and 3M knew about the dangers of PFAS for decades, but kept scientific evidence from environmental regulators. The once widely-used chemicals are present in the bloodstreams of nearly all Americans. In this conversation, we talk about Lerner’s journalistic process, and the national impact of her investigations. —Richard Salame

Richard Salame: It’s been a little over three years since you published the first piece in the Teflon Toxin series. How did you choose that chemical over all other contaminants?

Sharon Lerner: I first started the series because of something that was going on in New Jersey. There was a little group called the Drinking Water Quality Institute that was in the process of setting a safety level for PFOA and it was in the course of that process that their work was interrupted and ultimately the group, which is called the DWQI, was shut down for almost four years.

So I had been looking into that because of the disruption it caused in New Jersey and it was only when I began looking into that that I realized that the same chemical was the subject of this extensive litigation in West Virginia. And when I put them together, they created quite a record. It was quite a story but it was really because of all that was available because of those two things that gave me a window into this particular chemical, and from that into the larger issue of contaminants.

Salame: Many of the articles in this series use corporate documents that were released because of lawsuits. What are some of the challenges you face working with that kind of material?

Lerner: Often you’re getting part of the story. You’ll get a document but not necessarily the attachments, or you get a document and it’s not entirely clear immediately what it means and sometimes if it’s old you really can’t go after the people who wrote it. Maybe they’re not around and sometimes the people who wrote it are completely unwilling to talk to you. It’s always incomplete. You’re always trying to put together a picture based on these bits of writing and history and you’re trying to make sense of it from down the road. It’s always a puzzle.

Salame: How important has it been for your reporting to develop relationships with lawyers and advocates who are working on pollution?

Lerner: Oh very, very important. It’s often from lawyers and lawsuits that I understand, I come to hear about various situations around the country, around the world. And there are people who have been working with these situations for years, sometimes decades. So many people who know so much more about these situations that they can give tons of background and introduce [you], often, to the people who are who are affected directly. So, it’s really an important part of it.

Salame: What do reporters need to keep in mind when they’re writing about technically complicated subjects like epidemiology?

Lerner: It’s important to read a lot, which sounds obvious. It’s not just reading the complaint. For instance, with epidemiology, the study of the health effects in a population, you’re looking at the studies themselves.

Having reported on this for a while, I have done a lot of that reading just because it’s interesting to me. I also have a master’s in public health and studied epidemiology in the school of public health, so I have some of that background but I’m always reading more. You want to read the studies, you want to read about the science itself. It’s important not to be put off by them. It can seem really daunting. There are sometimes jargony words or technical terms that can be off-putting. And when you encounter them, look them up. And also get in touch with the people who do the studies. And if you have confusion about what it means or what was an outcome, or what a certain term means, ask. Because all of this—however long a word or difficult to pronounce—has a meaning that can be explained and understood. I think it’s just about not being intimidated.

Salame: Can you tell us a little bit about the impact that your reporting has had over the past few years?

Lerner: Well, “The Teflon Toxin” has been a very strange series because of the timing. When I began doing this research nobody had heard of these chemicals, or very few people—obviously the people within companies who work with them, a small handful of scientists. But these were by no means household names. When I told people perfluorooctanoic acid was what I was writing about they had no idea what I was talking about and just thought, “that’s weird.” And these days it has become something that lots and lots and lots of people know about because, since these pieces first started coming out, lots and lots of communities have realized that this chemical, PFOA, and many others in the class, now known as PFAS, are in their water.

In the beginning I was understanding this and kind of diving deep into it and at a certain point I had data that was publicly available but nobody else really knew to look at it or knew what its significance was. I had data from the EPA that was showing that this chemical was present, really, all around the country. I remember looking at that and thinking, “oh my God, this is huge and it’s everywhere, and I don’t even know how to go about explaining this,” because you’re looking at a spreadsheet and you know that it indicates devastation for people and communities around the country. Gradually, this became something that was reported, and it’s still being reported, in local papers and local radio stations around the country, as these communities have come to grapple with it.

My reporting, I think, was important and I’ve heard from a lot of reporters that it helped them understand the context in which they were beginning to see this pollution and helped them understand it.

Salame: You briefly touched on follow up reporting by local reporters. And I’m wondering how you think local reporters can best fill in the gaps on this topic or, in communities where they maybe don’t already know about contamination like this, where can they start to look?

Lerner: The EPA does have some surveillance data. It’s called UCMR3. It is the dataset to look at. I think that most of the communities that are… Well no, there they are probably still some in there that aren’t really aware of what is in their water. For local reporters, I think it does make sense to start with the UCMR3 and also the EWG, the Environmental Working Group, [which] has a really good database on drinking water and you can look there for data in your local community.

If you were looking at potential sources of contamination, once you find it [in the database]. You can know that, because there’s been a lot of reporting by me and others about this, that one of the major sources is firefighting foam that is designed to put out jet fuel fires and was used by the military and commercial airports. So a lot of the contamination is around airports and military bases, in addition to industrial facilities. Those are the first places you think of that have obvious connections to that kind of contamination. There are others, though.

Salame: This series could go on indefinitely it seems. So many people have been hurt in so many ways by perfluorinated chemicals and there are thousands of chemicals related to each other and a number of companies each of which has ties to other companies and other individuals. How will you know when you’re done reporting out this story?

Lerner: I know! Actually, it’s funny when I first did the first three pieces I really did think I was done, you know? And then it was like, “oh wow. Wait.” I think the next major thing I did was about the firefighting foam.

And again, with the firefighting foam, I remember calling the Department of Defense and they said, first, “what are you talking about?” And then it was, “Why are you writing this story? It seems like a strange thing to be writing about.”

And then when I did the GenX story, no one had written about it. I remember googling it and “GenX” was not a term that came up anywhere.

And I remember when I went to China… I went to China to report on the use and production of these chemicals there and I thought, “well this is a logical add to my series. We are phasing out the use and production [of PFAS] here and, of course, they’re being phased in there and it’s causing more environmental problems there. The End.” Of course not.

So, you’re right. I don’t think it’s ending anytime soon. I guess the question for me—I don’t think I’m going to stop reporting on this—but I think that for me the question is, how can I best be useful now that there are lots and lots and lots of people reporting on this, both people in their communities doing local reporting and also national reporters looking at this, which honestly is great and there’s more than enough of this story for everyone? But I guess I feel like I don’t want to spend all my time doing this, and I certainly could. But I want to find the way that, given that I have at this point a pretty deep knowledge of it, how I can best put that to use. So it’s really trying to think about looking down the road and trying to get ahead of it.

Salame: Do you see yourself doing this kind of work, potentially, with a different class of chemicals? Is this story one that could be replicated in some way across thousands of different types of industrial products?

Lerner: In one sense, as I said at the beginning, lawsuits and circumstance and something that happened in New Jersey led me into it. I have had the sense all along that I’m looking at this because it’s the window I have. And what do we not know? What windows are obscured, for various reasons, that would show other classes to be similarly dangerous? I believe there really are those classes. That’s a real thing.

On the other hand this is a very particular set of chemicals—it’s not the only one—but they call them “persistent in the environment,” they last in people’s bodies, and they’re toxic. And the persistent part is really important, which is to say the PFAS chemicals last essentially forever. Without intervention they will last on the planet and be here longer than humanity. They’re certainly not the only chemicals that are persistent but I feel like you could talk about other persistent chemicals as presenting the same dilemmas, and there are many others.

I feel like something that can get pushed aside or forgotten when we’re talking about these chemicals is that we talk about the corporate decision making and “should they have done this?” and “well, there is this much profit to be made.” There are all these factors and it’s always, I think, to be considered against the backdrop of permanence. Like, “OK, whatever extra profit margin we’re talking about, the consequences of these decisions are planet altering. It’s not just life altering but they are here forever.”

There are other [chemicals] like that. And I think it’s important to look at others in that category because, as we’re delaying our action, these things are continuing to accumulate in our environment, in our water—in our bodies, too—but in nature in a way that is irreversible. And I think that’s a really important part of the story.

Salame: I want to thank you very much for speaking with me. And congratulate you on your upcoming award from the Society of Environmental journalists. It’s well deserved and we really appreciate all the reporting you’re doing.

Lerner: Thank you so much. I really appreciate talking to you.

About the reporter


Sharon Lerner

Sharon Lerner is a reporting fellow with Type Investigations covering environmental issues for The Intercept.