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Raquel Rutledge is an investigative reporter at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, who previously reported at The Gazette in Colorado Springs, Colo., and Christian Science Monitor. Rutledge won the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for local reporting for “Cashing In on Kids,” related to Wisconsin’s subsidized day care program; she has also earned other major investigative honors as the Gerald Loeb, Worth Bingham, George Polk and Goldsmith awards. She earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and was a 2012 Neiman Fellow at Harvard University.
What follows are investigative stories that Raquel Rutledge reported on while based at the
Diederich College of Communication and as an O’Brien Fellow during the 2014-15 academic
year. The stories were published in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and examine how lung destroying
chemicals are harming coffee industry workers and are present in e-cigarettes.
Throughout the course of Rutledge’s O’Brien Fellowship, Diederich College of Communication
graduate students Sarah Hauer, Shiyao Li and Alyssa Voboril and undergraduates Robyn St.
John and Kelly Meyerhofer contributed as research assistants.
Something in the yellow liquid had destroyed their lungs, permanently. The suspected culprit:
diacetyl. It was the same chemical linked to hundreds of injuries – and at least five deaths – to
men and women who worked at popcorn factories and flavoring companies in Wisconsin,
Missouri, Illinois and other states in the last 15 years. Federal regulators tasked with overseeing
worker safety have known about the dangers for years. But the government failed to regulate
exposure to the chemical.
For this initial report, St. John traveled with Rutledge and a photographer to Texas for a
reporting trip in December 2014. She and the other students also variously helped with, among
other things, producing photos, a video voiceover and an interactive timeline.
Tests at two midsized Wisconsin roasteries that agreed to let the Journal Sentinel analyze the air
in their production areas found diacetyl levels from unflavored roasted coffee that exceeded
safety standards proposed by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
This second investigative report was also published across the country by other newspapers
within the Journal Sentinel’s parent company Journal Media Group. They include The
Commercial Appeal and News Sentinel in Memphis and Knoxville, Tenneessee, respectively; The Stuart News in Stuart, Florida; Courier & Press in Evansville, Indiana; Caller-Times and Standard-Times and Times Record News in Corpus Christi, San Angelo and Wichita Falls, Texas, respectively; Record Searchlight and Ventura County Star of Redding and Camarillo, California, respectively.
Workers who spend their days roasting and grinding coffee in factories and cafes across the
United States have more reason for concern about exposure to lung destroying chemicals. A
study published in the online journal “Toxicology Reports” found high levels of diacetyl and the
related chemical 2,3-pentanedione in the air at a small coffee roasting plant. A second study by
some of the same authors, simulating a cafe setting, found the potential for risk to customers who
stay in coffee shops for hours socializing or lingering on their laptops.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has posted a warning to people who work in the coffee processing business: Their occupations could be exposing them to dangerous levels of chemicals known to cause lung damage.
The Journal Sentinel’s testing found the method typically used to analyze e-liquids for the vaping industry is not sensitive enough to detect levels that could be harmful. As a result, e-liquid makers across the country claim their formulas are diacetyl free when sometimes they are not.
A survey of Marquette University students found that electronic cigarettes have eclipsed smoking for first-time users. Students were more likely to report having tried an electronic cigarette than a conventional tobacco one. About 30% of students had tried an electronic cigarette compared with just more than 20% who tried smoking a tobacco cigarette.
Marquette graduate students Sarah Hauer and Alyssa Voboril took the lead in producing this survey. Robert Griffin, a professor of journalism and media studies who teaches courses in research methods, oversaw the survey.
Other chemicals proven or deemed likely respiratory hazards are also turning up in smoke juice. Created to flavor food, these chemicals have not been approved for use in e-cigarettes.
A 31-year-old West Virginia woman with no prior lung disease contracted what doctors say is a rare form of pneumonia after inhaling vapor from electronic cigarettes.
Religious groups that hold shares in Altria and Reynolds American called on the companies to test their products, including electronic cigarettes, for toxic chemicals.
Nearly a dozen more workers at a Texas coffee roasting plant are thought to have lung disease tied to dangerous chemicals — tripling the number initially diagnosed.
In one of the first lawsuits filed in the United States by consumers alleging harm from liquids used in e-cigarettes or other vaping devices, three people from across the country are accusing a California manufacturer of misleading the public about dangerous chemicals in its e-juices.
Harvard University scientists are calling for “urgent action” after their federally funded study showed dangerous chemicals in the liquids used in electronic cigarettes and other vaping devices.
As the coffee industry booms and more workers than ever are at risk for severe respiratory diseases, there is no national system in place to track job-related illnesses.
Diederich College of Communication
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Milwaukee, WI 53201
Phone: (414) 288-7133
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