Raquel Rutledge journalism

Raquel Rutledge

Raquel Rutledge

Raquel Rutledge’s O’Brien Fellowship in 2014-15 resulted in “Gasping for Action,” a series of stories published in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that examine how lung destroying chemicals are harming coffee industry workers -- and are present in e-cigarettes.

“It’s been known for years that diacetyl destroys lungs. Yet the federal government has failed to regulate it,” the series concluded.

As the series unfolded, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention 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 series also uncovered, through groundbreaking testing, that workers are being exposed to high levels of the chemicals in roasting facilities that don't use added flavors.

The Society of American Business Editors and Writers gave the series awards for government reporting and explanatory reporting. Details on the student contributions to the project are listed below.


Works published to date:

February 2015
Gasping for action: Why is Diacetyl still harming coffee workers and allowed in e-cigarettes?

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.

June 2015
Coffee roasters’ health at risk from chemical compound, air samples suggest

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, Tennessee, 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.

August 2015
New studies underscore risk of chemicals to coffee roasters

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.

October 2015
CDC warns coffee workers of hazardous chemicals

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.

Lab tests reveal popular e-cigarette liquids contain harmful chemicals

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.

More Marquette University students have tried e-cigs than tobacco cigarettes, survey says

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 harmful chemicals found in smoke juice

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.

Cases tie e-cigarettes to lung injuries, pneumonia

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.

Faith-based shareholder groups confront e-cigarette companies

Religious groups that hold shares in Altria and Reynolds American called on the companies to test their products, including electronic cigarettes, for toxic chemicals.

November 2015
CDC finds mounting evidence of risk to coffee workers

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.

California company sued over chemicals in e-liquids

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.

December 2015
Harvard study confirms dangers of vaping

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.

Danger brewing for coffee roasters

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.