August 8, 2017 Celeste Monforton, DrPH, MPH 0Comment

Our colleague Lizzie Grossman, a contributing writer at The Pump Handle, died earlier this month from ovarian cancer.  She was a long-time freelance writer who specialized in environmental health topics. Her books included Chasing Molecules: Poisonous Products, Human Health, and the Promise of Green Chemistry (2011) and High Tech Trash: Digital Devices, Hidden Toxics, and Human Health (2006).

Lizzie began blogging at The Pump Handle in May 2010. She traveled to the Gulf coast to report on the experiences of workers who were cleaning up the disaster left by the Deepwater Horizon oil rig explosion.  The lead of her first post began:

As of Saturday afternoon, May 29th, ten oil spill clean-up workers had been admitted to West Jefferson Medical Center in Marrero, Louisiana. All but two have been hospitalized suffering from chest pains, dizziness, headaches, and nausea. One crewmember admitted on the 29th had fallen and hit his head on a stair after wave mixed with oil had washed onto a deck, hospital spokesperson Taslin Alonzo told me about three hours after two workers were admitted Saturday.

…Two crewmembers hospitalized on May 28th had been working on the water about an hour south of Venice, Louisiana near where oil burns have been conducted, said Alonzo. The workers complained of breathing fumes from oil burning the day before, she told me. They also believed they’d been sprayed with chemical dispersant.

After reading her first post, I knew The Pump Handle had something special. Lizzie was not just a blogger. Lizzie was a journalist. She was skilled at developing sources, pursuing leads, pestering (politely) government officials, developing a story, checking facts, and more. Lizzie loved being part of the journalists’ community. She respected her colleagues. She practiced her craft with integrity.

In the months following the Deepwater Horizon explosion, Lizzie wrote more than a dozen stories for The Pump Handle about potential adverse health consequences of the disaster. She met interesting people and shared their experiences with us. Dr. James Callaghan was one of many.  He was an emergency room physician and vice president of hospital staff at the West Jefferson Medical Center in Marrero, LA. Lizzie spoke with him about the clean-up workers who were showing up in the ER. He wondered whether they were being screened to determine whether they were physically able to safely perform the tasks in the intense heat.

There was Lynn Dias-Button with the Louisiana Workforce Commission. She was hoping that Lizzie might be able to help her find out who was being hired for the beach clean-up and by whom. BP was not sharing that information.

And there was Captain Dave. Lizzie spent hours interviewing David Willman, whose livelihood as a boat captain was interrupted by the disaster. Captain Dave and his wife were resigned to work as deckhands on vessels that were skimming oil from the water.

I spoke to Lizzie about two weeks before she died from ovarian cancer. We reminisced about her reporting from the Gulf and her first few posts such as:

“All the data shows no toxic air concentrations,” but response workers are stricken (May 28, 2010)

Fences, guards, and information gaps: On the beach in Grand Isle, Louisiana (June 13, 2010)

Who’s On the Beach? Gulf Coast beach clean-up crew hiring remains murky as oil keeps washing ashore (June 28, 2010)

Fishing Closures and Seafood Sniffing: Addressing Gulf Seafood Safety

Her first dozen posts led to nearly six years of blogging at The Pump Handle.

Liz Borkowski, who also worked with Lizzie for several years at The Pump Handle, writes:

Like so many of the best journalists, Lizzie was dedicated to exposing the practices that threatened public health. She took seriously the watchdog role of obtaining and sharing information, and refused to let agency press officers get away with vague statements when she knew the public was entitled to specifics. She sought out ways to amplify the voices of the communities most affected by toxic exposures, and to make clear the human cost of bureaucratic actions that might otherwise seem dull or arcane. At the same time, she appreciated opportunities to report on worker victories and potential solutions, from farmworkers’ push to achieve just working conditions to a “Blue Card” proposal to allow legal status for immigrant farmworkers. Lizzie Grossman’s death is a major loss for journalism and for the environmental and occupational health communities. Her friends and family can be proud of the extensive legacy she leaves behind.

Lizzie wanted to know that her work made a difference, that she left a mark on the world. When I spoke to her last month, I had the privilege of sharing a collection of messages from colleagues. They wrote of their gratitude for her reporting on toxic chemicals, occupational health and safety, community right-to-know, and labor rights. Just in case she hadn’t heard it enough throughout her life, she learned from the messages that her talent and time were well spent.

You can link here to all of Lizzie Grossman’s posts on The Pump Handle.

P.S. The Society of Environmental Journalist has established a fellowship in Lizzie Grossman’s name.  Donations to the fellowship can be made here.



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