Friday, May 17, 2024

Journalists can help their audience avoid purchasing or renting real estate with environmental problems

House in Bethel, Vermont, severely damaged by Hurricane
Irene. (USFWS from Flickr Creative Commons via SEJ)

Purchasing a home or renting a place with environmental concerns can be financially, physically and emotionally harmful. Journalists can help their readers and listeners avoid these problems by focusing stories on real estate risks. State and local governments require disclosure of some of those risks before a sale, but others, such as flood risks, may fall outside government oversight, reports Joseph A. Davis for the Society of Environmental Journalists.

Not all home sellers and agents will disclose dangers or flaws unless compelled to. "Sellers will play up features like schools, shopping, transit, restaurants and so on. Drinking water problems? Not so much," Davis writes. "What some consumer advocates miss is how many environmental risks come with real estate purchases."

Davis provides a list of story ideas to consider as your audience heads into prime real estate sales and moving season. A limited number of his ideas are edited and shared below. For the full list, click here.

Disclosure requirements: Every state has different requirements. Find out yours at, a nationwide real estate business.

Home inspectors: Whatever the legal environment near you, professional home inspectors know about it. Find them in your locality. Some may talk to you.

Lead paint: Federal law requires disclosure of lead paint risks in real estate sales. However, the question of whether the risks have been adequately mitigated can be tricky and subjective.

Flood risk/history: Federal law does not require disclosure, but some 29 states do. Find out if your state is one of them. People anywhere can find out if a property lies in the Federal Emergency Management Agency-designated flood plain.

Lead in water: Lead service lines are common in older houses in many U.S. cities. Remember Flint? Only a few states require disclosure.

What's in the drinking water: Some communities have contaminants in their source water and even in their treated drinking water. This is true of private wells, too. Home sellers are not required to disclose this, but the law does require utilities to disclose what's in their treated water. Ask for your utility's Consumer Confidence Report.

Carbon monoxide: If a building is heated with gas or oil (or, rarely, other combustibles), toxic carbon monoxide may be released into the living space. Tuning or replacing the furnace may be in order. CO detectors are rarely required but are inexpensive and available.

Dam safety: Most dams are safe. But if a building is downstream of a large or old dam, check on the risks. Start with the National Inventory of Dams. If a nearby dam is rated "high" or "medium" hazard, there may be issues. What you really want is the inundation map for the dam (if it is accurate and available).

Rural women who experience intimate partner violence face barriers when asking for and accessing help

Adobe Stock photo
While the number of U.S. domestic violence incidents peaked during the pandemic, overall numbers have remained high even as the pandemic has waned. In rural areas, many women still live in fear and face a range of traumatic issues, reports Liz Carey of The Daily Yonder. A new study found that women living in rural settings who experience intimate partner violence, or IPV, need access to more help and outside support.

The study from the University of Minnesota's Rural Health Research Center found that rural victims "face more barriers and resource limitations that could affect their health and well-being," Carey explains. "Attempts to address intimate-partner violence in rural areas should be tailored to the specific needs of the people and places in those areas, the study said."

Alyssa Fritz, who led the research team, said they "spoke with 15 state and national advocacy organizations. . . to determine what barriers rural victims face and what opportunities exist to address those challenges," Carey reports. "All respondents said rural victims lack access to services like shelters, advocacy, legal services and law enforcement. . . . If programs that address intimate partner violence exist, they are underfunded and understaffed."

For rural communities to offer support, victims need to have access to health care, which is sometimes difficult to provide in a rural setting. And women who do find care often face social stigmas for speaking out. "Nearly half of the organizations brought up a lack of privacy and confidentiality in small communities as an extra challenge that rural victims have to consider when they weigh whether or not to reach out for help or leave," Carey adds. "In other cases, attitudes and societal norms in some rural communities may justify or normalize violence and victim-blaming."

Study respondents advocated for more investment in "rural community infrastructure to ensure that IPV victims have the resources they need to leave their abusers and to heal in safety," Carey writes. "From rural housing access to affordable child care to investment in broadband internet and transportation infrastructure, providing rural IPV victims with resources, services and information is key."

Opinion: As new generations move into American politics, changes could 'actually erase' social polarization

Younger generations share more common views.
(Adobe Stock photo)
Will the U.S. ever reach a less polarized political environment? New research indicates that as power transitions to new generations, present tensions may ease, write Sally Friedman and David Schultz for The Conversation, a journalistic platform for academics. "The rise of younger generations to political power may actually erase the deep social divisions associated with polarization. . . . That's one of the strong possibilities for the future suggested by the diverse array of findings of our research."

Friedman and Schultz explain: "For the past 30 years, baby boomers (those born roughly between 1946 and 1964) and members of the Silent Generation (those born between 1925 and 1945) have driven and defined American politics. For the most part, the Silent Generation and the older baby boomers were the core of the Republican Party. The younger baby boomers, along with many Gen Xers (born roughly between 1965 and 1981), formed the core of the Democratic Party."

It's worth noting that millennials (born between 1982 and 1995) and Gen Z (born between 1996 and 2013) have emerged as significant political forces. Their liberal leanings and strong support for the Democratic Party have been instrumental in securing Democratic election victories in 2018, 2020, and 2022, particularly in swing states.

Millennials and Gen Zers, who are less defined by party choice, will replace the previous generations, which "may lessen polarization" caused by strict party affiliation.

Over the last 50 years, more Americans have come to define themselves as left or right-wing, with fewer identifying in the broader middle. However, the current partisanship may subside as new generations move into the political forefront. "Younger generations are more likely to self-identify as liberal. As we and others explain in several chapters of our book, surveys show they are more liberal on a whole range of issues regarding social matters, the economy, immigration and climate change," Friedman and Schulz write. "The consensus on political views among members of these younger generations means there is potential for decreasing polarization."

Ultra-processed foods are unhealthy and may lead to chronic issues more common in rural populations

Ultra-processed foods are more accessible for many
rural residents. (Adobe Stock photo)

A common misconception about rural living is that residents have more access to farm-fresh food, but that idea is more of a myth. Rural residents often lack income and access to healthy, fresh food, which means their diets can evolve into a mishmash of cheaper and more ultra-processed food that may contribute to chronic health problems. Alice Callahan of The New York Times reports, "Scientists have found associations between UPFs and a range of health conditions, including heart disease, Type 2 diabetes, obesity, gastrointestinal diseases and depression, as well as earlier death." Many of these conditions are more common in rural populations.

While rural populations aren't alone in eating ultra-processed food, they do tend to be more obese than their urban counterparts, and UPFs can contribute to obesity, which can lead to Type 2 diabetes and other health issues. "UPFs can be easy to overeat — maybe because they contain hard-to-resist combinations of carbohydrates, sugars, fats and salt, are high-calorie and easy to chew," Callahan explains. "It's also possible that resulting blood sugar spikes may damage arteries or ramp up inflammation, or that certain food additives or chemicals may interfere with hormones, cause a 'leaky' intestine or disrupt the gut microbiome."

A direct link between obesity and UPFs hasn't been established, but researchers are exploring the relationship. Dr. Kevin Hall, a nutrition and metabolism researcher at the National Institutes of Health, told Callahan, "There are many 'strong opinions' about why ultra-processed foods are unhealthy. But there's actually not a lot of rigorous science on what those mechanisms are."

Some countries have "explicitly recommended avoiding or limiting UPFs or 'highly processed foods,'" Callahan reports. "The U.S. dietary guidelines contain no such advice, but an advisory committee is currently looking into the evidence on how UPFs may affect weight gain, which could influence the 2025 guidelines. . . . It's difficult to know what to do about UPFs in the United States, where so much food is already ultra-processed, and people with lower incomes can be especially dependent on them, Dr. Hall said."

Reimagine Rural podcast just launched its second season; Tony Pipa's latest travels look at rural economics

The Reimagine Rural podcast just launched its second season, which features a deeper exploration of the economic opportunities available to rural towns and how local people are coming together and participating in the process. Once again, Tony Pipa of the Brookings Institute plays host as he travels throughout the United States, visiting rural communities and uncovering what challenges and innovative strategies are taking shape.

This season highlights how rural development often includes engagement with outside interests and investment. In some areas, Pipa explores the new place-based federal resources available through recent legislation, which shows readers how some public policies and rural places combine.

In the first episode, he visits Humboldt, Kansas, and New Berlin, N.Y., to discuss what could be described as a rural version of corporate social responsibility. In the second, he stops in Humboldt County, Calif., to explore the importance of doing things differently if a major offshore wind installation is to fulfill its promise of prosperity for local tribes and residents.

Future episodes will be released throughout the summer. Each one will delve into a specific issue, such as affordable housing, broadband connectivity, and the resurgence in advanced manufacturing. 

Reimagine Rural can be found on any favorite podcast platform, or find the podcasts here (with full transcripts).

Listeners also may be interested in the podcast Funding Rural, hosted by Erin Borla. This podcast discusses how philanthropy can better serve rural communities.

Tuesday, May 14, 2024

Free webinar on Friday about demystifying LexisNexis for research-based reporting; registration takes 2 minutes

The National Press Club Journalism Institute is hosting a learning webinar on accessing and customizing the LexisNexis database on Friday, May 17 at 11:30 a.m., E.T. 

Register here.

LexisNexis provides a library of legal, business, government, high-tech and news articles, which are starting points for researching story ideas. Its database also provides access to articles that are paywall-protected.

Because LexisNexis houses so much information, the database can be confusing. To teach reporters how to navigate this resource, award-winning investigative reporter and editor Brad Hamilton will walk participants through how to customize LexisNexis to source stories, find unexpected story angles, and identify and reach potential sources through LexisNexis’ "Contact References" database.

LexisNexis is a fee-based database service that some newsrooms provide staff access to. Most public libraries offer access to their communities, and National Press Club members have free access to the LexisNexis database as part of their annual membership. Hamilton will also provide journalists an avenue to access LexisNexis at a discount.

An aluminum smelter hasn't been built in the U.S. in 45 years; proposed sites are in Kentucky and Ohio

Smelting furnaces in an aluminum plant
(Adobe Stock photo)

Aluminum is versatile, abundant and light, and it is in hundreds of commercial items, including appliances, zippers, golf clubs and indoor furniture. Despite its excellent manufacturing properties, the raw material has production drawbacks — its smelters use loads of electricity and the fossil fuels used to create that electricity harm the environment, reports Maddie Stone of Grist. However, in the United States, the way aluminum is made may soon change. Century Aluminum Company, a global aluminum producer, is negotiating with the Department of Energy for up to $500 million in grant money to build a new aluminum smelter.

Promoted as the "green aluminum smelter," the facility would be "the nation's first new aluminum smelter in 45 years, which could double the amount of virgin, or primary, aluminum the country produces while emitting 75% less CO2 than older smelters, thanks to increased efficiency and the use of renewable electricity," Stone writes. "The grant, which is awaiting finalization, is a 'huge vote of confidence and a shot in the arm' for the industry, said Annie Sartor, the aluminum campaign director at Industrious Labs, a nonprofit focused on industrial decarbonization."

Protecting the environment while supplying the U.S. with tons more aluminum means the production process matters for aluminum, which requires extreme amounts of electricity. Rebecca Dell, an industrial decarbonization expert with the nonprofit ClimateWorks, told Stone, "We're talking about truly eye-watering amounts of electricity. . . . The first, most important thing to do is to use clean electricity."

Creating a climate-friendly smelter means Century Aluminum must find a site to support its clean energy demands. "According to the DOE, Century Aluminum's preferred site is in Kentucky, a state with lackluster clean energy credentials," Stone writes. "Sartor says she expects a plant of this size to require 'somewhere in the neighborhood of a gigawatt' of power.'" Sartor added, "The only way that will happen is if gargantuan amounts of clean energy get built in Kentucky. . . . There's no other way around this."

While Kentucky is the favored location, Century Aluminum hasn't decided. "Locations within the Ohio and Mississippi River basins are also reportedly under consideration," Stone reports. "Dell believes that brings an interesting political dimension to the project because Century Aluminum expects the smelter to create more than 1,000 full-time union jobs and another 5,500 construction jobs."

Incoming president of American Medical Association says AMA cares about getting more doctors in rural areas

With new research showing rural Americans are more likely to die early from the five leading causes of death than their urban counterparts, "the American Medical Association is sounding the alarm," reports Melissa Patrick of Kentucky Health News.

AMA President-elect Bruce Scott (AMA photo)
"Rural health is America's health," Dr. Bruce Scott, the AMA president-elect, told reporters in a May 9 press conference in conjunction with the National Rural Health Association annual conference in New Orleans. "We need policymakers to understand that the American Medical Association is deeply concerned about the ever-widening health disparities between urban and rural communities, disparities that are at the root of why rural Americans suffered disproportionately high rates of heart disease, cancer, stroke, respiratory illness, diabetes, and unintentional injuries." 

Scott, who is board-certified in both otolaryngology and facial plastic surgery, will become AMA president in June. He pointed to several environmental, economic and social factors factors that put people who live in rural communities at a higher risk of death from these often preventable conditions. But the AMA's focus, he said, is on the health-care worker and the physician shortage and how this affects rural people's health. 

He added that these shortages are hitting rural areas the largest and are "creating health-care trends that are simply unacceptable. We need to reverse these trends for all individuals to live a long, healthy and active life." Scott said rural areas have about 30 physician specialists for every 100,000 residents, compared to 236 per 100,000 in urban communities, and he noted that more than 130 rural hospitals closed from 2010 to 2021, with many more on the verge of closing today. 

Also, he said that in 2023, 65% of rural communities had insufficient access to primary-care physicians, including pediatricians. And, he said there are not enough residency spots to train doctors in rural areas. "History has shown us that residents, 80% of the time, tend to wind up practicing within 80 miles of where they've done the residency," Scott said. "So residency location becomes very important. In addition, medical schools are receiving fewer and fewer applicants from individuals from rural areas."

When dollar stores open in rural places, local independent grocers take more of a hit than their urban counterparts

Rural groceries are less likely to survive a dollar store opening.
(USDA graphic)
The local grocery has long been an important fixture in small-town life. But as dollar stores have popped up across the country, rural grocers have had a more difficult time staying open than their urban counterparts, report Keenan Marchesi, Sandro Steinbach, and Rigoberto A. Lopez for Amber Waves. "In 2015, independent grocers represented about half of the food retailers in 44 percent of U.S. counties. Leading up to 2015, however, dollar stores were becoming increasingly visible in rural counties, according to the USDA Economic Research Service research."

Researchers analyzed data from urban and rural grocers from 2000 to 2019 to determine how a new dollar store's entry affected independent grocery stores. Amber Waves reports, "Results showed that when a dollar store opened in a census tract [rural or urban], independent grocery retailers were 2.3% more likely, on average, to exit the market. Employment at independent grocery stores fell about 3.7%, and sales declined by 5.7%"

ERS chart
The data revealed a contrast in the economic impact of a dollar store opening in a rural area compared to an urban one. "For instance, the likelihood of an independent grocery store exiting a rural census tract after a new dollar store opened was 5%, about three times greater than in urban census tracts," Marchesi, Steinbach and Lopez explain. "Similarly, the decline in employment in rural tracts was about 2.5 times as large as in urban tracts, and the decline in sales was nearly double in rural census tracts."

The research also showed that a rural independent grocery store was less likely to rebound from the negative financial impact caused by a dollar store opening. By contrast, urban independent grocers were able to weather a dollar store's entry. Amber Waves reports, "This could reduce grocery store options in rural areas for the longer term. Dollar stores generally have a more limited selection of food products, focusing more on prepacked and processed foods." When a local rural grocery closes and doesn't return, residents' access to fresher, healthier food will at least in part be decided by what dollar stores choose to stock, which could ultimately hurt a community's overall health.

Early week quick hits: Addressing mental health issues; finding funny stories; using lasers to make birds leave

Colorado Department of Agriculture photo via Successful Farming

Farming and ranching are two livelihoods that are tough on the human body and mind. For men and women in either or both professions, seeking help for mental stress can mean overcoming social stigmas and a lack of access. A new film, Legacy, from the Colorado Department of Agriculture and Colorado Farm Bureau aims to break down social barriers for farmers and ranchers who experience isolation and mental health issues, reports Lisa Foust Prater of Successful Farming. The film takes viewers into the stories of "several farmers and ranchers who share glimpses into their lives, including losing a loved one to suicide or facing their own struggles with mental health. . . .They speak candidly about the struggles faced by those working in agriculture and the difficulties with finding help." Watch the film here.

Cancer used to be a disease people mostly over 50 had to worry about. Now, many younger people are turning up with aggressive cancers, and researchers can't yet explain what has changed. "Adults in the prime of their lives, often otherwise outwardly healthy, are dying of cancers that appear to develop more quickly and be more deadly than in the past, for reasons that scientists cannot adequately explain, reports Dylan Scott of Vox. "Scientific authorities around the world see this as one of the most pressing questions for modern medicine."
Reading a funny book can make life sweeter.
(Adobe Stock photo)

One of The Rural Blog writers insists that the world needs more laughter. With that idea in mind, here are 22 books that could help you giggle, guffaw, chortle and even snort out loud. "The humor these authors embrace traverses the gamut, from sardonic to screwball, mordant to madcap, droll to deranged," report Dwight Garner, Alexandra Jacobs and Jennifer Szalai of The New York Times. "The critic Albert Murray understood that wit is power, and that knowing where the funny is takes us closer to the nub of things. Best of all, it's available to anyone. As Murray wrote, 'It is always open season on the truth.'"

As many rural hospitals and clinics have closed or limited services, getting medical care or chronic health treatment services has become an uphill battle for residents. The American Heart Association visited Alaska, Kansas, Kentucky, the Dakotas and West Virginia to shed light on rural health challenges and how residents and communities are working to overcome obstacles. Their exploration and discussions are presented in the docuseries, "Health Wanted: Find Care in Rural America." Click here for each state's episode.

Lasers can deter birds.
(Bird Control Group photo via SF)
Some Wisconsin farmers use lasers to keep wild birds away from their animals, reducing their chance of avian flu exposure. "When the human eye examines one of Craig Duhr's lasers at a Wisconsin farm, only a green dot is visible. But to birds, a variety of green beams and shifting patterns appear," reports Jonah Beleckis of Wisconsin Public Radio. Laser beams do not harm birds, but the birds "simply see the lasers as a threat and leave the area. . . . Wisconsin's agriculture department recommends farmers use biosecurity measures, such as lasers, to protect poultry flocks."

Maine Monitor analysis,
from State Fire Marshal data

Maine firefighters have the cool trucks and trademark hats, and some even have a station dog. But fighting fires is not what they spend most of their time doing. Amber Stone of The Maine Monitor reports, "A mere 4.5 percent of the 160,435 calls for service in 2022 were for fires, according to a Monitor analysis of State Fire Marshal data. Seventy percent of those calls were for emergency medical response. More than half of Maine's 338 registered fire departments are also licensed at some level to provide emergency medical services, according to Maine EMS, and more are considering doing so."