Climate Corner: Investigating your environment

Nov 18, 2023

Callie Lyons

Every time I consider Diane Cotter’s story, I am encouraged. Diane is the person who identified the turnout gear used by firefighters as a major source of exposure to toxic chemicals — and one with far reaching health implications for the fire service. When her husband was battling cancer, she set out to discover the cause. Her questions, persistence, and alliances with world class experts resulted in a new understanding of these exposure issues and their serious capacity for causing harm. Diane’s story is told in a new documentary titled “Burned.”

Diane had no prior training or experience to guide her actions. She was driven by a love of family and the courage of her convictions. And, so it was that a determined woman with a hairdresser’s license cracked the chemical secret so many scientists overlooked.

The journey began with a burning question. What caused her husband’s cancer? Kitchen table environmental investigations often begin when a family member is suffering from a health problem for which the origin is a mystery.

In that spirit, here are some recommendations for anyone who finds themselves investigating their own environmental situation. While there are endless situations to be explored by dedicated citizens, the good news lies in the availability of information and tools for embarking on such an investigation

  1. Take a look around. Examine your situation and define the problem or reason for investigation. Diane began by closely examining her husband’s turnout gear, which prompted a number of questions
  2. Identify the suspects. Know your environmental influences. From industrial emissions on the edge of town to the mold under your kitchen sink, gather the data and develop an awareness of potential culprits. Using online resources like the Environmental Working Group’s Tap Water Database, you can identify specific contaminants and sources that may be impacting your health — or the health of loved ones. Identify those areas that require further study — or testing. Diane was aware that a controversy was brewing over the potential health consequences of exposure to highly fluorinated chemicals. This awareness prompted her to wonder whether this class of chemicals had a role in the fire service.
  3. Document everything. Track symptoms, environmental changes (like visible changes, smells, etc), and weather fluctuations. Keep the data in a journal for easy access. Use your phone to keep track of information and to take pictures of relevant data.
  4. Collect your own data and perform relevant sampling. This digital age provides the availability of many tools that can be used to assess the health of air, water, etc.
  5. Engage with experts. Groups like Mid-Ohio Valley Climate Action are populated with individuals who have a variety of experience and expertise on issues that may be relevant to your situation. These people can be a valuable resource in your search for answers.

Finally, don’t be afraid to look into an issue that may be critical to your life. If you wait for the government via regulatory agencies to step in and fix things, you are going to be disappointed every time. The pace of science bogged down by politics and systems is far too slow to bring about meaningful change — particularly in the face of a crisis. Look no further than the calamity at East Palestine as an example of these failures. Agencies established in the interest of the herd are not about saving your family or your loved one. But, you are. Thus, you are uniquely positioned to be the change that your world needs.

Sometimes information leads to simple solutions — a water filter that will reduce or remove the problem, an air filtration system that will bolster the health of your household. These solutions are discovered through investigation.

It’s not a one-size-fits-all environment. Vulnerable populations, allergies, and an endless number of unknowns can complicate your situation and potential outcomes. The key is to find the answers that will fit your needs and improve the health and environment for the ones you love.


Callie Lyons is the author of the 2007 book, “Stain-Resistant, Nonstick, Waterproof and Lethal: The Hidden Dangers of C8,” which chronicles the discovery of PFAS or highly fluorinated compounds in Mid-Ohio Valley water supplies and beyond. She is a journalist and researcher for FITSNews and the FITSFiles true crime and corruption podcast.