The Reynolds Center for Business Journalism at Arizona State University announced Tuesday that Public Health Watch and two collaborators had won top honors in the 2023 Barlett and Steele awards for their revelatory work on the deadly lung disease silicosis in California. The award, named after the Pulitzer-Prize winning team of Don Barlett and Jim Steele, recognizes the best investigative journalism in the country.
Public Health Watch, LAist and Univision won the gold medal in the regional/local category for their investigation into a silicosis cluster among fabricators of artificial-stone countertops in the Los Angeles area. The countertop slabs are loaded with silica, a mineral that, when sent airborne during cutting or grinding, can go deep into the lungs and cause irreversible disease.
“It’s stunning how little is known or understood about the impact artificial stone countertops that many of us admire in glossy magazines and TV shows and have brought into our homes have on those who cut them in shape,” Barlett and Steele judges said. “These stories shed light on the little-discussed human toll that a product that is so common and so popular has when the right precautions aren’t taken. It would be hard to think about this product in the same way again after reading these articles.”
The investigation has had considerable impact. Public Health Watch reported in May that California workplace regulators were drafting an emergency rule to address the outbreak and had begun an enforcement push targeting more than 800 fabrication shops, and in June that the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors had approved a motion to ban the sale and installation of artificial stone.
In July, Public Health Watch reported that the number of silicosis cases among countertop workers in California had risen to 77, making it the biggest such disease cluster in the nation. Last month, the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration, which oversees workplace safety in about half the states, announced that it would launch its own enforcement initiative.
“The Barlett and Steele award is a tremendous honor,” said Jim Morris, executive director and editor-in-chief of Public Health Watch. “It validates the approach we take to our journalism: Go deep, tell the story compellingly, and demand accountability.”
The award will be presented at a ceremony in Phoenix Nov. 1.