It's only fitting, some would say, that when a TV news team scoops the nation, the subject is blow dryers. But that cynicism should take nothing away from the genuine coup of Lea Thompson, 33, reporter for Washington's WRC. She broke the story that at least 20 percent of the hair dryers sold in the U.S. contain, and possibly spew, asbestos—a known carcinogen.
Congress immediately called hearings on hair dryers, with Thompson as the star witness. J. C. Penney and Montgomery Ward pulled some dryers off the market, and the Consumer Product Safety Commission ordered manufacturers to Washington to report if their models contain asbestos.
While the CPSC was still determining last week exactly which models could be dangerous, Thompson offered a rough rule of thumb: "Look down the barrel of the dryer in a bright, direct light. If it's lined with a grayish material, or if the crossbars holding the coils are grayish-white, that's asbestos. If the lining is pearly and shiny, that's mica. Mica, aluminum and space-age plastic are all safe."
Though Thompson has copped nine awards (including a Peabody) in nine years, this was her biggest national story and certainly a first: She broke it while eight and a half months pregnant. Her second child was scheduled to be delivered by cesarean section last weekend. "I'm feeling on top of the world," she said while still testifying before Congress and following up her own story the week before accouchement. Says her producer, Bob Currie: "After a while I wasn't worried about the hair dryers. I was worried that Lea wouldn't stop working."
The investigation began last June when free-lance photographer Lacy Rich dropped an old hair blower on WRC's consumer action team, complaining it was spraying asbestos on the prints he was trying to dry. Thompson and producer Currie contacted the CPSC, which said that according to a recently commissioned study, only one manufacturer was using asbestos in hand-held dryers, and it was phasing the material out. "But it bugged me," said Currie. "I never liked the idea of just trusting them." He sent the dryer to a local lab for testing and found it did spray asbestos. So did six of the 33 hair dryers WRC picked up from hairdressers and secondhand stores. After nine months and with the baby deadline only 10 days away, Thompson exultantly broke the story. "We were all very excited," she says. "It's rare that a television station will put in time and money for an investigation, although newspapers have been doing it for years."
The daughter of a Marshfield, Wis. newspaper publisher and his society reporter wife, Lea Hopkins majored in journalism and marketing at the University of Wisconsin, where she met her future husband, Maryland lawyer Durke Thompson. After a year as an advertising account executive in New York, she admits, "I thought I was giving up my career to marry him and come to Washington." Instead, an editorial writing job at WRC turned into an on-air reporter spot. "I'm not well-loved in the business community," she says, "but I love my job. My husband is fantastic too—he really gets a charge out of this." Durke Thompson, who shares household chores with his wife, is proud of Lea's sudden stardom. What he isn't so keen about is shopping with her. "I like to just go out and buy something," he says. "Lea has to check it out from every angle."
'We were all so excited,' says Thompson; Times are changing in TV journalism'