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How reporters can cover lead poisoning in their town — and why they should

How reporters can cover lead poisoning in their town — and why they should

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Even at low levels, the toxic effects of lead can range from serious behavioral problems to learning deficits. In many parts of the country, as many as one out of three children has been found with unsafe lead levels in their blood, a figure that’s even higher among African-American youth. “The impact of toxins on the developing brain is permanent,” said Dr. Bruce Lanphear, a professor at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia. “There is no safe level of lead exposure.”

Lanphear’s comments were delivered during this week’s Health Matters webinar on lead poisoning, which explored how reporters can cover lead poisoning and contamination in their communities, a threat that exists far beyond Flint, Michigan. Along with Lanphear, panelists included Jessica Welburn, a  professor of sociology and African American studies at the University of Iowa, and two journalists who have reported extensively on lead poisoning: Alison Young of USA Today and Brie Zeltner of The Plain Dealer.

Lanphear, a leading researcher on lead poisoning, gave a primer on lead’s health impacts and why exposure is so concerning. As blood lead levels increase, attention disorders, behavior problems, and intellectual disabilities increase. Researchers also have found a connection with increased criminal behavior. And, blood lead levels in pregnant women can lead to lower birth weight babies.

Lanphear described how IQs can shift downward as a result of exposure. “Little shifts matter,” he said.

He stressed the importance of identifying lead hot spots in the community. Screening the environment is a superior preventative strategy compared to testing individual children — screening children may indicate a problem in the area, but by then it’s the prevention window has already passed for the children who tested at elevated levels.

Factors contributing to the crisis

Prof. Jessica Welburn discussed structural conditions that contribute to situations such as Flint’s water poisoning. She pointed to the trend of “deindustrialization” in the mid-20th century that occurred when well-paying manufacturing jobs left the city — and the concentration of urban poverty that followed.

The communities left behind — often largely African American and Latino — often became more isolated, with less access to economic resources. That’s coupled with the broader trend of economic policies that transfer control from the public to private sectors.

“We’ve essentially created a perfect storm,” Welburn said. “… People who have limited resources end up being very vulnerable to a lot of the negative impacts of decline.”

The structure of government can also contribute to a crisis, such as when an emergency financial manager is appointed who can take over a city’s finances, Welburn said. That manager can make decisions that take control away from elected leaders. In the case of Flint, that loss of control resulted in a switch to an inferior water source, with disastrous results.

Reporters share hard-won tips

Reporter Brie Zeltner of The Plain Dealer recounted her “Toxic Neglect” series on lead poisoning and the obstacles she encountered in reporting it: general apathy about lead levels, myths around the subject and major difficulties in obtaining data. (Zeltner co-reported the extensive series with investigative reporter Rachel Dissell.)

In the series, the newspaper made  a point of debunking myths surrounding lead poisoning, such as the notion that only poor, urban children are affected. The data challenges were more complex. One issue: The data on children affected by lead poisoning represents just those who were tested, not all of those affected.

“That isn’t necessarily representative of the problem because screening rates aren’t what they should be in a lot of areas,” Zeltner said.


She turned to The Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity at Ohio State University, where statisticians helped determine the likelihood of children actually exposed to lead, a figure much higher than the reported data.

Obtaining public records was another challenge, and the paper still has dozens of outstanding records requests. Records on lead abatement should be available from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), but they’re often difficult to obtain and decipher. The agency often cited HIPAA, the law which protects patient’s private information, as grounds for denying records requests.

Zeltner said the newspaper has many stories still to come, part of their ongoing effort to keep the pressure on. She has similar advice for fellow reporters investigating lead: “Our advice would be not to let it drop if you plan on diving into the area.”

Alison Young, a veteran investigative reporter at USA Today, explained that lead in soil, dust and water are areas that often receive little attention from public health officials as well as the news media.

While Flint appears to be “an extreme outlier,” lead-contaminated water is present in communities nationwide, she said. Last month, USA Today published an extensive look at lead-contaminated water in thousands of communities nationwide. In 2012, the paper’s “Ghost Factories” series looked at failures to clean up former lead factory sites.

“Among the key questions at the root of both of these investigations, and that are at the core of stories still to be done on this issue: How extensive is the contamination and what is being done to evaluate that contamination and protect the public?” she said.

Young emphasized the importance of understanding how contamination occurs, which can educate readers and add crucial context to the reporting. For example, the threat of lead can’t be resolved at a water treatment plant because old pipes installed decades ago are often the culprit. The pipes that run from the main street line to a homeowner’s property, called “service line,” are especially problematic in many areas.

Young encouraged journalists to take a critical look at lead level testing protocols. For example, when reviewing soil contamination tests, reporters should see how much soil is being gathered and exactly how it’s tested. Lead is often concentrated in the top inch of soil, which means using more than that could dilute results and give inaccurate readings.

Young also asked fellow journalists to turn a critical eye to testing in their own communities –even if they did not show up in USA Today’s reporting. A major metropolitan water system might use just 100 samples, so testing might not fully detect issues. Ask communities that say they’re replacing their service lines if that includes the entire line or just the portion owned by the utility or homeowner.

Soil contamination is an area that’s still ripe for reporting across the country. Even if a report says there’s no risk from an old lead factory site, probe deeper, Young said. She drove home the point with a slide showing an old lead factory and the housing development and playground that now occupy an adjacent site. Even though the factory itself was capped with concrete, decades of “airborne emissions from factories don’t know property boundaries.”

To find where lead factories and smelters once existed, Young said reporters might comb through old paper business directories as well as paper maps found in research libraries.

“You can take a look at neighborhoods and see their industrial legacy,” she said. “There are great stories to be done there.”

Young also explained one of the ways she got around HIPPA barriers. Her team created a medical release form and asked families in neighborhoods they surveyed if they could use their kid’s results in their reporting.

Webinar speakers also discussed other aspects reporters should consider, such as disparities in which areas get soil tested, what communities invest money in environmental clean ups and who is empowered to pressure government for action.

The inequalities don’t stop at national borders. Lanphear discussed how products that are restricted in North America are still a huge issue internationally. For example, North American companies still sell leaded paint to low- and middle-income countries – countries that make products that could eventually end up in the United States.

Welburn suggested that reporters also look at the larger issues that surround a public health crisis. Often people who are at risk for lead poisoning are vulnerable to other health concerns and have limited resources.

Said Welburn, “Lead poisoning is a symptom of larger issues people are facing.” 


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