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Ace duo shares how they dug up the huge story of Philly’s toxic schools and homes

Ace duo shares how they dug up the huge story of Philly’s toxic schools and homes

Picture of Kellie  Schmitt
(Photo via Philadelphia Inquirer/Daily News)

Investigative reporters Barbara Laker and Wendy Ruderman of the Philadelphia Inquirer and Daily News launched their award-winning series on environmental toxins with a basic question: “How many of Philadelphia’s children are poisoned by lead?”

That quest led them on a three-year long reporting journey that blended science and street reporting and culminated in a five-part series revealing widespread environmental threats to children at home and school from lead, asbestos and other toxins.

The series, which was produced in partnership with the USC Center for Health Journalism’s National Fellowship and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, resulted in millions in funding in school repairs, four new protective laws and thousands of students now learning in “lead safe” schools.

Laker and Ruderman shared their innovative strategies for uncovering these hidden toxins and offered ideas on how other journalists can use these unconventional reporting techniques in a Center for Health Journalism Health Matters webinar this week.

Poisoned at home

The team initially focused on deteriorating lead paint in old Philadelphia homes, creating a database of court cases against landlords.

That led them to the family of two-year-old twins who were severely poisoned in their home, which was owned by an NFL Hall-of-Fame player multimillionaire. To prove the lead poisoning happened during the family’s stay in that home, Laker and Ruderman examined rental agreements with move-in dates and medical records of blood testing.

In another case, they explored how ineffective lead paint clean-up efforts can lead to invisible dust that continued to poison residents.

“We were able to show how kids get sick in the same homes over and over, even when the landlord swears it’s cleaned up and health department says it looks good to them,” Ruderman said.

From there, they examined how lead in the soil can also poison children when they play in their yard or neighborhood park. They found an area that once housed more than a dozen lead smelters, plants where lead is produced.  A recent housing construction boom was churning up lead-contaminated soil, spreading the toxin throughout the neighborhood.

To prove it, Laker and Ruderman underwent training to test the dirt themselves, scooping soil and swiping stoops and playground surfaces for lead dust and then taking it into a private lab for testing (They initially hired an expert to test the soil but quickly found that was slow and expensive).

“We pretty much just hit the streets with shovels, sandwich bags and labels,” Ruderman said.  

They found hazardous levels of lead in much of the soil tested. To show the impact of the new construction, they tested in areas before new construction broke ground and then again afterward. They found that lead levels had spiked.

Poisoned in the schools

The next logical step for the reporting team was to look at lead poisoning — and, eventually other toxins — in the public schools. This time, the challenge was gaining access to schools for testing. They’d need to find and enlist staffers and teachers to gather samples that they could then test for potential toxins.

They used a database of school salaries and tried to reach teachers by cold calling and direct messaging them on social media, including Facebook. They attended union meetings and conferences. It was challenging work.

Once they connected with staff and teachers, they’d meet in donut and coffee shops where they’d explain how to test and hand over the instructions and testing kit. Laker and Ruderman had publicly requested school maintenance logs, which offered some ideas on places to test. Afterward, they’d debrief and review the teachers’ methods to ensure they had gathered the sample correctly.

A lot of the teachers and staff were afraid of losing their jobs, so they’d arrive in the early morning or stay late to take samples from potential hazards. In the end, 26 staffers took 190 samples in 19 of Philadelphia’s most rundown public elementary schools.

Alarming findings

Laker and Ruderman were “blown away” by some of the results, such as a trough-style drinking fountain with extremely high lead levels. Even though they were months from publishing, they couldn’t keep such findings to themselves.

“Out of public necessity, we decided to inform the district right away,” Laker said. “The school district took down that water fountain the day after we notified them.”

The prevalence of high levels of cancer-causing asbestos fibers was also “a big surprise.” “We were alarmed at the amount of asbestos all over the schools,” Ruderman said.

They also examined the impact of construction during school hours. In one case, construction work on a leaky roof resulted in a young student’s hospitalization for carbon monoxide poisoning.

One particularly striking example of lead poisoning involved a first grader who ate the lead paint chips and dust that fell on his desk day after day, without anyone noticing. 

Finding him wasn’t an easy task. Laker and Ruderman had heard there was a first grader who had been hospitalized with severe lead poisoning but they didn’t know his name. Laker keep trying to find the boy, chasing down every lead. She talked to parents and the school and made lots of phone calls before eventually locating his family. It was an impressive feat of old-fashioned shoe-leather reporting.

Learning from the series

While the team spent about $15,000 on science testing over three years, they assured fellow journalists that they can do similar projects on a smaller scale, for much cheaper. (Lead testing kits can be bought at places like Home Depot for about $10 apiece.)

Laker and Ruderman also shared how their project evolved over time and stressed the importance of following where the reporting leads.

Initially, their idea was to test water in homes for lead.  

“But we couldn’t even get people too interested in doing that:  We had no takers,” Ruderman said. “We had some moments where we were like: We have this money and we want to do testing but we don’t really know what to test. We had some moments of panic.”

Even when the project shifted to soil sampling, they encountered resistance from some newer homeowners.

“People in the neighborhoods, they thought at first we were crazy,” Laker said. “You want to scoop what? Some people had no idea they lived right next to a former lead smelter.”

The hardest part, though, was getting into the schools and asking teachers to find the time to conduct tests with potentially hazardous materials, risking their jobs in the process.

“I think the reason that the teachers agreed to do it was because they really cared about the kids,” Laker said. “They wanted to protect not only themselves but, more importantly, the children and the students they teach every day. That was the motivation.” 


Watch the full presentation here:


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