Backstory: USA Today's Blake Morrison on Investigating Toxins near America's Schools

Published on
August 22, 2009

In December of 2005, an elementary school in Addyston, Ohio was closed permanently after officials at Ohio's Environmental Protection Agency found enough chemicals in the air to pose a risk of cancer 50 times higher than the regulators considered acceptable.

The closure came after seven months of monitoring by state officials. Air tests were taken at the school only after parents raised questions about persistent, strange smells. That school's story was used by USA Today reporter Blake Morrison as a jumping-off point for a Grantham Prize-winning investigative project about the threat of industrial toxins to school children throughout the United States.

The multimedia project included air quality testing by USA Today reporters, in collaboration with a university lab, at 95 schools in 30 states; maps showing the relationship of schools to concentrations of airborne pollutants; descriptions of the toxins found and a searchable database with the threat level at every school in the country. Their work led to a nationwide $2.25 million investigation by the EPA, congressional support for continued monitoring and investigations by Pennsylvania and Louisiana.

At The California Endowment Health Journalism Fellowship's seminar for broadcast journalists on Saturday, Morrison shared with Fellows the inside story of his eight-month investigation, which he reported in collaboration with USA Today reporter Brad Heath. He decided on his theme after setting out to do a big environmental project that would have universal appeal, affecting every community in the country, rich or poor. Kids and industrial pollution fit the bill. He knew from the onset that he would likely be challenged by regulators, since he was attempting a wide-ranging analysis that the U.S. EPA itself had never attempted. So he made methodological integrity a top priority at every stage of the process, from the air-quality testing methods that USA Today adopted to the research institutions chosen as project partners. He also made sure to present his findings with the right tone - raising concerns without fanning hysteria. To that end, the project's home page prominently displays advice for parents concerned about toxins at their children's schools, a video featuring a medical expert who explains how to interpret the investigation's findings and careful qualifications throughout that avoid confusing the presence of toxins with their effects.

Morrison began his research for the project, published in December 2008, by mapping the 128,000 schools in the United States. With help from researchers at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, the amount of pollution reported to the EPA by all factories was collected, the factories' locations were mapped, then the weight of the pollutant along with meteorological conditions and other factors were combined to determine the distance the pollutants were likely to travel. USA Today also mapped industrial pollution's path after leaving the source. They combined this information and ranked schools based on their likely levels of exposure to toxic pollution. Morrison went on to seek the help of researchers at Johns Hopkins' School of Public Health to test the air at a sampling of schools across the country. Because the schools would not allow monitoring on campus, test sites were chosen based on the likelihood that their levels of toxins were similar to the nearby school's levels. The Hopkins researchers, who were chosen because of their location close to USA Today headquarters and the school's reputation, found that 64 of the 95 sites had pollution levels above what the EPA considers safe. The investigators also found that dozens of schools were likely to have higher levels of pollution than the closed school in Ohio.

On Saturday, Morrison talked about the extra work required to maintain a story's credibility, especially knowing that local outlets across the country would pick that story up. Morrison and his team developed talking points about the limitations of the story and what their results meant for local journalists.
They developed videos to be run on Gannett affiliates. They shared information freely with the Today Show when approached about the story. Finally, they monitored how local news outlets handled the story. One local station, Fox's Seattle affiliate, picked up Morrison's story about four schools in Washington that were identified as among the most threatened. The reporter quickly dismissed the investigation, siding instead with regulators who said no illegal polluting had occurred. Morisson was compelled to call the station to push for a correction, saying the station had incorrectly presented the results of his investigation.

In addition to the Grantham Prize, Morrison's investigation won the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism, the Society of Environmental Journalists' Award for Investigative Reporting and the Education Writers Association's Grand Prize.