Toxic Cities: Telling Big Stories on Hidden Risks

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In communities across the country, children are quietly being poisoned by lead, asbestos and other toxins, while local governments and school districts delay fixes and fail to hold violators to account. The unaddressed hazards that result are ripe for local watchdog reporting, as The Philadelphia Inquirer’s Barbara Laker and Wendy Ruderman demonstrated through their groundbreaking series “Toxic City,” a 2019 Pulitzer finalist that was produced in partnership with our USC Center for Health Journalism’s National Fellowship. In this webinar, Laker and Ruderman will share their bold and unconventional strategies for environmental testing, from digging out contaminated soil samples themselves during a harsh Philadelphia winter to persuading school teachers to secretly take samples of water, paint and hazardous materials. Their series led the city and state to provide millions in funding to repair toxic hazards in schools, widespread changes in how clean-up rules are enforced and pledges of more than $100 million in clean-up funding by the state’s governor. Attendees will leave with fresh ideas for reporting and a renewed sense of urgency to tackle hidden threats in their communities. 

Webinars are free and made possible by The Commonwealth Fund and the National Institute for Health Care Management Foundation. 



Wendy Ruderman is an investigative reporter with the Philadelphia Daily News and Philadelphia Inquirer who previously worked as a staff writer for The Associated Press and New York Times. She and colleague Barbara Laker won the 2010 Pulitzer for Investigative Reporting for a series about police corruption. They also co-wrote “BUSTED: A Tale of Corruption and Betrayal in the City of Brotherly Love” in 2014. She and Laker were 2016 National Fellows and collaborated on a Fellowship project, “Toxic City,” that exposed the dangers to children in Philadelphia of toxins in their homes, neighborhoods and schools. The project has sparked outrage in Philadelphia, led to changes in environmental inspections and spurred millions in state and school district funds for cleaning up the schools the two identified as the most toxic to students. She earned a master's degree from Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.


Barbara Laker, a native of Kent, England, came to the United States when she was 12. She graduated from the University of Missouri Journalism School in 1979. She worked for the Clearwater Sun, Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the Dallas Times-Herald and the Seattle Post-Intelligencer before joining the Philadelphia Daily News in 1993. At the Daily News, she has been a general assignment reporter, assistant city editor and investigative reporter.

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