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The Philly team that wouldn’t stop digging into the city’s toxic lead scourge

The Philly team that wouldn’t stop digging into the city’s toxic lead scourge

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Wendy Ruderman speaks to fellow reporters at the 2018 National Fellowship.
Wendy Ruderman speaks to fellow reporters at the 2018 National Fellowship. (Photo by Jeff Skeirik/CHJ)

The project they proposed seemed manageable enough: Look at the environmental hazards that impacted children in the city of Philadelphia.

For Barbara Laker and Wendy Ruderman, reporters for the Philadelphia Inquirer and Philadelphia Daily News, their idea was born out of the Flint water crisis, when children were being exposed and poisoned by lead because Flint’s drinking water source was changed beginning in 2014.

The two Philadelphia reporters were already well known around their city. They won the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for exposing a rogue police narcotics squad in their city, resulting in an FBI probe and the review of hundreds of criminal cases.

But this story about children and toxic hazards would be different. They weren't sure what data, documents and evidence already existed and what they still needed to find. They just knew that in a city as old as Philadelphia, children under 6 years old were testing for high levels of lead poisoning. But unlike in Flint, the poisoning had nothing to do with a water source.

"Every year in Philadelphia, we found children with rates (of lead poisoning) at twice the national average. We wanted to know why it was," Ruderman told a gathering of journalists at the USC Center for Health Journalism’s 2018 National Fellowship.

Even at low levels, Ruderman said, lead can get into a child's bones, where it remains. Lead can cause children to have lower IQs, attention deficit disorder, anemia, behavioral and learning problems, hyperactivity, slowed growth and hearing problems.

Ruderman and Laker dug into city documents and public health records. They studied chipped paint in old homes, hunted down landlords, begged families to speak with them, and even got down on their hands and knees to collect soil from hundreds of playgrounds, construction sites and backyards. 

They learned that 2,700 children tested in Philadelphia had harmful levels of lead in their blood in 2015.

They found that thousands of Philadelphia’s children, year after year, are newly poisoned by lead — at a far higher rate than those in Flint.

They discovered an estimated 600,000 homes in Philadelphia were built before 1950, many of them "dilapidated rowhomes, littered with a poisonous confetti of crumbling lead paint and dust." Landlords have often ignored the 1978 lead paint law that requires them to remove toxic paint.

They searched for a database of toxic soil and found none, so they dug up their own samples and created one. 

And they uncovered neglect: Few children are actually tested and monitored by the state.

In time, Ruderman and Laker's desks turned into piles of evidence: Folders with data on lead poisoning, results of dozens of samples of soil testing. They had documents about how contractors neglected to keep workers safe at construction sites. They had folders on asbestos and piles of notes on schools where dust on counters and desks contained toxic particulates.

With help from reporter Dylan Purcell, the headlines began to roll for the series that became known as “Toxic City”:

"Philly ignores thousands of kids poisoned by lead paint"

"Doctor's 2-year-old son poisoned by lead in their Mount Airy home"

"Philly aims to prevent lead poisoning before kids are harmed"

"Lawmakers demand action on Philly's lead-paint scourge"

"State Sen. Hughes finds money to help fight Philly’s lead paint scourge"

Two years after the idea for the project was hatched, Ruderman said she and Laker are still uncovering stories in schools.

"The hardest part of the project was trying to find (families) to talk to," Ruderman said. "You have to make the average person care about it."

In addition, they asked teachers to collect dust samples from classrooms using specially designed test kits.

"We would meet them at Starbucks or on corners far from schools and hand them a test kit," Ruderman said, part of an effort to keep the teachers from getting in trouble with the district. "We literally gave out hundreds of kits. Some of the teachers reported us. We became known as 'The Toxic Girls'." 

She said the process taught her not to be afraid to follow where the idea takes you.

"It was a huge education for us," Ruderman said. "We tried a lot of crazy things. It was really good we could use data and do shoeleather reporting."

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Want to improve your data journalism skills?  Apply now for the 2018 Data Fellowship -- four all-expenses-paid days of training on data acquisition, analysis and visualization, plus a $2,000-$4,000  reporting grant and six months of expert mentoring.  Dates:  October 17-20. Deadline: August 27 for California journalists, Sept. 7 for journalists from other states

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