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Reporter describes how she tied lead-tainted water data to children Date: 08/26/16

Laura Ungar

By Laura Ungar

Why did you decide to break out more specific data for your piece, “Lead taints drinking water in hundreds of schools, day cares across USA”?

Children are especially vulnerable to lead, which can damage developing brains and slow growth. And children spend much of their time in schools and day care centers. So the data showing failed lead tests in these facilities pointed to a population at grave risk.

How were you able to sift through such a massive government database and break out such specific sites?

Luckily, this was a team effort for the USA Today Network. A colleague, data journalist Mark Nichols, separated the data on schools and day cares from the larger database.

Did you have to be a math whiz to draw connections from the data? How easy was it to parse?

Working with the data didn’t involve high-level math, at least on my part. Because we had a separate database of schools and day cares, I could easily group these facilities by state, facility or year in Excel. I could examine and compare lead test results in many ways. We were able to determine the states with the most facilities that exceeded the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s “action level” of 15 parts per billion of lead, the facilities that exceeded the action level several times and those with very high lead levels in their water.

However, the data was just a starting point. My colleagues and I needed to do shoe-leather reporting to look into what the data seemed to be saying. For instance, one water system serving a child care center in Maine appeared to have the highest lead level of any school or day care in the data set. But it turned out that someone had entered the result incorrectly, putting 20 parts per million instead of 20 parts per billion. After the property owner balked at the numbers I shared with him, I checked with state officials, who pointed out the error. Such “outlier” findings appeared stunning at first, but we needed to make sure they were true.

How long did it take for you to do such a comprehensive investigative piece, and how much of that was reporting versus writing?

This story was one of two large national pieces in the USA Today Network project – which also included many related local stories at Gannett papers – and we had tight deadlines. I received the related data in mid-February and the story ran online March 17 and in print a few days later.

Between the day I got the data and publication time, I attended an obesity fellowship in Phoenix and had a speaking engagement in Los Angeles. So it was rough. I worked many long days, making calls from airports and hotel rooms. Because of the tight deadlines, I had to analyze the data and talk to experts at the same time. But of course I needed to understand what the data said before we determined the best places to focus on.

Also, the data only went so far. About 90 percent of schools, and the vast majority of day cares, are not required to test for lead. So reporting on them could not rely on EPA data but instead on data kept by states and school systems that I had to report on separately. There were also a few instances of school systems with lead problems that surfaced this year – such as one in Ithaca, N.Y., that I focused on in the story – and our EPA data only ran through 2015.

Thankfully, I got help from other reporters in the Network, who sent me feeds, short dispatches from various areas around the country, several of which were incorporated into the story. 

As for writing, once the reporting was done, it took the better part of a week. I thought about how to organize the story before I wrote it, so that made it easier.

How difficult was it to get families in areas where you found high levels to talk to you?

It was surprisingly difficult to find affected parents who would talk, and I think there were a few reasons. For one, many of these lead standard exceedances happened years ago and were resolved in some way. Also, few parents actually had their children tested for lead, so didn’t know for sure whether they had suffered from drinking tainted water at school. But I did find parents in Ithaca who were very concerned and willing to talk. They were dealing with high lead levels at that moment, attending community meetings and talking with school officials during that time. And some had brought their children to doctors to be tested – with one mom finding relatively high levels in her son’s blood. I choose to lead with that example because I knew, as a parent, that readers would relate to a real and immediate problem affecting a small child.

One of the researchers in your piece told you, regarding lead that there are so “many variables and sources should be considered, and not everything can be explained.” Did you find that in your reporting, and how to does one go about getting a coherent message across to readers with something so difficult to fully explain?

Many experts told me that lead in blood can come from a number of sources, including paint and soil in addition to water. In fact, some said it’s more frequently tied to sources other than water. But others suggested that may be partly because of how and when children are tested for lead – generally as babies learning to crawl and not as school-aged children. So some doctors suggested it would be much more likely to find a child harmed by lead paint than one harmed by lead in drinking water at school. For this reason and others, several experts suggested that the lead-in-water danger is likely much worse than is generally believed.

I think the way to get all of this ambiguity across to readers is just to tell them what we found in as clear a way as possible. This sentence helped clarify the issue to me: “A groundbreaking study from Bruce Lanphear, a professor at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia who studied lead exposure among children in Rochester, N.Y., found that about 20% was attributed to water, 10% to 15% to contaminated soil and 20% to 30% from other sources such as paint dust.”

Were you surprised by any particular findings?

I was surprised by the sheer numbers of water systems serving schools and day cares that failed lead tests – about 350, which failed tests a total of about 470 times from 2012 through 2015. I was also surprised by some of the very high levels of lead in the EPA data as well as in more recent data kept by schools and states. In a sink in a music-room bathroom in an Ithaca elementary school, testing found 5,000 ppb of lead, the cutoff where EPA labels a substance hazardous waste.

But I was most surprised by the loophole that lets the vast majority of schools and day cares not test for lead – and the fact that when some voluntarily did so, they found it. This hinted at a much larger problem than even the data showed.

What kind of reaction did your piece spark – from readers, policy makers or others?

I received dozens of emails and calls – including from an environmental activist who tracked me down at home on a weekend. Most wanted to either share their own stories about lead problems or thank us for examining this issue. Online traffic was also very high. I was asked to speak on television and radio about our findings, including, among others, on Al Jazeera America and the national Sirius XM radio program Steele & Ungar (no relation.)

What related action come following the results? Have any concrete changes or steps been taken and, if so, where?

Since our stories and others have run, policymakers have been focusing more intensely on the issue of lead in water. Several bills have been proposed in Congress. New York lawmakers proposed a flood of bills in that state, according to the Rochester Democrat & Chronicle, some citing the USA Today Network investigation and articles by Gannett newspapers in New York. One proposal there would shift responsibility of testing for lead in water from schools and day cares to local water departments; another would start a new fund to start with at least $200 million for water infrastructure renovation.

Laura Ungar is the national/regional health enterprise reporter for USA Today and Gannett. An award-winning writer, she is based in Louisville, Kentucky at The Courier-Journal, where she spent a decade covering medical news. Previously, she spent eight years in Delaware at The News Journal and six years at The Hartford Courant in Connecticut. Her projects have examined cervical cancer in India, prescription drug abuse in Kentucky, cancer in Delaware and a breast cancer patient's dying mission. She’s won more than 30 national, regional and local awards, including the annual company-wide prize from Gannett for long-form writing and an award from the Association of Health Care Journalists, among others.