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Philly news team’s lead-poisoning series prompts city response Date: 02/16/17

By Barbara Laker, Wendy Ruderman and Dylan Purcell

The day after we published "Philly’s shame: City ignores thousands of poisoned kids" in October (the first in a series for the Daily News), more than a dozen city and state officials vowed at a news conference to work on new ways to end perhaps the city's most devastating public-health scourge.

Officials said that Philadelphia must no longer be a city where as many as one in five young children in some neighborhoods have lead poisoning from the paint in old, deteriorating houses. They were incensed by one of our key findings: among the 2,700 children tested and found with poisoning in 2015, the city only checked the houses of the sickest of the sick, some 500 children.

Our series, “Toxic City,” was conceived after we decided to examine the issue of lead poisoning in the wake of the water crisis in Flint, Mich. We were shocked to discover that thousands of Philadelphia children, year after year, are newly poisoned at a far higher rate than in Flint. But here, water was not the culprit. Instead, the biggest causes were chipped and peeling lead paint in Philadelphia’s old and often dilapidated housing stock, and soil near former industrial plants, including lead smelters and factories that produced other toxic metals. Unlike in Michigan, the fix here is elusive.

We envision a multi-pronged series that will examine how a host of environmental hazards impact the lives of mostly minority and poor children. We received a grant from the USC Annenberg Center for Health Journalism to help defray the costs of taking this deep dive. The grant helped us acquire court records and conduct lead testing in homes. The money also is helping us undertake special community engagement, including an SMS/text message component to reach those people most affected by toxins who don’t traditionally read our newspapers or visit our website, philly.com.

We wanted to zero in on children most likely to suffer from lead poisoning. We made many Right-to-Know requests under Pennsylvania law to the city Department of Public Health, the city’s Licenses and Inspections department and the city court system. We also submitted FOIA requests to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Department of Housing and Urban Development. Neither request carried a cost, but obtaining the documentation we needed wasn’t easy.

Wendy Ruderman
Wendy Ruderman

Barbara Laker
Barbara Laker

Dylan Purcell
Dylan Purcell

Local, state and federal government agencies cited strong medical privacy laws to mostly refuse to share lead-poisoning records, even when the documents did not identify the children or invade anyone's medical privacy. Despite this, we were able to uncover hundreds of cases because many of the denied records were part of civil court filings that the city had filed against landlords and other homeowners who failed to protect the poisoned children.

To help find families with sick children, the newspaper purchased six years of those city civil dockets for $750. By electronically reviewing millions of court filings, we found 705 cases that had gone through the city’s Lead Court, a special court designated to handle landlords and homeowners who refuse to clean up lead paint in a home after a child living there was found to be severely lead poisoned. Unlike typical court cases, property owners land in this special court for failing to remediate the home for lead within a specified timeframe. They often are given multiple opportunities to comply.

It didn’t take long to locate the cases we needed once we had the civil court data, but we spent months analyzing it. Most of the 705 cases we reviewed were closed, but the dispositions were not critical for our work. The 705 cases culled from the years of dockets were sparse in details. The only way to identify the names of the poisoned children and where they lived was to individually review each case in City Hall’s court records room. We brought laptops to the records room, pulled each case and built a data set that became our guide to pinpointing hotspots of harm across the city.

The story mostly came together the old-fashioned way in the end. We knocked on doors, drawing from the 705 cases, and found families willing to tell their stories. We also spent hours sitting in Lead Court monitoring cases and getting to know those families.

We uncovered gut-wrenching examples of children suffering from lead poisoning. We met twins, nearly 3 years old, who still couldn’t speak, and a 9-year-old boy who struggles to read and write. Negligent landlords included an NFL Hall of Famer, a family court judge and an affluent, absentee landlord who owned scores of ramshackle rentals.

The first part of “Toxic City” involved significant newsroom collaboration involving practically every department, particularly photo, graphics and digital visualization. We were fortunate to have a photographer assigned to the project from start to finish. It also helped that our project’s editor was Jim Neff, who had joined the paper as assistant managing editor for investigations/projects earlier in the year. Neff got the project off the ground, kept us focused and steered it home.

Not long after the city and state officials and community activists spoke at that Oct. 31, 2016, news conference, the Philadelphia City Council passed a resolution authorizing hearings that council members hope will result in new laws to help prevent children from ingesting lead in the first place.

We now are working on the second part of “Toxic City,” focusing on soil contaminants left from the city’s industrial legacy and the peril it poses to our community.

Barbara Laker has worked at the Daily News in Philadelphia since 1993. The co-author of “Busted,” her work covering a rogue narcotics police unit in the city prompted an FBI investigation and earned her the Pulitzer Prize for Investigative Reporting in 2010. She joined the Daily News, part of Philadelphia Media Network, after previously working at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the Dallas Times-Herald and the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, among others.

Wendy Ruderman, award-winning co-author of “Busted,” joined the Daily News in 2007 and earned the 2010 Pulitzer Prize alongside Laker. She had served as the New York City Police bureau chief for the New York Times before returning to the Daily News. A long-time reporter covering the Philadelphia area as well as New Jersey, she previously worked for the Trenton Times, Associated Press, Bergen Record and Philadelphia Inquirer.

Dylan Purcell is an investigative data reporter for the Inquirer, also owned by Philadelphia Media Network. He was part of the Inquirer team that won the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service for its stories exploring violence in the city’s schools, which included a database of school violence.