Sick Schools in the City of Brotherly Love

January 13, 2021

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Inside Story: Sick Schools in the City of Brotherly Love

A 2018 Philadelphia Inquirer investigation of environmental conditions inside city schools uncovered thousands of issues, according to the paper, among them mold, asbestos and flaking paint that likely contained lead. The "Toxic City: Sick Schools" exposé was later awarded the Kevin Carmody Award for Outstanding Investigative Reporting, Large Market in the Society of Environmental Journalists’ 2019 Annual Awards for Reporting on the Environment

Judges called the work by reporters Barbara Laker, Wendy Ruderman and Dylan Purcell “comprehensive, damning and compellingly written. … This series embodied excellence in every aspect, from concept to execution.” In bestowing the award, the judges also noted, “The impact was significant. The state increased funding to fix schools, the city approved a new lead-safe certification requirement and the district committed to close and replace its worst facility.” In fact, last November, the University of Pennsylvania announced it will donate $100 million over 10 years to the school district to remediate the environmental hazards.

SEJournal Online recently caught up with Laker to discuss the award-winning series. Here is the conversation, edited for length and clarity.

Photo: Philadelphia Inquirer.

SEJournal: How did you get your winning story ideas?

Barbara Laker: The roots of our "Toxic City" series go back to 2016. We wanted to examine the ongoing struggle to protect Philadelphia's children, many poor and minority, from environmental harm, after the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, garnered national attention. We found that children in Philadelphia are newly poisoned by lead at a higher rate than in Flint. But here the source was not water; it was peeling and chipping lead paint in old homes. 

For the second part of our "Toxic City" series, we turned to the danger of contaminated soil in the once-industrial pockets of Philadelphia. We found, through testing about 500 soil samples, that construction crews — unchecked by government — churn up poisonous soil that can spread toxic dust across gentrifying neighborhoods. 

To us, schools seemed to be a logical next step in our series because children spend so much of their days in school buildings, most of which in Philadelphia are more than 70 years old. We wanted to find out if children were exposed to environmental hazards in buildings that are supposed to be safe places to learn and grow. We wanted to go deeper than the maintenance reports and documents. We needed to do our own testing to independently determine potential health hazards facing students. So we enlisted staffers at 19 of the district's most rundown elementary schools to conduct scientific tests for toxic substances. This testing revealed high levels of cancer-causing asbestos fibers and lead dust, at hazardous levels, in classrooms, gymnasiums, auditoriums and busy hallways. 

Our goal through the entire series was to expose toxic substances in the environment that can make children sick, and through our reporting, prompt fixes that make children safer. 

SEJournal: What was the biggest challenge in reporting the pieces and how did you solve that challenge?

Laker: We had two big challenges. First, because we decided to independently assess the conditions inside the schools, and with no access ourselves, we had to find staffers willing to secretly conduct scientific testing for us. Finding these willing insiders, gaining their trust and training them to collect dust wipes and other samples took months of delicate sourcing. Many were worried they were putting their jobs in jeopardy. Second, we had to find parents, on the record, willing to share intimate details of the injuries to their children. In the end, we were able to combine groundbreaking sensor journalism with medical details of harmed children.  

SEJournal: What most surprised you about your findings?


We knew the environmental conditions at 

some district schools were awful, but we were 

surprised how widespread the hazards were.


Laker: We knew the environmental conditions at some district schools were awful, but we were surprised how widespread the hazards were and the severity of them. The base of one pipe in a busy hallway outside a classroom, for example, had over 10 million asbestos fibers in settled dust. We were shocked to learn that a first grader got severely lead poisoned from chipping and peeling paint in his classroom. And we were equally as shocked to learn that children passed out from carbon monoxide poisoning at their school because contractors, during school hours, were working on the roof and left the generator on near an intake air vent to a classroom.  

SEJournal: How did you decide to tell the stories and why?

Laker: Using internal maintenance logs and building records, interviews with 120 teachers, parents, students and experts, and independent scientific testing, we identified more than 9,000 environmental problems in rundown Philadelphia public schools: mold, deteriorated asbestos, and acres of flaking and peeling lead paint that put children at risk. We revealed that district staffers often took months or years to fix these pressing problems. When workers did try to correct conditions, they sometimes made the problems much worse. We also found parents willing to share intimate details about how their children were harmed. We layered these on-the-record accounts on top of compelling video and photos and test results.

Also, to provide parents and stakeholders with access to information on the physical state of their public schools, we created “School Checkup” — the culmination of months of research and analysis of more than 250,000 room-by-room environmental records that detail four building conditions known to impact a child’s health: rampant mold, deteriorated asbestos, flaking and peeling lead paint, and drinking water containing high levels of lead.

SEJournal: What lessons have you learned from your project?

Laker: To do scientific testing is extremely difficult and time-consuming. Enlisting school staffers is a challenge. And we spent nearly $9,000 on scientific testing over seven months. But testing and science alone would not make for a compelling story. We knew we had to find the human stories behind the science and weave them together.    

SEJournal: What practical advice would you give to other reporters pursuing similar projects, including any specific techniques or tools you used and could tell us more about?

Laker: Figure out what you want to test for and where you want to test. Talk to environmental experts to get advice and guidance. If you're looking at schools, find out how the school district tracks problems. You want to find maintenance logs, work orders, asbestos surveys, drinking water surveys and test results, building-level asthma numbers (number of students with asthma, number of attacks by month, number of times medications given), paint and plaster surveys, facility condition assessments, renovation and construction contracts and budgets. Use school maintenance logs to come up with the most rundown elementary schools to narrow your scope. They will also help guide staffers where and what to test. Find former and current environmental scientists who work in schools and cultivate them as sources. Request copies of federally required AHERA (Asbestos Hazard Emergency Response Act) reports on asbestos.

If, instead of schools, you’re looking at soil that could be contaminated from former lead smelters, for example, research where they were, what they produced and their history of violations. Map all the smelters to help guide where you should test. Find a lab that will agree to do analysis for you and get estimated cost. 

If you do your own testing or are enlisting others to do so, find a lab that has a technician who can train you how to test, and explain what supplies you’ll need to order. If you are enlisting teachers or staffers to collect samples for you, type up detailed instructions that they can follow. Put together kits with dust wipes and vials in Ziploc bags. Put labels on the vials, so the staffer can write the location where the test was taken and the date and time of the test. 

To find teachers and staffers to test: Use a database of school salaries to identify teachers and staffers in the worst schools with the worst classrooms. Cold call teachers and staffers and tell them what you’re looking into and ask them if they will help. Send direct messages through social media. Chat up teachers at union meetings and conferences. Meet the teachers to give them the kits and demonstrate how the tests should be done. Go over it with them to make sure they feel confident how to test. Remind them to label everything. Ask them to take photos of the area they tested.


Use charts and graphics to show your findings

and make the numbers not so overwhelming.

Tell the human story behind the numbers.


Use charts and graphics to show your findings and make the numbers not so overwhelming. Write a sidebar explaining how you did the testing. Tell the human story behind the numbers.

Readers’ eyes will likely glaze over if you don’t have people who have been harmed. Cultivate sources in the teachers’ union. Talk to as many school nurses as you can — they know sick children. Spend time with the families you find to gain their trust. Get the families on the record, with photos and videos. Obtain copies of the child’s medical records from the parents. Also obtain school absence records from parents if it’s part of the story. 

In the cases of lead poisoning, your health department keeps a database of children’s blood lead levels. The department wouldn’t give those to us (with names of children) for privacy reasons. So, we made an agreement with the health department that if the parents signed waivers, we could get access to a history of all their blood tests with dates. 

Barbara Laker is a reporter on the investigations team at the Philadelphia Inquirer. She previously worked at the Clearwater (Florida) Sun, Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Dallas Times-Herald and Seattle Post-Intelligencer. 

* From the weekly news magazine SEJournal Online, Vol. 6, No. 2. Content from each new issue of SEJournal Online is available to the public via the SEJournal Online main page. Subscribe to the e-newsletter here. And see past issues of the SEJournal archived here.

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