How local media coverage is forcing Cleveland to try to finally fix its lead problem

Pallets of water, ready for distribution in the community, sit at the Sebring Community Center, Tuesday, Jan. 26, 2016 in Sebring, Ohio, 60 miles south of Cleveland. (AP Photo/Mark Gillispie)

Rachel Dissell lives in one of Cleveland’s “high risk” neighborhoods for lead exposure, a place where the state mandates screenings for small children. Still, when a blood test in late 2012 revealed that her young son had elevated levels in the aftermath of a home renovation, Dissell, a reporter for The Plain Dealer, was horrified—she hadn’t fully realized the scope of the city’s lead problem. When she called the city, the news was far from comforting: An official told her Cleveland’s monitoring program was low on funds and behind schedule, only making visits to inspect homes if lead levels were high enough to hospitalize a child, which her son’s were not. In a best-case scenario, someone could investigate her home in six to eight months. 

“When that happens as a parent you’re terrified, and you feel horribly guilty,” Dissell said in a recent interview. She was able to enlist private help to remediate the house, but she knows many people are not as fortunate. “In what world does that seem okay that you should just sit around and wait?”

Fast forward to late fall 2014, when Plain Dealer health reporter Brie Zeltner started investigating the effect of lead exposure as she dug into the long-term ramifications of Cleveland’s childhood poverty rate, which is the second highest in the nation among big cities. But Zeltner had a whole list of potential stories on the theme, and lead kept falling to the bottom: She didn’t want to write about a problem unless she could point to potential solutions, and she couldn’t find another city that was managing lead in effective ways.

Enter Dissell, who, Zeltner said, “lit a fire” under the subject, motivated by her personal experience. The two reporters realized that local media would cover childhood lead poisoning once every decade or so, and each time, a flurry of grants and plans from the city and surrounding Cuyahoga County would follow. Then, quiet. And then, years later, another story about how the problem still wasn’t fixed. Dissell said that pitching the story took some convincing, as editors were aware of lead’s cyclical legacy. “They would say, ‘Well, haven’t we done lead already?’ So I kept coming back and saying, ‘That’s the point, it’s still not fixed.’”

By early summer 2015, Dissell and Zeltner had begun collaborating in earnest on a major project. They knew that to break the cycle of attention and neglect, they would need not only to highlight the problem, but also outline a realistic path to improvement. “We were going into it with the goal of talking about how we got here, what the solutions are, what could we have done differently to make it better, and to really make good by staying on the topic in order to hold the people accountable who we believed could actually make changes that would carry into the future,” said Zeltner.

Last October, Dissell and Zeltner released “Toxic Neglect,” an ambitious 20-part series of articles and online features about their region’s mishandling of the persistent lead problem, and what could be done to fix it. They found that Cleveland and Cuyahoga County had spent $57 million in federal funds attempting to limit lead exposure, but hardly any of this was preventative—the majority went to clean up homes where children had already been poisoned. Of the 187,000 homes pegged by the county as hazardous, only 4,300 had been treated since 1993. In the meantime, over the past five years about 10,000 children were found to have blood-lead levels above 5 micrograms per deciliter, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) threshold for concern. Since many children who should be screened aren’t, the true number of children at risk is likely higher. 

Within five weeks of the Plain Dealer series, three of the four leaders of the city’s lead prevention program had been fired or resigned over management concerns. In the months since, the City Council has held three public hearings to address what Natoya Walker Minor, the city’s chief of public affairs, called a “deep and wide” problem that would cost millions of dollars to fix. The lead problem in Cleveland and Cuyahoga County hasn’t been remedied yet. But thanks in part to some strong local reporting, the public knows it’s an issue, and officials know what they can do about it.

The unfolding scandal in Flint, Michigan, where a series of bad decisions by public officials led to contamination of the city’s drinking water, has put lead poisoning back on the national news agenda. But as Cleveland shows, the concerns aren’t limited to Flint. Though the amount of lead detected in human bodies has fallen steadily in the US in recent decades, important public health and environmental justice concerns persist. That means there’s a need for robust watchdog journalism—and while national media has an important role to play, local reporters with strong institutional knowledge and local sources are essential.

“Outlets in the region can do a better job than national outlets reporting stories like these because we are on the ground and we have the know-how,” said Anne Trubek, a Cleveland resident and editor of the regional online publication Belt Magazine.

The health risks and social costs from lead are well understood: The heavy metal was banned from paint in 1978, and after an extended phase-out, it was fully removed from gasoline as an additive in 1996. But lead is still built into the urban environment, and since it doesn’t biodegrade, a lot of it is still sitting around, hiding as fine particles in dust, soil, and paint chips in older houses. Children, who absorb lead at much higher rates than adults, are especially at risk. At higher doses, lead in the bloodstream can lead to serious developmental impairments. Lower doses may produce no obvious symptoms in individuals, but within populations elevated lead levels correspond with reduced IQ and higher levels of ADHD and antisocial behavior. A body of research connects childhood lead exposure to violent crime. The Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental advocacy group, describes lead as the leading environmental health threat to American children; in 2015, a CDC report outlining educational interventions likened the effect of lead exposure to a brain injury.*

“There’s no safe level of lead concentration, particularly if you’re a developing child,” said Kristi Pullen, Ph.D., a staff scientist with the NRDC Health Program.

While regulations to curtail industrial uses of lead have had real benefits, the concerns in Cleveland and Flint are not aberrations: Lead poisoning in children across the nation remains too common. In late January, schools were closed for two days in Sebring, Ohio, after water fountains were found to have elevated lead levels, just the latest city to identify concerns in the water supply. Vox recently unearthed a 2014 report from the Pennsylvania Department of Health that cites 18 cities in that state as having higher lead exposure rates than Flint. In other places, this data is incomplete.

In Cleveland, The Plain Dealer wasn’t the only news outlet to sound the alarm. Late last spring, the local public broadcasting organization, ideastream, released both radio and television documentaries about the scope of the lead problem and its long-term effects. A series of accompanying digital maps created by reporter Nick Castele chart the close geographic correlations between Cleveland’s lead poisoning and infant mortality and poverty rates. 

The May 2015 radio piece was initially packaged as a 50-minute news program, timed for when US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) funds that support lead abatement for low-income families would run out. “They’ve never not had that HUD grant, so that was huge,” said Sarah Jane Tribble, a health reporter and producer at 90.3 WCPN and WVIZ/PBS, who worked on both ideastream documentaries.

In contrast, the television piece is evergreen, a public interest program framed to make families aware of lead’s hazards and potential steps forward. “We wanted it to be a tool that doctors… could take into churches, to speak about and use in public education,” said Kay Colby, a fellow reporter and producer.

Colby is a classic example of what institutional knowledge looks like: As a freelancer in the early 1990s, she investigated inner-city lead poisoning on a grant from the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency. The main thing that has changed since then has been our knowledge of how accumulations of lead will irreversibly affect developing brains, she said. A build-up of the metal will shrink the pre-spinal cortex of the brain, preventing neurons from forming necessary connections.

In Cleveland, as in many (but not all) places, this risk is especially acute in low-income and minority neighborhoods. Local coverage emphasized those inequities—but both ideastream and The Plain Dealer also outlined lead’s costs to taxpayers and the wider community, which Dissell and Zeltner say could be as much as $270 billion a year in Ohio.

A central component of the lead reporting coming out of Cleveland is what Zeltner calls “solutions-perspective journalism,” which aims to move beyond pinpointing problems into transitioning the conversation to the next level. As Colby put it: “The damage is done, we have poisoned children…[now] what resources are available to design the correct initiatives?”

One of the strengths of The Plain Dealer series is the depth provided by collaboration with outside resources, such as with Ohio State’s Kirwan Institute for Race and Ethnicity (to show the true number of area children likely poisoned by lead) and Case Western Reserve University (to determine that 507 homes still pose a threat to children, though they have already been cited by officials). Following the advice of HUD and the lead of states like New Jersey and Michigan—not to mention nearby cities like Akron and Erie—Dissell and Zeltner also worked to piece together a registry of homes free of lead-based hazards. Cleveland officials have since said they will maintain their own registry, though there is no timeline in place.

“As reporters we are often looking for the very, very perfect solution,” said Dissell. “But when it comes to really big problems you are often more likely to find small slices of a solution.” For her and Zeltner, abatement efforts in places like Rochester, New York—which similarly has an older housing stock—have provided a helpful comparison, as the city has used housing inspections and strong enforcement to transition to a more preventative model of lead management.

Trubek said that the lead coverage from ideastream and The Plain Dealer was some of the best reporting she had lately seen from Cleveland media. “I was really impressed by the quality of the reporting and how in-depth they went,” she said, noting that the stories were able to maintain relevance outside the constraints of the news cycle.

Zeltner hoped this would be true—and she hopes that as more journalists ask hard questions about their own communities, the legacy of lead in urban America will start to shift. “Flint is bringing attention to lead in general,” she said. “It’s the only good thing that could ever come out of a horrible situation like that.”

* Correction: This sentence originally misstated the name of the Natural Resources Defense Council.

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Erica Berry is a Minneapolis-based freelance writer and a reporter with the Food and Environmental Reporting Network. Reach her on Twitter @ericajberry.