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Reporting on lead contamination: When science and journalism converge

lead testing

A screenshot from the Dallas Morning News' series on lead.

Will the latest lead contamination cleanup be more effective than the last?

That’s the question that led to Valerie Wigglesworth’s three-part series “The Burden of Lead” in the Dallas Morning News. She compares the pending cleanup of Exide Technologies’ battery recycling plant and lead smelter to that of a smelter plant shuttered in 1984.

The question started when a resident near the former smelter plant told her the soil was still contaminated, she says. Rather than taking his word for it, she applied for and received a Society of Environmental Journalists’ grant to pay for a scientist to test the soil. After months of testing and analyzing, Valerie learned the soil was still contaminated.

Valerie Wigglesworth

Unlike USA Today reporters Alison Young and Peter Eisler, Valerie says she didn’t want to collect the samples herself.

“I’m not a scientist and I didn’t want to screw it up,” she says. “Having [the metals toxicologist’s] expertise was invaluable.”

She suggests reporters determine how they will get results and a timeline before starting. The scientist the paper hired dried and milled the collected dirt into pellets then used an XRF analyzer to measure the lead levels, the story says. Valerie says reporters also can find someone who uses the XRF analyzer to test the soil at the site. The analyzer can test soil, toys and other items to determine lead content, she says.

Interestingly, Valerie’s planned comparison story didn’t involve the cleanup, she says. “I was always going to compare the cities and their smelters, but the comparison was originally for a closed plant vs. one still operating,” she says. “Exide didn’t announce it was closing until May 2012, long after I’d gotten started.”


In Featured, Green | Sustainability, Manufacturing | Large companies.

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