USF St. Pete Journalism Students Help Investigate Lead In Midtown Homes

Feb 21, 2017

Health News Florida recently reported on how some middle school students at Academy Prep in St. Petersburg conducted tests on the lead levels in their tap water.

The students’ project can be traced back to Flint, Michigan, where residents were instructed not to use city water because of lead contamination.

But the idea for the local investigation originated in the students’ backyard – at the Neighborhood News Bureau.

“It’s both a class and an actual newsroom," Bernardo Motta, an assistant professor in the University of South Florida St. Petersburg Department of Journalism and Media Studies said.

Each semester, a new group of journalism seniors and graduate students get actual experience covering news in St. Petersburg’s Midtown neighborhood, an area that doesn't often draw the attention of the media.

USF St. Petersburg Neighborhood News Bureau logo

“Basically what we do is we cover stories about Midtown, about the population of Midtown, the residents of Midtown, and the students try to publish the stories in local news outlets,” Motta said.

Those outlets include the Weekly Challenger, the Tampa Bay Times and WUSF News.

In addition to daily news reporting, the Bureau focuses on larger projects. Motta says this year, it’s examining the levels of lead in the drinking water.

“So I said, “Well, let’s add an educational part to it,” and I talked to Academy Prep teacher Laura Manke, who worked with us in a media club activity that we do there and said, “Well, how about we teach science and reporting?’”

Students broke into teams and took on different tasks. Mass Communications senior Katie Kelley helped teach the Academy Prep students how to collect the water samples.

"So each week I would go to the school at 2:15 on Fridays and I would educate the children with Dr. Motta about what it means to have lead in your water, how to test for lead in your water and what it means to be doing this for your community as well,” Kelley said.

Alana Long is a graduate student in the Digital Journalism and Design program. Her job was to determine the age of the Midtown homes and find if any ever had their pipes replaced.

“And then it also took a lot of time with me going on the EPA’s website and then also going on St. Petersburg’s city website to see what kind of permits you need for those types of things, how much it could cost if you did have these problems," Long said.

The danger, according to Motta, is that many of the homes were built long before 1986, when lead pipes were banned.

“In Midtown, most of the houses are much older than that, and the fact that they’re poorer neighborhoods, people don’t usually have the money to change the pipes,” Motta said.

The Academy Prep students – as well as the USF St. Pete students who live nearby – each took three samples from their homes – allowing the water to flow between collections in an effort to flush lead from the pipes.

Research associate Dr. Kelly Quinn prepares water samples for testing in her USF College of Marine Science lab.
Credit Mark Schreiner / WUSF 89.7 News

The samples were then given to the USF College of Marine Science, where research associate Dr. Kelly Quinn ran the tests.

“I think it’s wonderful to have this collaboration. I’ve never before had someone from journalism approach me to run samples," Quinn said. "It’s different but it’s also very interesting, my boss and I are very interested to see how this all plots out on a graph and everything.”

Every home, even the ones where the Bureau students live outside of Midtown, showed some amount of lead. And while they all came in below the Environmental Protection Agency standards, experts say that any lead is not good, particularly for young children.

"I didn’t think it was a problem in my town, and it’s very interesting," said Katie Kelley, who lives in an apartment in Greater Pinellas Point, south of Midtown. "I went home and told my pregnant neighbor, 'Hey, maybe, you know, get some bottled water.'”

That's one of the suggestions given to the Academy Prep students as well, along with allowing water to run awhile before consuming it and buying a home filtration system.

Students in the Neighborhood News Bureau now are taking the findings and writing stories from them, as well as helping Academy Prep students do their own reporting as well.

Kelley, who wants to go into broadcast journalism, says the Bureau showed her how her work can make a difference in people’s lives.

“I think it’s important to care about who you’re writing about and care about who you’re teaching and who you’re telling information to because without that then the message of journalism is really lost," Kelley said.