USF journalism students test safety of local drinking water

After lead was discovered in the drinking water of residents in Flint, MI, University of South Florida St. Petersburg journalism professor Bernardo Motta wondered what might be contained in St. Petersburg's drinking water.  

He decided to investigate and enrolled his journalism students from USFSP’s Neighborhood News Bureau. The innovative Neighborhood News Bureau, a community journalism program covering Midtown, the city’s historic African American neighborhood, was featured by 83 Degrees Media in 2016.

Motta was concerned that the plumbing in Midtown’s many older homes might put residents at risk for drinking contaminated water. The mission of the Neighborhood News Bureau, he says, is to identify information that is helpful to the community, and then report on it. The journalism students would benefit from learning how to approach a project like this and what the consequences might be of their findings.

The project launched in 2016, with Neighborhood News journalism students reaching out to Academy Prep, a tuition-free, scholarship-based middle school in South St. Pete for fifth-grade through eighth-grade students who live in the community.  

As part of its academic curriculum, Academy Prep partners with PBS station, WEDU, to teach students about communication and broadcasting. Motta is one of the instructors there.

Participating in investigation

Academy Prep students agreed to participate in the project and were given instructions in how to collect water samples from their homes. The samples were then taken to the University of South Florida College of Marine Science for analysis.

While testing was underway in St. Petersburg, a similar project was taking place in Missouri. Students at the University of Missouri School of Journalism were doing their own detective work. University of Missouri School of Journalism professor Sara Shipley Hiles had heard about Motta’s project, and decided she wanted her students to get involved, too.

But rather than collaborating with students at a local middle school, the journalism students in Missouri approached the public. The students knocked on doors, asking residents if they wanted to participate in water testing. Those samples were sent for testing to a laboratory at Virginia Tech Institute in Virginia.

This fall, Motta and Hiles will present the results of their respective projects at the annual Society for Environmental Journalists Conference, which this year will be held October 3-7 in Flint, Michigan.

The conference brings together journalists, scientists, environmental activists, and government officials for discussions about urgent environmental concerns and how to best report those issues to educate the public.  

“We’ll not only be talking about our test results, but how we used two very different approaches to collect the water samples and have them analyzed,” says Motta. “There are pros and cons to each approach.”

Fortunately, all of the South St. Petersburg water samples -- 45 in total -- were found to have low levels of lead, below the standard set by the Environmental Protection Agency. But Andrea Perez, a senior at USFSP and journalism student in the Neighborhood News Bureau, wanted to take the story to the next level.

“Everyone thought the story was done, but I felt that there was more to it,” says Perez. “The results weren’t alarming, so that was no longer the news. But every household sample showed the presence of a little bit of lead and no one was explaining what residents should do about it. I felt the story was about what preventive measures to take.”

How exactly does lead get into drinking water in the first place? Many older homes have lead pipes, or lead solder used to connect or repair the pipes. Through natural corrosion, trace amounts of lead have the potential to get into the tap water. According to the students’ research, St. Petersburg minimizes the problem with a method of water treatment that allows calcium to build up and coat the pipes, which slows corrosion and minimizes the risk.

Lessening risk 

In 1986, Congress enacted Safe Drinking Water Act Amendments, which now require all plumbing materials used for drinking water to be lead-free.

The drinking water in St. Petersburg homes surveyed had an average of 2.1 parts per billion, well below the 15 parts per billion that would mandate EPA action, according to the students involved in the project.  

But at the same time, both the EPA and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that even low exposures to lead can be harmful, especially in infants and children.

To look for additional answers, Perez turned to Cynthia Keeton, a  lead poisoning prevention coordinator for the Florida Health Department in Hillsborough County.
Keeton works with Hillsborough residents who live in select high-risk areas in the county to provide awareness and education. Pinellas does not have a similar position, Perez reports.

Keeton met with parents of Academy Prep students, after letters were sent home with test results. Among her suggestions: Run faucets for at least 20 seconds before drinking or cooking with water, and buy a certified NSF International water filter that will remove all traces of lead.

Perez would like to see continued reporting on the topic, and expanding it to include the risk of finding lead in paint on the exterior of older homes in the Midtown area. Neighborhood News students are also looking at the potential for creating an ongoing series of articles related to health and diet, says Motta, including working with the American Heart Association and other local groups on the project.

Follow this link to learn more about the Neighborhood News Bureau.

Read more articles by Janan Talafer.

Janan Talafer enjoys writing for a diverse group of clients, including print and online publications, nonprofit organizations and public relations agencies. One of the highlights of her writing career was flying with the 91st Air Refueling Squadron out of MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa FL for a feature about this elite military team. A journalism graduate of Bowling Green State University (OH), Janan’s early career was in health care marketing and public relations for hospitals in Connecticut and Tampa Bay. She is an avid gardener, loves East Coast swing dance and enjoys touring around St. Petersburg on the back of her husband’s scooter.