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Feb 18, 2017

School haze

Co-produced with PRX Logo

Throughout the country, thousands of public schools lie within 500 feet of pollution-choked roads like highways and truck routes. On this episode of Reveal, we team up with The Center for Public Integrity to investigate the high levels of exhaust that surround U.S. schools and how the bad air affects the millions of children who breathe it in.

Every day in Newark, New Jersey, almost 600 trucks rumble past Hawkins Street School. Inside, many kids suffer the consequences of polluted air. We meet one family that has struggled with asthma, and we learn that older trucks with outdated diesel engines wreak havoc on the air by remaining on the road.

And we find out from CPI reporter Jamie Hopkins how many schools operate near busy roads – and how her team was able to figure that out.

Next, Reveal reporter Amy Walters takes us to El Marino elementary school in Los Angeles next to the 405 freeway. That’s the busiest highway in America, but inside almost every classroom the kids breathe clean air. How’s that possible? Parents and teachers got together to install air filters at El Marino. One mom with a science background tells us how they did it.

We hear from Hopkins again to find out what parents can do if they’re worried about the air near their children’s school.

Finally, Reveal reporter Ike Sriskandarajah visits Chicago – where hospitalization rates for asthma are twice the national average. One problem for people with weakened respiratory systems is that they never know when they’re going to walk into pockets of dirty air. Now there’s a new tool to help them: Air quality monitoring that can identify pollution hot spots and give neighborhood groups the data to push for policy changes. We explore some solutions on a tour of several big data, clean-air pilot projects in the Windy City.

Dig Deeper

  • Read: The invisible hazard afflicting thousands of schools
  • Search: Is your school near a busy road and its air pollution?
  • More: Learn more about Carbon Wars from The Center for Public Integrity

 

Credits

Support for Reveal is provided by The Reva and David Logan Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and Mary and Steven Swig.

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Transcript

Reveal transcripts are produced by a third-party transcription service and may contain errors. Please be aware that the official record for Reveal's radio stories is the audio.

 

  Section 1 of 5          [00:00:00 - 00:10:04]
(NOTE: speaker names may be different in each section)

 

At Letson: From the Center for Investigative Reporting in PRX, this is Reveal. I'm Al Letson.

 

If this is what your kids here while they're at school, then this is what they're breathing.

 

Speaker 2: That is the diesel, that's the pollution.

 

At Letson: And that pollution can make kids sick.

 

Tian: Well the way I breathe, it just feels uncomfortable sometimes. It just feel like a struggle, on to something that's supposed to be easy. I wish I could breathe a lot more better.

 

[00:00:30]

At Letson:

 

So whose fault is it?

 

Tamika Bowers: As a mother you see a child not breathing you be like, "Why? Why me, what did I do?" It's not your fault, it's not.

 

At Letson: And why are millions of kids going to schools along some of country's busiest roads? Next on Reveal.

 

Advertisement: Support for Reveal comes from Audible. Audible is offering our listeners a free audio book with a 30 day trial membership. Just go to audible.com/Reveal, and browse the unmatched selection of audio programs. Download a title and start listening, it's that easy. Reporters in our newsroom, are reading "Homage to Catalonia" by George Orwell. Go to audible.com/Reveal, that's audible.com/Reveal and get started today.

 

[00:01:00]

At Letson:

 

From the Center for Investigative Reporting in PRX, this is Reveal. I'm Al Letson.

 

[00:01:30] A soccer game has broken out on a frozen school playground in north New Jersey. The kids are competing hard. Their blood is pumping, they breathe heavily. Right now, they think their biggest problem is scoring a goal, but actually a much bigger problem is the air they're breathing, because right next to this field, separated by a chain link fence, there's this.

 

[00:02:00] A steady stream of trucks: delivery trucks, container trucks, garbage trucks, you name it. The scent of smoky diesel fuel hangs in the air. The pollution from all that traffic is especially dangerous to kids, because research suggests it can stunt lung growth, cause learning problems, heart disease, and raise the risk of cancer.

 

The Center for Public Integrity, a nonprofit newsroom partnered with us to find out how many kids are going to schools where they are exposed to these toxic fumes. We mapped out every public school in the country and found that one in 11 are within 500 feet of a heavily trafficked road. That pollution spreads into classrooms of nearly 4.5 million kids. For a deeper look Reveal's Fernanda Camarena takes us to Newark, New Jersey in the working class neighborhood of Ironbound.

 

[00:03:00]

F. Camarena:

 

The final bell rang about a half hour ago at the Hawkins Street School and now fourth and fifth graders meet in an afterschool program.

 

Tamika Bowers: Everyone line up.

 

F. Camarena: Wooden desks and chairs are pushed to the side, everyone stands. Today they flip the lyrics on a popular hip-hop song to give it an educational message.

 

Group of Kids: ... now watch me write, now watch me read it. Now watch me build my vocabulary. Now watch me write, now watch read it. Now watch me build my vocabulary. Move, move, move, move.

 

[00:03:30]

Tamika Bowers:

 

Alright, clap it up. Clap it up.

 

Group of Kids: Clap it up, clap it up, clap it up. Thank you people, praise y'all.

 

Tamika Bowers: We have company right, we have a guest. So we are gonna do ano -- Lets behave yourself.

 

F. Camarena: That's Tamika Bowers, one of the volunteers in the after school program. She's 42 with short dark hair and boundless energy. Her son [Tyan 00:04:00] is 10 years old, and in fourth grade.

 

[00:04:00] When the program's over, we walk across the street to the public housing complex where Tamika and her son live. As soon as we open the door, the aroma of dinner greets me.

 

Tamika Bowers: I made pork chops.

 

F. Camarena: You made pork chops?

 

Tamika Bowers: I fry them. I did macaroni and cheese and some collard greens.

 

Tian: And also, I always be eating meat first.

 

Tamika Bowers: And they love it, they love it. Gotta keep the kids happy. I don't do fast food.

 

[00:04:30]

F. Camarena:

 

Tamika is a single mom of two. But no matter how hard she tries to get Tyan and his brother a good life, she can't fix one thing: nearly six hundred trucks rumble past the school and their apartment complex every day.

 

Tamika Bowers: Every time you turn around, you're getting sick, you can't breathe down here, you got to keep your windows closed because [inaudible 00:04:52] films, all the bad smells come in here. It's too much.

 

F. Camarena: A couple of years ago, Tyan had a serious scare.

 

Tamika Bowers: I'm looking at his face, and I'm looking at his chest, how his chest was moving, and I see he's fighting to breathe. And I'm like "Wait, that look to me like asthma attack. We're going to the hospital."

 

[00:05:00]

F. Camarena:

 

Tyan was diagnosed with asthma. Now he takes steroids and uses and in-home air purifier.

 

Tamika flips a switch on a white box connected to a tube and holds it under Tyan's nose, fresh air pours out.

 

Tamika Bowers: Years ago used to be able to open your windows and feel the same way. But not right now. Y'all need some fresh air?

 

[00:05:30]

Tian:

 

Yeah, I need it right now.

 

F. Camarena: How do you feel?

 

Tian: Better.

 

F. Camarena: This purifier releases clean air not found outside. He uses about four times a week.

 

Tian: Well the way I breathe, it just feels uncomfortable sometimes. It just feel like a struggle, just struggling a lot, on to something that's supposed to be easy. I wish I could breathe a lot more better.

 

[00:06:00]

F. Camarena:

 

A lot of things can trigger asthma, air pollution is just one cause.

 

Professor Ed [Abal 00:06:16] studies air quality and respiratory function at the University of Southern California.

 

Ed Abal: So the studies we've done shown that for children who live close to busy roadway, that it does have an impact on their health.

 

F. Camarena: Abal says being exposed to busy roads can affect kids lungs as they grow.

 

[00:06:30]

Ed Abal:

 

I kind of think of it like going a tree in the backyard. If you tie the tree back and tether it, you can change the shape of that trunk as it grows. And that's sort of what happens with children's lungs, for example.

 

F. Camarena: The pollution can keep young lungs from growing, Abal continues with his tree analogy.

 

Ed Abal: For children that grow up in more polluted areas, they don't grow in a sense straight and tall in terms of achieving the maximal growth of their lung health. What they do is tend to be a little stunted, they tend to curve and grow. And our concern is that over the course of years, that sort of slight change the growth trajectory becomes sort of permanent, and we have no information that suggests that they jump up and somehow catch up again.

 

[00:07:00]

F. Camarena:

 

That's something that worries Tamika.

 

A recent study found that people in Newark were hospitalized for asthma at a rate that was two and a half times higher than the rest of the state. That's for all ages.

 

[00:07:30]

Tamika Bowers:

 

Living out here, you're going to the hospital every other week. It's like a lot of kids missing school because of asthma.

 

F. Camarena: She's lived on Hawkins Street for 15 years. Tamika also has severe asthma. When she talks, you can hear her struggle. She has a rescue inhaler that she tucks under her pillow, she uses it almost every night. As we talk, Tamika feels like she's running out of breath and gets the inhaler.

 

Tamika Bowers: When you take it, the Albuterol inhaler, you shake it. You're supposed to take a deep breath in, out. You take this, and you suck it in. Hold your breath for a couple of minutes, then you exhale. And then you take another deep breath. That's how you do that. Go up after that, go into the bathroom put some water on your face, take a deep breath, and I try to lay back down at night. This right here, it's a life saver.

 

[00:08:30]

F. Camarena:

 

Even though the school is convenient, if she could afford it she says she'd move someplace.

 

Tamika Bowers: Where they can go outside, they can run, they can play, come in eat, take their bath, and go to bed.

 

Not have to take the medication every day. That right there is sad, because sometimes if they're medication not doing just enough, you know you have to make a hospital visit. Who wants to sit in the emergency room? As a mother, you see a child not breathing, you be like "Why? Why me, what did I do? Did I do something to cause this?" But, in a real fact, for the parents [inaudible 00:09:18], it's not your fault. It's not.

 

[00:09:00]

F. Camarena:

 

So whose fault is it? Part of the blame: old diesel trucks and what comes out of their pipes. Something called ultra-fine particles. Research suggests they can slip into the blood stream bringing toxic materials with them. At Tyan's school, that's the kind of danger he and other students face constantly.

 

[00:09:30] District's across the country face similar problems. Nearly one in five school that opened in 2014 was located near a heavily trafficked ...

 

  Section 1 of 5          [00:00:00 - 00:10:04]
  Section 2 of 5          [00:10:00 - 00:20:04]
(NOTE: speaker names may be different in each section)

 

Speaker 2: Bent in 2014, was located near a heavily trafficked road.

 

Kim Gaddy: To just have trucks like this, it's really not good. In this location right here, we did a truck count right here. We actually stood a little bit there. And within an hour, 200 to 300 trucks traveled just at this location.

 

Speaker 2: Kim Gaddy is a local environmental activist. We met at one of the New York's busiest intersections. It's about 50 minutes away from [inaudible 00:10:31] school.

 

[00:10:30]

Kim Gaddy:

 

Too many polluting facilities have been allowed to be placed next to schools, next to homes. Too many of the corridors for trucks have been allowed to happen close to our parks, close to our schools. On this block alone there's probably about eight different recycling companies. So a recycling company comes what? Trucks. So you got that

 

[00:11:00]

Speaker 2:

 

What is that?

 

Kim Gaddy: That is the diesel, that's the pollution. Come on let's cross the street [inaudible 00:11:08].

 

Speaker 2: Kim wants me to get a closer look. So we jump in her car and we drive out to see what brings all these trucks into the area.

 

Kim Gaddy: You in?

 

Speaker 2: Yeah.

 

Kim Gaddy: If you look back here, you see all the port, see? All of the trucks and containers that come from the port. And one block removed, and you see some of the truck industries, companies but the housing is right here. It's not like it's three, four blocks away. It's one block in. You see? And this is a house. So it's one block in, and these are different industries, trucking industries, trading industries, oftentimes we even don't know what's coming here. Some of these are painting facilities that are emitting different smells, these are houses. Individuals live right here.

 

[00:12:00]

Speaker 2:

 

We pass housing projects and another school. The people in this community are mostly African American and Latino, that's something we see happening nationwide. Schools that serve largely minority students are found near busy roads at more than three times the rate of schools that serve mostly white students. Most of the trucks that come to New York, serve the Port of New York and New Jersey. It's the largest port on the Eastern sea board and about 9,000 trucks come here each day.

 

[00:12:30]

Kim Gaddy:

 

The port is the economic engine for the region, but what it Is for us is a death zone.

 

Speaker 2: A death zone. Kim would know. She watched her brother-in-law die in the street from an asthma attack. She also had a cousin who suffered an attack, made it to the hospital, but died. Kim is New york born and raised and has asthma herself, as do each of her three children

 

Kim Gaddy: And so it's very personal to me, we believe port authority when they agree to a ban on older trucks.

 

[00:13:00]

Speaker 2:

 

In 2010, the port authorities said that it would ban trucks built before 2007 because they're dirtier than those built afterwards. That would have meant that trucks passing by New York schools would have higher environmental stamdards. But the port authority later changed its mind, saying they needed more time to phase in the new rules, and money to help truck drivers get new rigs.

 

Gabriel: I don't have no more room to store is nothing. Oh this is a big mess [inaudible 00:13:48]. One step at a time. Okay.

 

Speaker 2: Gabriel [inaudible 00:13:55] owns and rives one of those older, dirtier rigs, built in 1999. He's 58 and has worked as a truck driver for 20 years. Gabriel is short and stalky with a weathered face covered in stubble. He's wearing faded jeans and a stocking cap pulled low over his forehead. I climb into his rig and Gabriel shows me part of his route.

 

Gabriel: Like every morning, this is my second house, spend at least 12 hours [inaudible 00:14:31] in my truck. Are you ready?

 

[00:14:30]

Speaker 2:

 

Yes.

 

Gabriel: You have your helmet and your... This is an old truck so it's very loud and you know how.

 

Speaker 2: I ride shotgun. Gabriel has a cooler tucked at his side with today's lunch. At my feet, a plastic crate with a jumble of cables and spare lights. On the windshield, a sticker of the virgin Guadelupe. There's critics that say that your truck is part of the problem. How would you respond?

 

Gabriel: When they see big trucks they see smog. I can't say that I can't hide it either because I'm [inaudible 00:15:12] so I just go, as long as nobody says nothing or nobody throws stones to me I just keep going, because I know it's a problem.

 

[00:15:00]

Speaker 2:

 

Gabriel would like to have a new truck, but he says he needs help from the government to get a loan.

 

[00:15:30]

Gabriel:

 

Well, accessibel loans to buy trucks, regardless of the credit, if you are a truck driver, you should have access to lower interest loans. That's the only way people can go and buy trucks.

 

Speaker 2: A state law maker plans to introduce a bill that would set aside 25 million dollars to help truck drivers like Gabriel. If the bill fails, Gabriel says as an independent contractor, there's no way he could afford to buy a new rig on his own.

 

[00:16:00]

Gabriel:

 

This engine has 800,000 miles. It almost gets to the million miles. I stay with this one up to the end of my working days. And I'm going to retire peaceful, knowing that they move America, because everything is very, very vital, so they should be giving us trucks for free. If they think firefighters and police are heroes, truckers too. Nobody recognizes that.

 

Speaker 2: In the meantime, Gabriel and hundreds of other drivers with older trucks will continue to cross by Hawkins Street, where [inaudible 00:16:40] Bowers goes to school. His mom, Tameeka, says it's time for the community to put a stop to the pollution effecting their kids.

 

[00:16:30]

Tamika:

 

It's up to us to make a change, try to make it different, show them we do matter. You know what I'm saying? Like this right here, we don't got to accept this, but we been accepting it far too long because people don't want to come out and speak and open their mouth. So therefore people open your mouth, let's go. Make a change. It's not for me it's not for you, it's for our children and for our future.

 

Speaker 5: That story from [inaudible 00:17:29]. You can hear how riled up residents like Tameeka are, but is anything gonna change? To talk about that, let's bring in Jamie Hopkins. She's a reporter at the Center of Public Integrity, who partnered with us on today's show. And Jamie, why did you choose to look at this school in New York?

 

[00:17:30]

Speaker 6:

 

Yeah, New York has a lot of schools near busy roads because it has a lot of busy roads. It's right next to New York City, there's a big court there, there's an airport, so there's a lot of sources of transportation pollution in addition to cars and trucks.

 

[00:18:00]

Speaker 5:

 

You counted around 8,000 public schools near busy roads. How did you define a busy road?

 

Speaker 6: Either a road that gets at least 30,000 total vehicles a day on average, or it has 10,000 plus vehicles a day on it, at least 500 of which are tucks. And that's because diesel, particularly old diesel trucks are a well documented problem in terms of their pollution and health impact. So we wanted to make sure that we could account for these roads that have more trucks, even if they don't meet the 30,000 threshold. We got a really helpful calculation from the Texas A&M Transportation Institute that looks at the typical mix of the vehicles on the road today, and they found that a heavy duty diesel truck on a highway puts out 63 times the fine particle pollution of a gasoline car.

 

[00:18:30]

Speaker 5:

 

What about the rest of the country? What was the data you put together on that?

 

Speaker 6: Well we found schools near busy roads all across the country. You know more common in big cities as you would expect, definitely more common in big cities, but you can find it in smaller cities, and in suburbs of all sizes even in rural areas and towns, so this is a nationwide problem. And talking to folks it seems like this is not one that's really on the radar of school systems, they've got so many things to think about, they're not really thinking about the issue of roads and what's coming off the roads.

 

[00:19:00]

Speaker 5:

 

Why are so many schools located near these busy roads?

 

Speaker 6: Well, it seems like a mix of things. Some folks tells that cost plays a role, and that school districts are looking for the cheapest option, and sometimes that just happens to be the land smack down by a highway or other source of heavy traffic. Sometimes it's just hard to find land that isn't close to a busy road. Looking at the map of New York City, just you could see how it would be really challenging for instance. Sometimes the school was built first and the highway came later, but part of the problem seems to be that school officials largely don't seem to realize there is a problem. Traffic pollution is invisible, the decades of research about its effective on people, the measurements showing that it's higher in your roads, this doesn't seem to be very well known outside of public health circles and environmental health advocates. So if you don't know the air is worse near a busy road, you might see that location as a plus, because it's easy to get to. Some of the schools we...

 

  Section 2 of 5          [00:10:00 - 00:20:04]
  Section 3 of 5          [00:20:00 - 00:30:04]
(NOTE: speaker names may be different in each section)

 

Jamie Hopkins: That location as a plus. Because it's easy to get to. And some of the schools we looked at, what's closest to the road are the playgrounds or the athletic fields and air filters in your building won't help there.

 

Al Letson: Schools that serve largely minority students are found near busy roads more than three times the rate of schools that serve mostly white students. Why do you think that is?

 

Jamie Hopkins: Yeah, we wondered that and what we found is that where students live is important. And big cities are, have higher numbers of minority students, lower numbers of white students than say, the rural areas. But one thing that could get lost in this is the reason why people live why they live is something that is influenced in many ways by decisions that were made decades ago. You know, some of the discriminatory decisions about where people were allowed to live. And also where busy roads and highways would be built, still seem to be having ripple effects. And we talked to some experts about, you know, how that continues to affect where people live and where they go to school. It's a problem for everybody, but certainly, health researchers are more concerned about what this means for kids.

 

[00:21:00]

Al Letson:

 

Thanks Jamie. That's Jamie Hopkins from the Center for Public Integrity. We'll hear more from her later in the show. And right about now, you may be wondering, what's going on with my kid's school.

 

Ronya S-D: I think as parents it's hard for us to recognize that we have placed our children in maybe a place of endangerment, when we have the best intentions.

 

[00:21:30]

Al Letson:

 

How one mom went on a mission to clear the air at her kid's school. When we come back, this is Revealed from the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX.

 

Julia B. Chan: Hey listeners, Julia B. Chan here, Reveal's digital editor. I want all the Reveal super fans to stop what you're doing and listen to a pretty cool deal we've got going on right now. We're offering up an exclusive first listen of our next new episode to one new Twitter follower. So, if you don't follow us there already, think about it. We'll randomly select one of you and send you a password-protect link to the latest episode of Reveal before anyone else gets to hear it. We're only doing this for a couple weeks, so now's your chance to win.

 

[00:22:00] To enter, just open up your Twitter app on your phone, and give us a follow. We're @Reveal.

 

Al Letson: From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX. This is Reveal. I'm Al Letson. Before the break, we heard how traffic pollution was affecting schools in North New Jersey. Now, we head to Southern California. A place that makes you think of the glamor of Hollywood, the sway of of palm trees and a cool, fresh breeze blowing off the Pacific Ocean. But for the kids at El Marino Elementary School in Culver City, that cool breeze is not what they smell.

 

[00:23:00] In those few miles between the Pacific Ocean and the school, is a freeway. And not just any freeway, the 405, the busiest freeway in the United States. And one of the busiest sections of that freeway is right next to the school. Our reporter, Amy Walters drove through L.A. traffic to find out what these kids thought about the freeway in their back yard.

 

Amy Walters: What about the freeway air, do you notice that at all? Do you even hear the freeway noise?

 

[00:23:30]

Speaker 6:

 

No, not very much.

 

Speaker 7: We rarely hear cars driving when we're all over here. Yeah.

 

Al Letson: There's a big tall concrete sound wall that keeps the freeway, even the massive 405, pretty much hidden away. The wall is right by the kindergarten classroom. That's where Amy meets up with Mike Reynolds, business manager for Culver City schools.

 

Amy Walters: So this is a kindergarten, and I think we're pretty much at the closest point between the school and the freeway right?

 

Mike Reynolds: That's the freeway wall right there. You know, I'd say it couldn't be more than, you know, 50-60 feet maximum.

 

[00:24:00]

Amy Walters:

 

Like three car lengths? Something like that?

 

Mike Reynolds: Yeah, it looks yeah, just right in that neighborhood.

 

Al Letson: El Marino Elementary is within 500 feet of the 405. Now that would go against state guidelines if the school were built today. But, what makes this school different from the one we heard about in New Jersey, is inside these classrooms, the kids are breathing filtered air.

 

[00:24:30]

Mike Reynolds:

 

So this was our first system and the central component was the Merv 16 filtration. Merv 16 filter is designed to remove the smallest particles.

 

Al Letson: This project has been six years in the making. Inside each room is a large blue heating unit hanging from the ceiling. Inside the units, which were installed in the 1970s, and look like it, are highly sensitive filters. But the project isn't entirely finished. I'll let Amy take it from here.

 

[00:25:00]

Amy Walters:

 

First I have to introduce you to Ronya Sopty-Daily. She's a mom, a scientist, and the woman a lot of parents here credit as the miracle worker who got this project almost done.

 

Ronya S-D: You must be Amy?

 

Amy Walters: Yes.

 

Ronya S-D: I'm Ronya.

 

Amy Walters: Nice to meet you.

 

Ronya S-D: Hi, nice to meet you as well, come on in.

 

Amy Walters: Thank you.

 

Arriving at Ronya's house, it's way more beach bungalow than the mansion. But this is Southern California real estate and none of it's cheap.

 

[00:25:30]

Ronya S-D:

 

These are my children, Seth.

 

Seth: Hi.

 

Ronya S-D: He's in the first year of college.

 

Amy Walters: Okay.

 

Ronya S-D: Andy's a teen.

 

Amy Walters: Hi.

 

Ronya S-D: This is Noah, who just finished being at the school two years ago. He's in seventh grade now and he's twelve. Luke, can you say hi to Amy?

 

Luke: Hi.

 

Ronya S-D: They all went to El Marino.

 

Amy Walters: They all play music. The kids put on a mini concert for me. And they all have golden locks, lightened by the Southern California sun. They look a lot like that 90s band, Hanson. But for these guys, it's more guitar rock, less MM-Bop.

 

[00:26:00]

Noah:

 

I would grade it high, because of the language and I think that I can definitely tell now, in middle school how it helped people learn more.

 

Amy Walters: Noah was part of the Spanish immersion program. The school also has Japanese, all the way through 6th grade.

 

El Marino's been rated one of the top public elementary schools in the state. Ronya's kids had been there for years before she decided to do something about the air.

 

[00:26:30]

Ronya S-D:

 

When I got interested, during the year of 2011, it was just a time in my life where my children had been at El Marino for a long time. They're 12, 15, and 18 now. And they all have been to El Marino and I loved that school.

 

Amy Walters: But she also knew how close it was to the freeway. And she was worried. See, Ronya grew up in a home with smokers. She has asthma herself and she saw it affecting her growing sons too.

 

[00:27:00]

Seth:

 

I've always had asthma.

 

Amy Walters: That's Seth, the oldest.

 

Seth: We don't know if it was started by me, you know, playing around and being outside next to that freeway during my elementary school years. Um, I don't know. I have, I still have some asthma issues sometimes.

 

Amy Walters: A lot of things can trigger asthma. Air pollution is just one cause. And we don't have the exact data on how traffic pollution is affecting the kids at El Marino. We might not ever know. But at lunch time on one very hazy day, I took a very non-scientific poll.

 

[00:27:30] Does anyone here have asthma?, I asked.

 

Speaker 13: He has asthma and ...[crosstalk 00:27:41]

 

Speaker 14: Mark has asthma and his dad and his older brother.

 

Speaker 15: That dude over there has asthma, but he doesn't ... [crosstalk 00:27:46]

 

Speaker 14: He also has asthma. Parker do you have asthma?

 

Speaker 16: Yep [inaudible 00:27:49]

 

Amy Walters: You think that's a lot of kids with asthma?

 

Speaker 13: I think there's a lot of people with asthma.[inaudible 00:27:57]

 

[00:28:00]

Ashley Brown:

 

My mom moved me out because of the 405.

 

Amy Walters: Nine year old Ashley Brown is here with her mother to pick up her younger brother. Her mom, Christina Dronan, took Ashley out of El Marino a year and a half ago.

 

Christina D.: Just the studies I read were really freaking me out. Like the increased chances of cancer. And like, I just thought, that if something were to happen to her and she got one of those rare cancers related to freeway pollution, I couldn't live with it. People are like, "Well, it's L.A., L.A.'s polluted. That's just living in L.A." And I'm like no, it's like 20, 10-20 times worse. But people just didn't want to acknowledge it because it is the best school in Culver City. And so, I think it was a, in my opinion, a little bit of choosing to put their head in the sand.

 

[00:28:30]

Amy Walters:

 

Christina says she's okay with her son going to El Marino now that the school has installed the new filters. Back at Ronya's house, she also acknowledges that for a lot of the parents, realizing what the pollution was doing was hard to face.

 

[00:29:00]

Ronya S-D:

 

I think as parents, it's hard for us to recognize that we have placed our children in, maybe a place of endangerment, when we have the best intentions.

 

Amy Walters: But rather than taking her kids out of El Marino, Ronya went searching for a way to improve the air so the kids could stay.

 

Ronya S-D: I am very aware of the fact that we had, I supposed, privileges that may not be privileges that other school and communities may have.

 

[00:29:30]

Amy Walters:

 

And it wasn't just money, it was time, energy and Ronya's expertise.

 

Ronya S-D: I have a PhD in environmental health sciences that I earned at UCLA. And I have a masters in public health.

 

Amy Walters: Ronya's own background in science, that was the big advantage.

 

Ronya S-D: So I started asking questions. There were, answers were difficult to define, but I'm a researcher and I don't give up.

 

[00:30:00]

Amy Walters:

 

First she started looking back.

 

  Section 3 of 5          [00:20:00 - 00:30:04]
  Section 4 of 5          [00:30:00 - 00:40:04]
(NOTE: speaker names may be different in each section)

 

Amy Walters: ... Researcher. I don't give up. First, she started looking back to see what testing had been done already. Back in 2000, the air was tested at the park near the school.

 

Rania: But the park is further from the freeway than the school is. The school was never even mentioned. The fact that there were sensitive receptors in that school, children, was completely skipped over.

 

Amy Walters: A few years later, the teachers at El Marino complained about the dust and asked for more testing.

 

[00:30:30]

Rania:

 

The people who were asked to come do the evaluation, they measured lead on windowsills instead.

 

Amy Walters: Rania helped start a group of parents and teachers, Clean Air El Marino, they called it. They did it themselves, borrowing expertise and equipment from USC, UCLA, and the South Coast Air Quality Management, really anyone who would listen. They ran their own test of the pollution in the air.

 

Rania: We looked at ultrafine particles, and we started right next to the freeway, under the freeway, across the street, entered the school and took measurements.

 

[00:31:00]

Amy Walters:

 

This is what they found.

 

Rania: This school is not protected by any magical wall, or sound wall, or anything. A lot of people, administrators, parents, thought the sound wall would really protect us from particles. I thought that measurement was going to be something that was going to show if they were right or wrong, and it did.

 

Amy Walters: They were wrong. The sound wall wasn't protecting the kids. The children in El Marino were being exposed to the airborne pollutants from the 405. This was a huge problem, and now they had to find a solution.

 

[00:31:30]

Rania:

 

One option to think about moving the school to another campus somewhere in the city where it'd be further away from the freeway.

 

Amy Walters: They actually considered moving the school.

 

Rania: We contemplated that. We pitched it a little bit. There was no traction there.

 

[00:32:00]

Amy Walters:

 

Both the school and the freeway it seemed were there to stay. Rania kept looking, and it turns out there was another school also by a freeway just a little farther south in Long Beach. They'd figured out how to clean the air in the classrooms, air filters, Merv 16 air filters. They're often used in hospitals, and they're pretty easy to install. They take 90% of the pollutants, smoke, bacteria, that kind of thing, out of the air.

 

[00:32:30]

Rania:

 

We found that there was a solution. We were excited. We were going to get somewhere. If we could bring these filters to our school, we could clean up the air.

 

Amy Walters: Rania was smart when it came to the science, but there was also a political battle to wage. The residents weren't too excited about what her findings meant for their property values. But where there's a will, there's more testing on the way.

 

Mike Reynolds: Rania was able to get some precision instruments from universities.

 

[00:33:00]

Amy Walters:

 

That's Mike Reynolds, who you heard from earlier, the business manager for the Culver City School District. He says the data Rania came up with was real science, and it made it hard for the school board to look away.

 

Mike Reynolds: Rania requested a meeting with the superintendent and myself, and came and presented her case.

 

Amy Walters: Soon after, Mike was working with Rania to get the first filter installed. It was a pilot, so there was more testing to be done.

 

[00:33:30]

Mike Reynolds:

 

After we installed the unit, Rania came out with the devices and measured the ultrafine particulates and found that about 90% of the ultrafine particulates were removed.

 

Amy Walters: It was documented now. With the filters in and the doors and windows closed, the kids could be a lot safer at school. All they needed now was the money to put the filters in the rest of the buildings. The Culver City School District had an initiative called the Whole Child.

 

[00:34:00]

Rania:

 

Being very involved, we knew about that and we were very quick to seize it as an opportunity to say, "Health and safety is part of the child, and that they breathe clean air is part of health and safety. If you care for the health of the children and the whole child, then then this should be important to you," and they said yes.

 

Amy Walters: The school district introduced a bond measure on the Culver City Ballot allocating over $100 million for city schools, and it passed. The money was there, and the filters were installed. But even now the battle isn't entirely won. A lot of schools like El Marino don't have air conditioning. Opening the windows and doors is usually good enough to keep cool, but that's a problem when the breeze is full of exhaust. Mike Reynolds says there's only one more thing El Marino need, and that's almost done.

 

[00:34:30]

Mike Reynolds:

 

The air filtration is in, it's working. We submitted plans to the Department of State Architect to install air conditioning, and that will allow us to maximize the efficiency of the air filtration system. Basically, if the doors are closed, you get 90% of the particulates out of the air.

 

[00:35:00]

Amy Walters:

 

That's happening? It's budgeted?

 

Mike Reynolds: It's budgeted, it's happening. Luckily, the community passed our Measure CC bond, and that helped us fund these improvements.

 

Speaker 4: We're good.

 

Speaker 5: Yeah, definitely good.

 

Speaker 4: Yeah, very helpful. Good for people's health, that's good.

 

Amy Walters: Those are Rania's sons again. They seem pleased with the work she's done, but now they've moved on.

 

[00:35:30]

Speaker 4:

 

None of us are really there still at the school, so it didn't really have an effect on us.

 

Speaker 5: I was definitely thinking, "Why haven't they done it already?" because it's kind of a clear problems. You're right next to the freeway, so I think they should've addressed that issue earlier.

 

Amy Walters: But for Rania, it's not just about her kids.

 

Rania: I understand asthma very well. My children have faced it at times. We've had our struggles, but they're not the reason why this is happening. I believe in the health of the other children. This is beyond my children, and this is beyond myself. That's why I'm in it.

 

[00:36:00]

Amy Walters:

 

About the air outside on the playground? Filters won't work there, but they are talking about a warning system that keeps kids in class on those days when the LA smog gets really bad.

 

[00:36:30]

Rania:

 

That's the next project, I think.

 

Speaker 6: That story was from Reveal's Amy Walters. Now, I don't know about you, but I'm starting to freak out a little bit because my kids' school is close to a really busy road. Let's bring back Jamie Hopkins, who reports on the environment from the Center for Public Integrity. Jamie, what can I do as a parent to make sure my kids are safe from this kind of pollution?

 

Jamie Hopkins: One thing you might do is check to see how close is it to the road really. Usually, the farther away you get, the better of. 500 feet away, that is generally better than being 200 or 100 feet away. The story that Amy Walters tells out of California is examples of what parents did, doing things like cleaning the classrooms. They were able to do things all along the way that made some differences even as they were waiting just to deal with the traffic pollution that was getting inside. There are things that parents can do.

 

[00:37:00]

Speaker 6:

 

California has guidelines that say schools can't be built this close to freeways. Do you think that nationally that should be adopted?

 

[00:37:30]

Jamie Hopkins:

 

People have talked about the rule in California as one that has loopholes. There have been some schools built near freeways since then because what it's intending is trying to keep the schools away, but also acknowledging that sometimes maybe you don't have a lot of good options. At the very least though, what this has done is put it on schools' radar that maybe you should be considering other spots. If you really literally don't have an option, you're going to really want to be thinking about how can we mitigate? If we have to build something here or if we already have schools in these sites, what can we do about it?

 

[00:38:00]

Speaker 6:

 

Are there other solutions out there?

 

Jamie Hopkins: Some of the other things I've heard suggested include things like where you put the air intake, the part of the building that's pulling in the outdoor air. Obviously you don't want to put that near the road or near a loading dock. Pay attention to the times of busy traffic, and make sure that you don't have outdoor activities scheduled at that point. Or, for instance, maybe the maintenance people can pull in outdoor air overnight. Depending on the area, it might be cleaner at that point rather than pulling in first thing in the morning when maybe you're dealing with rush hour traffic right next to you.

 

[00:38:30]

Speaker 6:

 

Are schools implementing these strategies to try and clean the air up for the kids?

 

Jamie Hopkins: We had a hard time finding schools that were really aware of this. It's much more common in Souther California because they've been struggling with air pollution from traffic for a long time there. There are some examples that we could find of schools becoming aware of this. There was a case in Utah, for instance, where a busy road was going to be built near a number of schools. Parents got concerned, they organized, and the state agreed to do air monitoring and put in high grade filters at those schools. People worked something out, they felt really good about it, didn't come to a lawsuit. That gave parents some assurance that the road was not going to harm their kids.

 

[00:39:00]

Speaker 6:

 

Jamie, we can't end this conversation without talking about the EPA. In the past, during the Obama administration, what was the federal government doing about these schools and traffic pollution overall?

 

Jamie Hopkins: The EPA put out a guide to try to help schools become aware of traffic pollution issues and get a sense of what they might be able to do about it. Of course, that was voluntary because it was a guide. Over the years, the EPA has done a variety of things on traffic pollution generally, and as a result cars and trucks are a lot cleaner now than they were a generation, or two generations, or three generations ago. New diesel trucks are a lot cleaner than old diesel trucks, but a lot of the trucks on the road predate standards that kicked in with the 2007 model year because diesel engines are long-lived. They'll be on the road a long time. The EPA has grants to help ...

 

  Section 4 of 5          [00:30:00 - 00:40:04]
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(NOTE: speaker names may be different in each section)

 

Jamie Hopkins: They'll be on the road a long time. The EPA has grants to help people retrofit or replace old diesel vehicles, things like trucks and school buses. But the funding runs out this year, and so it's sort of unclear what's gonna happen with that.

 

Al Letson: And, now that Donald Trump is the President and the EPA has changed, what do you think is gonna happen there?

 

Jamie Hopkins: Yeah it doesn't look like the stage is set for an aggressive crackdown on traffic pollution or any sort of air pollution. President Trump has already said he thinks environmental regulations are out of control. In fact, the official he put in charge of the EPA transition has called for deep cuts at the agency.

 

[00:40:30]

Al Letson:

 

Jamie, thank you so much.

 

Jamie Hopkins: Thanks for having me on, really appreciate it.

 

Al Letson: Jamie Hopkins is with the Center for Public integrity based in Washington, DC. When we come back, we head to Chicago, where students and community activists are going high-tech to keep an eye on air pollution. This is Reveal from the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX.

 

[00:41:00]

Cole Goins:

 

Hey folks, Cole Goins here from Reveal. Last week, President Trump claimed that he didn't think the Dakota Access Pipeline was controversial.

 

Donald Trump: I haven't had one call. From anybody.

 

Cole Goins: That's the same pipeline that has drawn tens of thousands of protesters to the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation in North Dakota. One reason Trump may not have gotten any calls about it? The White House comment line is currently closed.

 

[00:41:30] So we created a new number you can call to tell Reveal what you'd like Trump to know about the pipeline. We've gotten more than 150 voicemails so far. And almost all of the callers have spoken out against the pipeline.

 

Benny Green: Hello, my name's Benny Green. I'm just calling to say that I am opposed to him taking these chances with the drinking water in the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe by building a pipeline through there. And he's got a lot of nerve getting on there and complaining that nobody has called him to object about it when he's got his phone line disconnected so that nobody can call.

 

[00:42:00]

Sidney Brown:

 

My name is Sidney Brown, I live in Farmington, New Mexico. I work for the Navajo Nation. I am Native American. I don't need oil. I do need water. We all need water, water is life.

 

Cole Goins: Are you pro-pipeline? We wanna hear from you too. To share your thoughts on any side of the issue, call 701-289-9353. We'll collect all the voicemails and make sure they get to the White House. We may feature a few on our website, radio show, or right here on the podcast. That number again, 701-289-9353.

 

[00:42:30]

Al Letson:

 

From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I'm Al Letson.

 

[00:43:00] We head now to the South side of Chicago, where 17-year-old Eve Robinson is getting ready to start her day.

 

Eve Robinson: It is Monday morning at about 6 o'clock. I know this because my alarm just went off.

 

Al Letson: Eve is a senior at Whitney M. Young Magnet High School.

 

Eve Robinson: It's a good thing this is radio because my room is a mess.

 

Al Letson: She's also an intern at the non-profit Environmental Law and Policy Center. Today, she's gonna help them out with one of their pilot projects by carrying around a small, portable sensor.

 

[00:43:30]

Eve Robinson:

 

As you can see right here, it's probably about 4x4, it's a square.

 

Al Letson: That little black box is the size of a hand-held video game, and it spits out information about the tiny particles in the air she breathes.

 

Eve Robinson: It's really easy because all you need is an Android phone to be able to connect to it and get the data.

 

Al Letson: The data will help measure air quality everywhere Eve goes today. The Environmental Law and Policy Center is collecting the information so they can let residents and city officials know where the worst air in the city is.

 

[00:44:00] With the center's sensor and our audio recorder, we're gonna eavesdrop on a day in the life of a teenager's lungs in the city.

 

Eve Robinson: I am currently leaving the house.

 

Al Letson: Holding the sensor at chest level, she walks to the bus.

 

Eve Robinson: Okay, so I'm getting on the bus. Right now.

 

[00:44:30]

Loudspeaker:

 

Route 28, Stony Island to Union Station.

 

Al Letson: Her gear attracts side-eyes from a few people around her.

 

Eve Robinson: And to some it might look like I'm either A: Talking to myself, or B: Just a weirdo with a microphone.

 

Al Letson: Then Eve transfers to the elevated blue-line train, where she sees a surprise on the sensor.

 

Eve Robinson: While I was recording, inside the train station itself, the level spiked, which is kind of ridiculous.

 

[00:45:00]

Al Letson:

 

Inside the train station, the air is thick with dust and exhaust. Particles that are 1/30th the width of a single strand of hair. The particles enter the lungs and are known triggers for asthma. Now, that's a big concern in a city where hospitals admit almost twice the national average of patients for asthma attacks. Those stats have made Chicago an important laboratory for projects like Eve's, to track hotspots for air pollution and help people navigate around them.

 

[00:45:30] Reveal's Ike Sriskandarajah went to Chicago to check out several of these projects.

 

Ike S.: Let's catch up with Eve. She's now at school and carrying her sensor that pulls in air readings every second. It's a device that costs a couple hundred bucks, but it can give you a pretty good idea about air quality. Eve doesn't have asthma, but the information her sensor picks up could help her classmate, Kimani Walker, who does.

 

[00:46:00]

Eve Robinson:

 

Can you just tell me a little bit about what that experience is like when you have an asthma attack?

 

Ike S.: The high school senior is huddled over the audio recorder in a noisy hallway before class.

 

Kimani Walker: Okay so you're trying to breathe and you can feel your lungs moving. You have a tightening in your chest and it's really scary because you don't know what's happening. And I was rushed to the emergency room and they cut open my shirt, they put the oxygen on, and then past then I blacked out. And so I have to say it's one of the scariest things that you can ever experience.

 

[00:46:30]

Ike S.:

 

To Kimani, who always carries her inhaler, it feels like drowning on dry land. According to the Environmental Law and Policy Center, there are 29 schools in the Chicago area that are right next to an expressway. Eve's is one of them. Between classes, she wonders how much of the traffic exhaust is getting inside.

 

Eve Robinson: Well, I mean it might be different in different places, also kinda wanna see inside the school building since most students spend like six hours here, so yeah.

 

[00:47:00]

Ike S.:

 

Eve takes her monitor to class.

 

Eve Robinson: I'll see you.

 

Ike S.: We'll meet up again after school with a pediatrician who will interpret the information her device picks up throughout the day.

 

In the meantime, I head to another part of town where another experiment to track air quality is going on.

 

Kim Wasserman: Hey, nice to meet you!

 

Ike S.: I meet up with Kim Wasserman. She grew up in Chicago and now runs an environmental justice organization. She gives me a tour of her neighborhood, Little Village. It's known as the Mexico of the Midwest because people come from all over to buy Mexican goods here.

 

[00:47:30]

Kim Wasserman:

 

So we actually do pretty well as a community when it comes economic generation. But we don't do so well when it comes to air quality, unfortunately.

 

Ike S.: Case in point: a red brick schoolhouse in the front yard of a large factory.

 

Kim Wasserman: So this right here is Zapata Elementary School. In the background you can see that three-story building right there? That's the Hellmann's plant.

 

Ike S.: That mayonnaise factory has been here for about 100 years. And now, it plans to expand. Just within breathing distance of kids at recess.

 

[00:48:00]

Kim Wasserman:

 

And so, what will eventually happen is the plant's gonna literally grow right behind the school, and actually encroach all the way around the school. And those littlest babies with forming lungs are going to be closest to the air pollution.

 

Ike S.: Kim is measuring the air quality now, so she can figure out if it gets worse after the factory expands.

 

Kim Wasserman: And so that's why this air monitoring project is so crucially important for us right now, because this would be the first time that we could actually have science in hand and be able to prove that what we feel, what we think, might actually be true.

 

[00:48:30]

Ike S.:

 

Kim's is one of four neighborhood groups in Chicago that won grant money from the Environmental Protection Agency. They'll use it to buy portable and stationary sensors to record air quality. Kim wants this process of monitoring to become the norm. So, whenever a business in Chicago wants to build, the city would first have to consider how much pollution that business would emit.

 

[00:49:00]

Kim Wasserman:

 

What we're trying to do now is make systematic change at a policy level so that no neighborhood has to go through this.

 

Ike S.: Kim's group will start monitoring this Spring. The project will give people in Little Village a neighborhood-wide map of air pollution.

 

Another project will offer Chicagoans a bigger picture of how the whole city is breathing. And this is where it starts, even though people walking around might not realize it.

 

[00:49:30] This is a busy intersection in beautiful downtown Chicago. And I'm standing underneath a shoebox-sized attachment to the top of the lamppost, probably like 20 feet up in the air. Can I ask you, what do you think that thing is up there?

 

Woman: What thing?

 

Ike S.: You see that white beehive-shaped thing?

 

Woman: Yeah?

 

Ike S.: What do you think that is?

 

Woman: I'm not sure. Maybe a camera, maybe like some kind of tracking device?

 

[00:50:00]

Ike S.:

 

It's more of a scientific tracking device. A first of its kind super-sensor that measures all kinds of data. Ultraviolet rays, traffic vibrations, magnetic fields, and air quality.

 

Charlie Catlett: We're probably the first city that has a device that measures this many things.

 

Ike S.: Charlie Catlett is the computer scientist who helped build the data-collectors as part of a project called "The Array of Things." He's overseeing the installation of 500 nodes on new lampposts during the next two years. The nodes will be able to track the gases people breathe and the tiniest irritants, like soot particles, up to bigger ones like pollen. All the information they collect, Charlie says, will be public.

 

[00:50:30]

Charlie Catlett:

 

When people say, "Well what access will we have?" The answer is: immediate, full, free. The part that I feel excited about is the ability to give data to that person in a way that helps them navigate this city.

 

[00:51:00]

Ike S.:

 

It's part of a bigger push for mayor Rahm Emanuel to put Chicago in the vanguard of data-driven city planning. Picture it: You wake up, and read an alert of high levels of ragweed on your commute. So, if you're allergic to that pollen, you decide not to ride your bike that day. Or, you're walking through the city, and you get a notification that you're headed for a diesel-particulate hotspot. Detour! Take a different route. This could happen in Chicago's near future, and not just here, Charlie thinks as many as 100 cities may host their own "Array of Things" within five years.

 

[00:51:30]

Charlie Catlett:

 

I think we're not at the very beginning, but I think we're in the early stages of a lot of sensor activity.

 

Ike S.: And it starts with putting devices in the hands of residents like high school senior Eve Robinson. Speaking of, school's out, and Eve's at the University of Chicago Children's Hospital.

 

Dr. Giles: This is Eve Robinson.

 

Eve Robinson: Hi, nice to meet you!

 

Dr. Giles: Alise Jones.

 

Alise Jones: Oh, hi, hi! Hi how are you doing?

 

[00:52:00]

Ike S.:

 

Eve took her data to Dr. Louise Giles, a respiratory specialist.

 

Dr. Giles: So what kind of numbers have you been seeing with it?

 

Eve Robinson: It's been interesting, it's been kind of all over.

 

Ike S.: Eve opens up her laptop, where she's loaded her data into a spreadsheet. It turns out her readings from school were nothing to worry about.

 

Eve Robinson: We were surprised, actually, by how low it was.

 

Ike S.: But there was that spike in fine particles near the train station where Eve transferred on her way to school.

 

Eve Robinson: So that was really high, obviously.

 

[00:52:30]

Dr. Giles:

 

Mm-hmm (affirmative)-yeah. And that's the hard part, right? Not knowing about what you're being exposed to and these little, what we'd call micro-environments, where this might be high. Let's say if you had asthma, would you change your commute to school based on what you've seen?

 

Eve Robinson: I think that I might when it's warmer weather, even if it's more humid, then I might decide to instead of taking the blue-line I might take the bus instead and find a different route.

 

Ike S.: Policy makers might one day use sensors to design a data-driven path forward for city planning. In the meantime, even her classmates can now use it to decide what path to take to school.

 

[00:53:00]

Al Letson:

 

That was Reveal's Ike Sriskandarajah. Thanks to Eve Robinson for keeping and sharing her audio diary.

 

Today's show was edited by Deb George and Cheryl Devall. Amy Walters was our lead producer. This week's production team includes Fernanda Camarena, Ike Sriskandarajah, Mwende Hahesy and Julia B. Chan. Senior Data Reporter Eric Sagara helped crunch the numbers for our story on school pollution.

 

[00:53:30] The Center for Public Integrity partnered with us on today's show, including reporter Jamie Hopkins and editors Chris Zubak-Skees and Jim Morris.

 

CPR receives support for their story from the Dennis A. Hunt Fund for Health Journalism and the National Fellowship, both programs of the University of Southern California Center for Health Journalism.

 

Our sound design team is the wonder twins, my man, J Breezy Mr. Jim Briggs and Claire C. [Note 00:54:02] Mullen, with help from Catherine Raymondo. Our head of studio's Christa Scharfenburg, Amy Pyle's our editor-in-chief. Suzanne Reber is our executive editor and our executive producer's Kevin Sullivan. Our theme music is by Camerado, "Lightning." Support for Reveal is provided by the Reva and David Logan Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation.

 

[00:54:00] Reveal is a co-production of the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX. I'm Al Letson, and remember, there is always more to the story.

 

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