How the Times reported its Poisoned project

Investigative reporter Corey G. Johnson and data reporter Eli Murray had previously worked on a story about lead in water in Hillsborough County schools. During the course of his reporting, Johnson began to explore other lead contamination issues around Tampa Bay and soon came across Gopher Resource, the only lead smelter operating in Florida. The factory is a key reason why Hillsborough County accounts for the most adult lead poisoning cases in the entire state. So it seemed like a place to focus our reporting. Investigative reporter Rebecca Woolington came to the Times in late 2018. Soon after her arrival, she joined Johnson and Murray on the project. Johnson has worked nearly full time on lead-related stories for more than two years. Woolington has devoted most of her time to the project. Murray has juggled other assignments but has spent at least half of his time over the past two years on this project. After hearing a description about the developing story, the PBS show FRONTLINE invited us to join its Local Journalism Initiative. The renowned news organization, known for its award-winning documentary video journalism, helped fund the reporting for this series and has provided consulting support every step of the way.

How did the Times obtain and analyze air-lead data from Gopher Resource?

Gopher Resource is required by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to monitor air-lead levels inside the plant quarterly. Under the law, employees are entitled to review these records and some chose to share copies with the Times. Reporters used these records to analyze average and maximum air-lead concentrations around the plant.

There are multiple ways to analyze air-lead exposure for workers. The Times took a conservative approach, which is the same one that consultants for Gopher Resource have used. This method determines exposure based on an 8-hour shift.

Results of the Times’ analysis show that more than a quarter of the time, workers in the dustiest parts of the factory have encountered levels of lead in the air that exceed the protection capability of the standard-issued respirators.

There is a caveat: Gopher’s employees typically work 12-hour shifts, meaning they are likely exposed to air-lead levels for longer than what Gopher’s consultants, or the Times have calculated.

OSHA directs employers to take air-lead readings from at least one worker in each position hooked up to a monitor for a full shift. That means companies like Gopher should be measuring worker exposure levels for 12 hours, if that’s how long they work. The workers they select are supposed to represent the typical tasks and circumstances of all employees that work in that same position.

Of the 136 samples taken from monitors attached to furnace employees at Gopher from 2013 to 2019, the average sample lasted 9.75 hours, with some as short as six hours.

There are two ways to account for samples that are taken over a shorter period of time than an entire shift. Calculating it both ways gives an upper and lower estimate of the number of samples that would exceed the protection offered by the standard respirator used at Gopher.

The first method assumes every sample collected represents the working conditions during a full shift. So if a worker keeps their monitor on for six hours, but actually works 12 hours, this method assumes that they would be doing the same work during the first half of their shift as the second half. It’s similar to measuring the speed of a moving car. If you measured the speed of a vehicle traveling 30 mph for six hours, but it kept going at the same speed for another six hours, the average speed of the car would still be 30 mph. Because this method assumes workers remained in the same conditions the whole time, it results in the higher estimate of exposure. In the case of furnace workers at Gopher, this calculation estimates that 48 percent of samples exceeded the protection level of the typical respirator worn.

The second way is to calculate a time-weighted average by assuming that the sample was representative for only the time it was taken and to adjust it as if the remaining time on the shift was spent in conditions with no lead exposure. Returning to our car analogy, this would be akin to measuring a vehicle traveling at a speed of 30 mph for six hours, then stopping for six hours. The average speed of the car in this case would be 15 mph. Calculating it this way gives a lower estimate for the number of overexposed workers — 41 percent of samples in the furnace department at Gopher would have exceeded the protection level for the respirator assigned to most workers.

The Times chose not to rely on any extrapolations or assumptions and instead compared the sample results directly to the eight-hour respirator maximum protection level.

Even so, the conservative analysis shows alarming levels of exposure at the factory.

How did the Times determine health risks for workers?

Reporters analyzed blood-lead tests for more than 500 workers at the plant. They compared the workers’ average levels over a four-year period to those in government reports and to research papers documenting potential risks to long-term health from lead exposure. The Times used conclusions reached by the National Toxicology Program; a National Academy of Sciences committee; and the California Department of Public Health to determine that blood-lead levels of 8 micrograms per deciliter or higher could put workers at risk of kidney dysfunction, high blood pressure and cardiovascular disease.

How did the Times calculate lead levels inside bone?

The Times also sought to quantify chronic lead exposure. Lead moves from blood into bone, where it can remain for decades, creating what’s called a bone-lead body burden. Cumulative exposures are important because the resulting health effects are more likely to be irreversible.

Researchers use blood-lead tests to calculate cumulative lead exposure over time.

The Times consulted with experts and used the method to estimate the amount of lead lodged in one long-time worker’s bones from occupational exposures. The newsroom analyzed 182 blood-lead tests taken by the worker from 1985 to 2017.

The calculation works by first estimating a range of lead stored in leg bone, then multiplying the result based on an estimated weight of the skeleton. The Times used formulas in published medical texts to calculate the estimated skeleton weight. Two experts in cumulative lead exposure at Johns Hopkins University and the University of Southern California reviewed the Times analysis and confirmed the accuracy of the methodology.

What other records and documents did the Times use?

Times reporters have not been inside Gopher Resource, a private company. Reporters interviewed more than 80 current or former Gopher employees. Several gave the Times hundreds of photographs and video taken inside the Tampa plant. These employees exhaustively described the work they performed at the factory. Reporters read thousands of pages of regulatory documents and company records, including emails and letters, consultant reports and data tracking the amount of lead in the air and in workers’ blood. Reporters and editors entered thousands of fields of data from company reports into a database so it could be analyzed. The internal company reports and data were then compared with federal rules and what the plant shared with OSHA. Workers’ compensation filings, 911 emergency calls and incident reports were also reviewed.

What did Gopher Resource, OSHA and some of the other key subjects in the story have to say?

This story is part of a collaboration with FRONTLINE, the PBS series, through its Local Journalism Initiative, which is funded by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Times reporters sent email interview requests to members of Gopher’s corporate leadership team in October. A public relations professional hired by the company contacted the Times to coordinate. Gopher released a statement to the Times from one of its top executives in November. The Times sent subsequent email interview requests to the spokeswoman summarizing the newsroom’s findings and asking to speak with Gopher’s leadership team in Tampa and its headquarters in Eagan, Minn. The company ultimately declined all interview requests. Reporters sent a more detailed six-page memo of findings. The memo included specific questions. The company chose not to answer most of the questions from the Times in providing an additional 2½-page response in February.

The Times detailed its findings and sent a series of questions to Dr. Bruce Bohnker. He responded in February, saying “patient confidentiality laws prohibit me from responding to any of your questions.” The Times also sought comment from TeamHealth Ambulatory Care. The medical company manages the clinic, Comprehensive Occupational Medicine for Business and Industry, where Bohnker practices. The company did not respond.

Officials with OSHA declined interview requests but responded to written questions sent in January. The agency sent a seven-page Word document on Feb. 12. OSHA also answered follow-up questions in writing.

How did the Times obtain medical records for Gopher workers?

We asked workers if they would share their medical records with us so we could better understand their illnesses and injuries. Twenty current or former Gopher workers, or their caretakers, agreed to show reporters their personal medical files. The Times obtained their consent to use their information for our stories, and to share them, in four cases, with independent doctors and medical specialists.

How much did this story cost to produce?

The Times has devoted more than $500,000 to its investigation of lead poisonings in Tampa Bay over the past couple of years, with the vast majority of it devoted to this specific project. The amount includes staff time for reporters and editors as well as visual journalists, engagement producers, copy editors, designers and senior editors. It includes the costs to send all three reporters to Georgia, where they took courses to earn certifications as lead inspectors. It includes about $1,000 spent to obtain documents and data, and it includes several thousands of dollars spent so far to conduct laboratory testing. FRONTLINE provided about $120,000 toward this project through its Local Journalism Initiative.

We want to talk with you

Do you live in the neighborhoods of Grant Park, Oak Park, Florence Villa, Dixie Farms or Uceta Gardens in Hillsborough County? And do you suffer from these health issues?

  • Heart ailments
  • Kidney disease
  • Infertility
  • Hypertension
  • Muscle weakness
  • Behavioral problems
  • Reduced attention span
  • Cognitive disabilities
  • Debilitating headaches

These are among the factors associated with high levels of lead exposure. Please contact us if you are interested in talking.