Tabloid Daze

Of course, I’ve had my share of tabloid silliness, like my EXCLUSIVE on the Bronx man who got a ticket for sitting on a milk crate.  The actual charge (visible in the original picture but blurry in the PDF) was “improper use of milk crate.”  To be fair, it is actually illegal under New York State law to use a genuine milk crate for anything other than transporting milk or ice cream — seriously.  But the officer’s alleged comment at the time of the ticketing — “Don’t blame me. Blame Bloomberg” — suggests the incident had more to do with allegations of pressure on cops to raise revenue with agressive ticketing than with protecting of the integrity of the state’s dairy dairy products.

Also, after Braves pitcher John Rocker slammed 7 train riders with a racist, xenophobic rant in Sports Illustrated, he boasted that he’d ride the 7 train when he returned to Shea Stadium.  In the end, Rocker chickened out — but I didn’t.  The Daily News sent me out the day before to ride the 7 line wearing a Rocker jersey.  When I returned relatively intact, with no report of violence, my editors sent me back out again with instructions to talk more trash to the drunken, face-painted fans headed out to Shea for a Mets-Marlins game that night.  I never got punched, but I got plenty of threats and verbal abuse.

Toxic waste in schools

Probably the most “important” story I did at the Daily News was an investigation that broke the story of toxic PCBs in the caulking of public schools.   The Daily News tested caulking sampled from several NYC public schools in 2008 and found that most contained many times more PCBs than the threshold for toxic waste.  Anything with more than 50 parts-per-million of PCBs is considered toxic waste, and I found 225,000 ppm in the caulking of one Upper West Side elementary school, and similar contamination at schools in other boroughs.

The initial coverage and ensuing City Council hearings and lawsuits finally resulted in a settlement in January 2010 between the EPA and New York City to deal with the PCB caulking in what was supposed to be a national model to deal with this nationwide problem (PCB-laced caulking was widely used across the country before 1977).   As the issue snowballed, the EPA attempted a surprising  about-face and quietly proposed changing its regulations to exempt caulking from the 50-ppm safety standard.  That wasn’t an easy sell at the Manhattan public hearing on the matter and the proposal was scuttled, but it wouldn’t have mattered much anyway.  Further testing during the clean up has revealed that aging flourescent lights are also a significant source of PCB contamination in schools.

My coverage of the issue eventually led to major changes in city, state and federal policy regarding legacy PCB contamination, the discovery and remediation of similar contamination in other school districts across the nation, Congressional legislation to fund school clean ups, and new research into the effects of long-term, low-dose PCB exposure on childhood development.

Cell Phone Radiation

The first really complex story I did for the New York Daily News was an explainer on the new system for rating the radiation emissions of mobile phones that was rolled out by the Federal Communication Commission in 2000.  This was back when the only safety data available was from studies funded by the telecom industry, so the story also had to address the larger controversy over the possible dangers of cell phone radiation.

Scientific controversy is always hard to write about, especially for a layman reader scanning a tabloid on the subway, but a few choice details can often provide the context necessary for readers to make up their own minds.

For example, I thought the comfort offered by the industy’s published findings that cell phone radiation posed no risk was somewhat mitigated by the telecom industry’s lead scientist telling me that he was buying plug-in headsets for everyone in his family and didn’t recommend holding cell phones near your head.

Another interesting takeaway from this story was that the FCC’s SAR radiation standard used to declare cell phone radiation levels safe is actually based on the standards for microwave ovens and pertain only to the heat they generate.  So despite the implicit assurance that the radiation won’t cause genetic damage or brain tumors, all the safety standards really guarantee is that your cell phone won’t literally cook your brain.