When Sharing Is Scaring

A couple of weeks ago, the online news outlet Vox published an article headlined: “18 cities in Pennsylvania reported higher levels of lead exposure than Flint.” Below the headline is a preview image of a video, showing a woman holding up two bottles of brown tap water.

That’s a scary headline, and a scary image. People around Pennsylvania began sharing the Vox article and the numerous local news stories that reported on Vox’s findings. In many instances, when shared on social media, the article would be accompanied by an image showing either brown tainted drinking water, a water faucet, or a child drinking from a glass of water. I even started to see facebook posts from my friends wondering if our water in Pittsburgh was safe to drink.

People who actually read the article will see a couple important items. First, the article says that the data is from 2014 to 2015, while the water source for Flint was switched to the Flint River in April 2014. Without more specificity about when the tests were done, it’s hard to tell if the full scope of the lead contamination in Flint is reflected here.

More importantly, when you get to the fifth paragraph, you read the buried lede: “it is important to note that the lead exposure rates in Pennsylvania are largely linked to aging, deteriorating lead-based paint.” That’s right, despite all the drinking water imagery that went along with different online versions of this report, the issue in Pennsylvania is a legacy of toxic lead paint.

Lead paint, drinking water infrastructure, and children’s health are all important environmental justice issues. The seriousness of those issues is not served when they’re conflated together for clicks, pageviews and shares.

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