In 2021, Midwest Newsroom managing editor Holly Edgell saw recent studies on the abnormally high lead levels in Midwestern children. As a news team, we felt it was our public service responsibility to report on lead contamination and educate our neighbors on the risks in our own backyard.

With financial support from the Kauffman Family Foundation, the Midwest Newsroom (an investigative journalism collaboration between NPR, Iowa Public Radio, KCUR, Nebraska Public Media and St. Louis Public Radio) teamed up with the Missouri Independent (non-profit news organization covering state government and policy) to create the Unleaded project.

Our goal was to explore lead poisoning in the Midwest while reaching as many residents as possible on different mediums with extensive regional distribution and free republication availability. We wanted to meet the audiences where they were.

We hired one investigative reporting fellow and one engagement fellow to produce the reports on lead levels in everything from paint, to soil, to drinking water, primarily in Iowa, Kansas, Nebraska and Missouri. This meant looking at the patterns of racial disparities and socioeconomic factors that indicated higher risks of lead poisoning. They also looked at what researchers and local governments are doing for a spin on solutions journalism.

The fellows received editorial support from the Missouri Independent and the Midwest Newsroom, which published each digital piece simultaneously. The NPR member stations aired audio feature versions.

Reporting began in January and will wrap up on August 31. Reporters and editors from the Missouri Independent and the Midwest Newsroom also contributed stories, photos, data visualizations, news graphics and event support.

One of our biggest goals was to engage residents in the Midwest. So we met them on Facebook Live for a conversation about the lingering effects of lead paint in homes and on Twitter Spaces to talk about the risk of lead ammo contamination in donated food pantry meat from hunters. We also met in-person at a St. Louis back-to-school expo and passed out information from our reporting and resources for parents and students.

To date, we’ve published or aired more than 15 stories in English and Spanish, hosted three engagement events and still have several stories and one big hybrid event on the calendar to wrap up the project. We’ll be passing out at-home lead-testing kits to attendees and lead-free crayons for children.