Assignment 4- Sensor Journalism

The case I found most interesting was about USA Today’s “Ghost Factories” project. A study had been recently published on 430 old metal working factories that closed down, and it was believed they  left behind heavy metal poisons in surrounding neighborhoods. Families began moving into these areas and had no idea that the soil their children were playing in could be unsafe. Alison Young, a journalist for USA Today, knew that their investigation would require soil sampling, but she assumed it would have to be outsourced. It turns out the with the use of an X-Ray Fluorescence (XRF) analyzer, reporters could do some of the data collection themselves. This avoids the huge expense of outsourcing and also increases the amount of data they could collect for the same money. Thermo Fisher is a company that makes a leading line of XRF analyzers, which are used in the fields of environmental regulation, resource mining, and industrial production.

The cost to purchase the scanner would have been $41,000 per unit, but they were able to rent them for $2,250 per device, per month. Using the scanners, they found that there was “potentially dangerous lead levels in parts of all 21 neighborhoods examined across 13 states. They found that neighborhoods in Philadelphia had areas where children would play with lead concentrations of more than double the EPA’s limit. The main takeaway from this case was that although environmental testing was a known investigative method before, the ability for journalists to rent electronic, self-contained devices opened up many more opportunities.

I couldn’t find an XRF scanner on sparkfun, but there are many available on Thermo Fisher. This story and the many types of environmental sensors had me thinking of the possibilities to bring awareness to the public on the quality of their natural resources. Access to clean water has been a major issue, especially when it is pumped through lead pipes. Even without the issue of lead contamination, there are many factors that can affect the quality of tap water. Similarly to how the soil samples were collected, water can be tested in areas that are concerned about their water quality. On sparkfun, there are many different types of environmental sensors, such as this one, which measures air quality, and this one, which measures the acidity and basicity of liquids. I also found some sensors on other websites that provide more data about the water, like this one, which records conductivity, pH, ORP, dissolved oxygen, water level/pressure, salinity, total dissolved solids, resistivity, density, air and water temperature, and barometric pressure.