Hopkins professor prepared to proceed with cancer research in Wagner's Point Study needs government funding, local cooperation

June 05, 1998|By Joe Mathews | Joe Mathews,SUN STAFF

An article in yesterday's editions about the Johns Hopkins University's research of cancer in Wagner's Point misstated the title of Devon Payne-Sturges. She will be the city's assistant commissioner for environmental health.

The Sun regrets the errors.

The Johns Hopkins University, criticized in recent months for not following through on research of cancer-ravaged Wagner's Point, may this summer begin studying the extent to which the neighborhood's residents are exposed to hazardous air pollutants.

The possibility of a new study comes a month after Wagner's Point residents, frightened by a high number of cancer deaths and fed up with foul-smelling air, asked the city and state to buy their homes and relocate the neighborhood.

FOR THE RECORD - CORRECTION

Timothy Buckley, an assistant professor at the Hopkins School of Hygiene and Public Health, said yesterday he would proceed with new research if the community cooperates and if his application for a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency grant of up to $25,000 is approved. Yesterday, Buckley, wielding a hammer and nails, installed a dozen air monitors around Wagner's Point -- a crucial first step in designing an effective study, he said.

"We're contemplating a study, but we don't want to wait in making preparations," said Buckley, a 39-year-old Minnesota native who came to Wagner's Point for the first time last month. "I'm already joining the game late."

An exposure study would attempt to learn whether two troubling facts about the heavily industrialized neighborhood are connected: Three types of cancer -- lung, lymphoma, and leukemia -- are reported in the area at rates significantly higher than the city, state and national averages.

Three cancer-causing chemicals -- there are a number of chemical and oil companies in Wagner's Point -- are in the neighborhood's air at levels up to 30 times higher than those the EPA considers safe.

Baltimore City Health Commissioner Peter Beilenson first asked the epidemiology department at Johns Hopkins Medical School to examine the cancer risk two years ago. Researchers looked into it but haven't produced results. "Frankly, it's taken an unreasonable amount of time," Beilenson said earlier in the spring.

In recent weeks, the health commissioner had pleaded with Hopkins officials for a new study, and, a month ago, Buckley agreed to take the case.

Working with him yesterday were Devon Payne-Sterges, the city's new assistant commissioner for public health, Doris McGuigan, an environmental activist based in Brooklyn, and Larry Sturgill, an engineer who has lived in the Point, as the locals call it, since 1959. Residents eyed them closely, and Betty Lefkowitz, a 63-year-old whose next door neighbor died of cancer this year, walked over to thank them.

"We need the help and cooperation of local people if the study is going to succeed," Buckley said.

Many details of the research have not been determined, and Buckley has been attending community meetings to seek input. Nearby neighborhoods with elevated cancer rates -- Brooklyn, Curtis Bay, Fairfield and Hawkins Point -- also may be studied. "But we wanted to start in Wagner's Point," said McGuigan, "because that's where we've had the most severe complaints about pollution."

Buckley, who spent five years as an EPA researcher, said he will rely on small round monitoring badges with carbon inside that attaches to airborne toxins such as benzene. The inexpensive badges can be used inside or outside.

If a Hopkins research review committee approves, some residents may eventually wear the badges on their shirts, like name tags, to measure their daily exposure to chemicals in the South Baltimore air.

Pub Date: 6/05/98

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