Arsenic forces closing of park

Tests show high levels in soil

city locks gates of Swann Park

April 20, 2007|By Tom Pelton | Tom Pelton,sun reporter

Baltimore officials closed a city park yesterday that is used regularly by children's sports teams, after tests showed arsenic levels more than 100 times higher than is considered safe.

The city Health Department locked the gates of Swann Park, south of Federal Hill, and passed out fliers warning neighbors of the risks of arsenic, a cancer-causing agent.

"We are well past the threshold of being concerned, and that's why we are shutting the park," said Dr. Joshua Sharfstein, the city health commissioner. "But it's too soon to assess the risk to human health."

Swann Park sits next to an industrial site in South Baltimore where the former Allied Chemical Corp. used arsenic to manufacture pesticides until 1976.

For decades, the park on the Middle Branch of the Patapsco River has been used by Southern High School - now Digital Harbor - football and baseball teams, as well as local sports leagues. It is legendary as a place where baseball stars Al Kaline and Reggie Jackson once played as youths.

The park was closed in 1976 when a pesticide called kepone, a nerve-damaging agent once manufactured by Allied, was found in the dirt of the ballfields.

But a panel of federal, state and local health officials allowed the park to be reopened that year - even though tests by the company showed high levels of arsenic there, according to reports obtained by The Sun. The results of the tests were unknown to residents.

Yesterday's closure was prompted after Honeywell International Inc. turned over records to the state on April 3. In 1999, Honeywell merged with the chemical company's successor, Allied-Signal.

The New Jersey-based Honeywell was reviewing its files as it negotiated with Maryland over a cleanup plan for a neighboring factory site. The records showed that Allied officials knew about elevated arsenic levels in the park for more than 30 years, records show.

Neighbors said yesterday that they were startled to hear that the popular waterfront fields were contaminated, and some said they were frustrated to hear that the problems were ignored for years.

"It's a little unnerving to learn that my next-door neighbor is a field of arsenic," said Catherine Dubravo, 21, who moved Wednesday from Little Rock, Ark., to the street leading to the park. "It just raises so many more questions. ... If they've known it was an area that once had trouble, why would they ignore it?"

Cory Leichling, 12, said he plays on Swann Park's fields almost every weekend, often for four and five hours at a time.

"Every week, we're always doing something. Football or baseball," said Cory, who grew up next to the park. He said the tackle football games sometimes get rough and dirt from the park gets into his cuts.

"I've had scratches, blood, and dirt has been all up in my sores. I'll show you my arm," he said, pulling up a sleeve to show a cluster of white scars.

Cory's father, Harvey Leichling Jr., 46, a 15-year resident of the block, said he plans to take Cory and his 16-year-old brother to the doctor for tests.

Baltimore's Health Department has asked an agency of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to examine the site and determine whether the health of neighbors and others who use the park is at risk, Sharfstein said.

Arsenic is a naturally occurring element that is poisonous when consumed in high doses, and in lesser amounts it can cause cancer, abnormal heart rhythms and lower IQ scores in children with prolonged exposure, according to the federal health agency.

Arsenic in dirt is less dangerous, said Dr. Laura Herrera, chief medical officer for the city Health Department.

"The risk is very, very low ... for someone playing ball in the park, unless they were actually eating dirt," she said.

More than a decade ago, Allied placed an asphalt cap over the site of the former pesticide factory on Race Street, which is just north of the park and under Interstate 95. But the cap cracked and pollutants might have leaked, according to the Maryland Department of the Environment.

Although the state agency in recent years has been after the company to fix the cap and test the industrial site, nobody has tested the adjacent park since 1976, said Horacio Tablada, director of waste management for the Maryland Department of the Environment.

Tablada said the state assumed that the park was safe because a panel of experts called the Kepone Task Force, led by Donald H. Noren, former director of the state health department, said that it was in 1976.

"The task force decided the park was good to go, and nobody else thought to test it," Tablada said. "Nobody ever thought about the park having a problem until this recent data came out ... so we decided to act expeditiously."

Tests performed by Honeywell and turned over to the state April 19 show arsenic levels in the park of 23 parts per million to 2,200 parts per million, records show.

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