'81 study identified arsenic

Hopkins researcher says city officials, EPA shrugged off warning

Sun Follow-up

May 02, 2007|By Tom Pelton | Tom Pelton,Sun reporter

A Johns Hopkins researcher documented high levels of arsenic in a South Baltimore park more than 25 years ago and concluded the element was likely responsible for an unusually high cancer death rate in the neighborhood.

Dr. Genevieve Matanoski, working under a grant from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, published a study in 1981 that linked arsenic dust from the Allied Chemical Co. pesticide plant next to Swann Park to a fatal lung cancer rate more than three times normal for Baltimore's working-class neighborhoods.

She found high levels of arsenic along the rail lines leading to and from the factory and concluded that the carcinogenic dust was probably blowing off train cars and polluting not only the park but also nearby residential areas.

"Nobody was keeping it secret," Matanoski, former chairman of the EPA's science advisory board, said of the high arsenic levels in Swann Park. "We told the city and the EPA, `You've got arsenic in the soil in the park, and it's a problem,' and they were like, `OK, thanks for the information.'"

She faulted federal, state and local governments for failing to follow up on her study with more tests and perhaps removing or burying the arsenic. "The [cancer] deaths had to be followed up on," she said. "Somebody has to take the information and use it."

Baltimore officials recently suggested that nobody outside of Allied and perhaps a state cleanup task force knew about the high levels of arsenic in Swann Park. "I want to understand why we are only learning about this problem now," Mayor Sheila Dixon demanded April 20, as she announced a city investigation into why arsenic levels in the park were kept quiet for years.

Matanoski said her conclusions were published in the journal Environmental Research, and she presented them to the EPA and to a conference of the American Public Health Association. Some of her preliminary findings were reported in The Sun in 1976.

Swann Park, beside the Middle Branch of the Patapsco River, opened in 1914 and for decades was popular among children's sports leagues, including the football and softball teams of Southern High School, now called Digital Harbor. For almost a century, from the late 1800s until 1976, Allied and other companies immediately north of the park used arsenic, a known cancer-causing agent, and other chemicals to make pesticides. The products included kepone, a highly toxic nerve-damaging compound, and DDT, which was later banned for killing fish and birds.

The city closed the park last month after Allied's successor company, Honeywell International, turned over to the state documents related to the repair of a leaky asphalt cap built over the now-vacant factory site. The documents showed that confidential company tests in 1976 found high levels of arsenic in the park. A new round of testing last month showed that arsenic remains in the park at levels up to 2,200 parts per million, more than 100 times what is considered safe.

A state senator who represents the area and a longtime football coach at nearby Southern High School, whose teams practiced in the park, voiced outrage that nobody told them about the arsenic.

Sen. George W. Della Jr. grew up near the Race Street factory in a neighborhood that Matanoski found was a high cancer zone. He represented the district on the Baltimore City Council in 1976 and 1977 when the city closed and then reopened Swann Park, after kepone was found in the ball fields.

`Screaming, crying'

He said he was assured by city officials at the time that the park was safe. If he had heard about Matanoski's study, Della said, he would have demanded that the park remain closed until all the toxic chemicals were cleaned up.

"We were never made privy to information like this," Della said of the study. "There would have been such a screaming and crying that Swann Park would never have reopened."

Don Wade, coach and athletic director at Southern High School during the 1970s and 1980s, said he's angry that nobody told him about the arsenic in the park or the high cancer rates found by the study. Wade said he led hundreds of football players and other athletes in frequent practices on the contaminated soil.

"At no time did I ever know about arsenic being there, no," he said. "I've got thousands of kids who have been subjected to this over the last 35 years, and nobody knows what's going to happen to them."

Terri White, a spokeswoman for the EPA, said yesterday that her agency is performing an archive search to determine what the government did with the Swann Park study. "I can't say what actions we may have taken that far back," White said.

The city's health commissioner, Dr. Joshua M. Sharfstein, said he plans to meet with Matanoski today to discuss her study. After closing the park April 19, Sharfstein called in federal health investigators, who are now studying whether the high levels of arsenic dust in the soil pose any risk to neighborhood residents.

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