`Is it even safe to live here?'

People living near arsenic-tainted Swann Park wonder if their loved ones' poor health or deaths are tied to working at a once-nearby factory. And they wonder if they're next.

May 27, 2007|By Tom Pelton | Tom Pelton,Sun reporter

Harvey Leichling watched his 12-year-old son scramble after a baseball under a locked gate that barred the way into a city park and the ball fields on the other side.

"Hey," shouted Leichling, "get out of there!" He pointed to a sign on the park's chain link fence: "Closed to All Users by Authority of the Baltimore City Health Department."

Leichling and his family have lived beside Swann Park in South Baltimore for almost two decades, but lately he has regarded their oasis of green in a new way - not as a refuge from their industrial neighborhood but as a potential menace to himself and the people he loves, like his son, Cory. "We used to picnic down there in the park, play football, go fishing and eat crabs out of the river. We'd lay in the grass and watch the fireworks," said the 47-year-old airplane parts inspector. "Now what I want to know is, is it even safe enough to live here?"

He and his neighbors began raising that question last month after the city closed the popular park because tests showed arsenic in the soil at more than 100 times safe levels.

The city's health commissioner said the carcinogen came from an Allied Chemical pesticide plant next to the park. After the DDT factory was closed in 1976 and later demolished, the site was covered in clay and asphalt, and a state cleanup task force declared the whole area safe.

But that might not have been true. Nobody had ever bothered to remove the arsenic from the park, though records show that both Allied and the government knew the cancer-causing agent remained in the soil.

Now, Leichling and some of his current and former neighbors wonder what it means that the 11 acres of grass that served as a front yard for their children has been contaminated for decades.

They are considering family illnesses in a new light. Were maladies such as nosebleeds, headaches and nausea - even lung cancer deaths - caused by something harmful in Swann Park?

No one can answer those questions yet, but they might soon. Investigators with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services are studying whether neighbors faced health risks because of the arsenic-tainted soil in the park. A report is due next month.

High cancer zone

What has been known for at least a quarter-century is that arsenic dust in the air from the factory on Race Street was deadly - not only for workers but for nearby residents as well. Arsenic, long known as a poison, was also one of the first elements discovered by doctors to cause cancer, in the 1820s.

A pair of studies by Johns Hopkins School of Public Health researchers, published not long after the Allied plant's closing, found that workers and neighbors living near the South Baltimore factory in the 1960s and 1970s were dying of lung cancer at about three times the normal rates.

The high cancer zone was within a half-mile of the park, which is south and west of Federal Hill, beside the Middle Branch of the Patapsco River.

In addition to developing deadly tumors, laborers at the plant suffered from rashes, nosebleeds, nausea, headaches and painful sensations of pins and needles in their feet.

The matter that researchers are exploring is whether playing on tainted ball fields after the factory closed could have kicked up enough arsenic dust to be dangerous.

"I think its pretty clear that the chemicals used in that plant were significant toxins," said the city's health commissioner, Dr. Joshua M. Sharfstein. "The question is what kind of risk, if any, is coming from the park."

The city closed the park April 19 after Allied's successor, Honeywell International, turned over to the state internal documents during negotiations over fixing the leaky asphalt cap covering the factory site. Company tests from 1976 showed high arsenic levels in the park. Retesting last month found arsenic levels remained as high as 2,200 parts per million - more than 100 times the normal cleanup standard.

Kids played there

The failure to clean up the park occurred despite a study by Dr. Genevieve Matanoski of the Hopkins School of Public Health that found high arsenic levels not only in the park but also along the train lines that led through the neighborhood and into the plant.

Matanoski concluded that arsenic dust drifting from the plant and its train cars caused lung cancer deaths at three times the expected rate in the neighborhood. "There may still be lung cancers happening now from what happened in the past," Matanoski said this month.

Although her study was published in a scientific journal in 1981 and presented to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, many residents and city officials said they had not heard about it until The Sun wrote about it in coverage of the city's closing of Swann Park.

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