Report: tainted park soil no risk, unless you eat it

South Baltimore neighbors dispute U.S. arsenic study

June 15, 2007|By Tom Pelton | Tom Pelton,Sun reporter

A federal report released yesterday concludes that playing on arsenic-tainted soil in South Baltimore's Swann Park is not likely to cause cancer or other illnesses, unless children eat the dirt.

The 11-acre waterfront park, popular among childrens' sports leagues, was closed by the city in April after tests showed arsenic in the ball fields from an adjacent pesticide factory that closed in 1976.

"Health effects from Swann Park arsenic exposures are unlikely and long term medical follow up is unnecessary," says the report by the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Arsenic dust is a known carcinogen, and studies by Johns Hopkins School of Public Health researchers in 1980 and 1981 linked emissions from the Allied pesticide plant to three times the normal lung cancer rates among neighbors and workers.

But the authors of yesterday's report said those deaths, in the 1960s and early 1970s, were likely caused by fine arsenic dust that was blowing from the plant's stacks and rail cars into the air, where it could be inhaled.

After the plant closed in 1976, the risk likely dropped to below worrisome levels because the factory stopped spewing the pollutant, according to the researchers.

The three federal researchers did not collect any soil or air samples from the park or surrounding neighborhood -- despite concerns expressed by local residents that arsenic dust could be whipped up by the wind or during sporting events.

And they did not perform any medical examinations of people who live near the park. Instead, they relied solely on soil sampling data provided by the company responsible for paying for the cleanup, Honeywell International.

Some neighbors and others denounced yesterday's report because it lacked testing of air and of neighborhood homes.

"I'm so angry, I feel like I'm going to blow up," said Harvey Leichling, who lives near the park with two sons, ages 12 and 17, who he worries may have been sickened by the arsenic. "If they had tested us, and we tested negative, that's fine. But they didn't even test us, and they didn't even test the air quality."

Leichling said it doesn't make sense that the federal agency relied solely on soil sampling results provided by Honeywell - which has a financial interest in minimizing cleanup costs -- instead of independent research.

Rena Steinzor, environmental law professor at the University of Maryland and legal adviser to a task force organized by the city to examine Swann Park, said the federal report should have included more testing.

"I can't see how anyone would conclude it's not a risk without additional sampling," said Steinzor. "It doesn't enhance ... the confidence of the community when they do quick and dirty jobs like this."

Baltimore's health commissioner, Dr. Joshua M. Sharfstein, said he thinks the report on the park was thorough. "No person with this kind of experience in the field has come to me to say that there is a health risk from playing or working at Swann Park," Sharfstein said. "People who disagree with the federal report should submit comments, and I will be interested in reviewing them."

The assessment, conducted over the last month, was written before test results were released Monday by the Maryland Department of the Environment showing that high arsenic levels were also found in the backyards of homes near the park. The federal researchers said those results wouldn't have affected their conclusion.

But Horacio Tablada, director of waste management at MDE, said his agency plans to do air-current modeling to calculate whether arsenic dust might have drifted from the plant to other homes. The state agency may test more yards if the modeling suggests a wide dispersal, he said.

The state is going to force Honeywell to clean up the park and any polluted yards, even if there is no substantial risk of cancer, he said. "If you pollute, you have to clean it up," he said.

The federal researchers focused on eating contaminated dirt as the main possible route of arsenic exposure. "Normal park activities, such as field sports and park maintenance, would not expose individuals to enough arsenic to be likely to produce adverse health effects," the report said. "Children who eat about a teaspoon of soil at a time ... may experience temporary nausea, diarrhea, vomiting or stomach cramps."

The assessment dismissed the possibility that significant amounts of arsenic dust could have been driven from the soil by the wind into the atmosphere and inhaled, leading to a cancer risk. The authors said they based this conclusion on studies of smelting factories in Texas, Washington and Montana. In those cases, once airborne arsenic dust was washed by rain into dirt, it usually bonded with the soil. The particles then became too large to be inhaled into the lungs, the researchers said.

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