Closer look for cancer near park

Updated federal report finds greater hazard in arsenic from closed plant

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

Clarification

An article Oct. 27 described a report by the U.S. health department's Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease on the increased risk of cancer associated with arsenic in the soil of South Baltimore's Swann Park. The report said the increased risk of cancer among the park's most frequent users might be as much as 2 in 10,000 people. The article should have made clear that the risk of cancer in the U.S. population as a whole, not necessarily in South Baltimore, often is estimated at 1 in 3, or 3,333 out of 10,000 people.

Baltimore's health commissioner plans to study cancer deaths in the neighborhood around South Baltimore's Swann Park in light of a new federal finding that arsenic in the soil poses a greater health risk than previously reported.

The U.S. Department of Health said in June that there was "no public health hazard" to children who have played in Swann Park, unless they ate a tablespoon or more of dirt. But the federal agency revised that assessment yesterday, saying that "recent and historic exposure to Swann Park soil is considered a public health hazard."

"This means that there is a low but potentially real increase in cancer risk for people who have a significant exposure over years to the park," said the city's health commissioner, Dr. Joshua M. Sharfstein. "It justifies why we closed the park and why we need to clean it up."

The city closed the park in April after tests showed that its soil has high levels of arsenic, a known cancer-causing agent, from dust that blew from an adjacent Allied Chemical Co. pesticide factory that closed in 1976.

An EPA-funded study done in the 1970s by a Johns Hopkins scientist found lung cancer deaths more than three times the normal rate in the neighborhood around Swann Park. The deaths were linked to arsenic dust from the factory next to the park and from train cars carrying the carcinogen.

But until yesterday, city and federal health officials said there was almost no risk to the public from arsenic left in the soil after the factory shut down in 1976.

Now, federal officials are saying that children, coaches and grounds workers who used the park at least 182 days a year might have an increased cancer risk from inhaling dirt particles and touching their mouths after getting their hands grubby.

The increased risk of cancer is small - a fraction of 1 percent, said Lora Werner, a regional representative of the U.S. health department's Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease. Normally, about 3,333 out of 10,000 people contract cancer over their lifetimes. For people who regularly got dirty in the park, that risk would grow by 2 out of 10,000. That means that 3,335 frequent users of Swann Park out of 10,000 are expected to get cancer, she said.

"It's a low to moderate increased risk," Werner said. "This is from incidental ingestion, getting it on your hands and breathing it in, that kind of contact."

The agency issued its preliminary report in June without limited soil sampling data. It upgraded its risk assessment in yesterday's final report after a more rigorous examination of arsenic levels in the park over the summer found average concentrations four times higher than previously thought, Werner said.

Sharfstein said that as a result of the new findings, the city plans to work with Johns Hopkins scientists and the state health department to update the 1970s report by Dr. Genevieve Matanoski. It found a 3.2-times-normal lung cancer rate from 1968 to 1974 among men who lived in an area several blocks around the Race Street pesticide factory, southwest of Federal Hill.

Sharfstein said he expects researchers will search through death records over the past three decades, looking for excessive numbers of lung cancer deaths after the Allied plant closed.

"This captures the anxiety people feel, not really knowing the cancer risk they face. ... What people really want to know is their cancer risk and the cancer risk of their community," Sharfstein said.

The city is not planning any blood or urine tests for people who used the park because arsenic works its way out of the body too quickly, said Sharfstein. Officials will hold a public hearing to answer questions about the health risk at 6:30 p.m. Thursday at Digital Harbor High School.

Don Wade, 61, former football coach at Southern High School, said he remains angry that state and city officials knew 30 years ago that there was arsenic in the park but kept allowing hundreds of children - his as well as others - to play there.

"I'm sending kids to that park thinking that the kids are safe. How many kids did I endanger by sending them there, when the powers-that-be in the city knew that there was a problem?" Wade said.

Wade coached various school teams at Swann Park for more than half the year during much of the 1970s through early 1990s.

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