Arsenic and old fears

October 31, 2007

Areport from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services released last week found that significant and lengthy exposure to the soil in Baltimore's Swann Park is a "public health hazard" and poses a slightly elevated risk of cancer. The park, which was contaminated for years as a result of its proximity to a pesticide-producing factory, has been closed since April, when tests found high levels of arsenic in the soil.

The new report may or may not change a major remediation plan to restore the park by sometime next year. But it underscores the importance of dealing with the consequences of contamination in the neighborhood and not just in the park.

Last week's report raised more of an alarm than a preliminary federal report issued in June that found no public health hazard unless children had eaten at least a tablespoon of dirt. But federal officials now suggest that people who spent at least 180 days a year in the park - such as children in baseball leagues, coaches and groundskeepers - and who may have inhaled dirt particles or touched the soil and then touched their mouths might have a greater risk of cancer.

Although the increased risk is less than 1 percent, the news is bound to make area residents, who already suspect city and state compliance with corporate efforts to cover up the extent of arsenic penetration, even more jittery.

Those anxieties will likely surface at a community meeting planned for tomorrow evening. The top agenda item is consideration of the plan by Baltimore's Health Department and Honeywell Inc., successor to the factory's operator, the former Allied Chemical Corp., to clean up the park. Honeywell plans to excavate about 120 truckloads of toxic soil and then cover less-contaminated soil as well as the rest of the park with 2 feet of clean soil.

Officials from the state Department of the Environment have been reviewing the plan carefully and will offer their judgment - based on studies by the department's scientists - as to whether it adequately protects residents from further health risks. State environmental officials are also rightly pushing to resolve a stalemate between Honeywell and several area residents related to cleaning up backyards adjacent to the park that have high levels of arsenic.

The latest federal findings are not likely to make those efforts any easier. But honesty is the best policy if city, state and Honeywell officials want to gain cooperation and re-establish community trust.

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