Hopkins officials say that compost put on city yards was harmless

Research on lead defended

April 22, 2008|By Dennis O'Brien | Dennis O'Brien,Sun reporter

Officials from the Kennedy Krieger Institute and Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health went on the offensive yesterday, defending a 2005 study where researchers spread compost on properties in East Baltimore to see if it abated lead in soils.

The institutions released a five-page description of the study, made the schools' top administrators available to the press and discussed whether to launch advertising and lobbying campaigns to promote their case to the public and on Capitol Hill, where the study will be the focus of Senate hearings.

"Right now everything is being discussed. We're not going to let up. We're going to keep educating people and fighting until we clear our name," said Elise Babbitt Welker, a spokeswoman for Kennedy Krieger, which is affiliated with Hopkins.

FOR THE RECORD - An article in yesterday's Maryland section about a study examining ways to reduce lead content in contaminated soil misspelled the name of the study's author, Mark R. Farfel.
THE SUN REGRETS THE ERROR

The NAACP and the Black United Fund of Greater Maryland have scheduled a news conference for 5:45 p.m. today at Union Baptist Church in the 1200 block of Druid Hill Ave. to question the propriety of the $446,000 study. They say it could be seen as an experiment that was conducted at a cost to the health of minorities who lived in the area at the time.

"We want to get a full accounting of what happened," said Marvin L. "Doc" Cheatham Sr., president of the NAACP's Baltimore chapter.

The study, led by Mark R. Frafel, a former researcher at Kennedy Krieger and the Bloomberg School, involved spreading compost on nine yards in a predominantly poor black neighborhood in East Baltimore to see if it reduced the chances of exposure to lead in the soil. A similar study was conducted in poor neighborhoods in East St. Louis.

The compost was made from human and industrial wastes and participants in the study were given food coupons as an incentive.

Civil rights activists questioned why researchers didn't give medical evaluations to the people living in the neighborhood. If soil samples were all that was required, why didn't researchers just spread compost on empty parcels instead, they asked.

"Why is this done in a poor community and why is this done in an African-American poor community?" said Michael Eugene Johnson, state director of the Black United Fund.

The study has generated unfavorable publicity for Kennedy Krieger and the Bloomberg School that began with an Associated Press story published last week in The Sun and in other publications.

"It was all portrayed in a very sensationalist way," said Michael J. Klag, dean of the Bloomberg school.

California Sen. Barbara Boxer's Environment and Public Works Committee is planning hearings this summer on government-funded studies where scientists put fertilizers and compost materials into soils. The hearings on the safety of such materials were planned before the Hopkins story appeared, but now will include a review of the Hopkins study.

Klag and Dr. Gary Goldstein, president and chief executive officer of Kennedy Krieger, emphasized yesterday that the neighborhood was selected for the study because it was an area where lead levels have been the highest - and where lead poisoning poses the worst threat.

Work at Kennedy Krieger and Bloomberg has been instrumental in reducing the incidence of lead poisoning throughout Baltimore during the past decade, they said.

They emphasized that community leaders were consulted before the study began, that participants were fully informed and that compost material is safe and widely used. Cost of replacing soil is prohibitive in all but the most contaminated areas, they say.

Iron and phosphate contained in the compost can bind to lead in the soil, allowing it to pass safely through the body if consumed. The study results showed that applying the compost reduced lead levels in the soil by about 70 percent.

But there was never reason to monitor the health of residents because the compost posed no health risks.

"This was a study about yards and the outcome was focused on lead amounts in the soil. It wasn't a story about health," Goldstein said.

There are two kinds of commercial compost: type A, which is heat-cured in a kind of pasteurization process; and type B, which is less sanitary, restricted to agricultural uses and has generated environmental concerns. In 2002, the National Academy of Sciences criticized how the EPA developed its type B regulations.

But type A - which was used in the study - has been sold to homeowners for three decades and is routinely spread on lawns including such public places as Camden Yards and the park in front of the White House.

Reached for comment, one expert not involved in the study said he uses it as a fertilizer.

"I have it on my lawn. My kid has played in it, my dog played in it, and I've never had a problem," said Robin Davidov, executive director of the Northeast Maryland Waste Disposal Authority.

dennis.obrien@baltsun.com

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