NAACP questions sludge study methods

Fertilizer made from waste was applied for lead protection

April 23, 2008|By Dennis O'Brien | Dennis O'Brien,SUN REPORTER

The Maryland NAACP questioned last night the methods used in a government-funded study in which fertilizer made from treated human and industrial waste was put on lawns of East Baltimore rowhouses.

"We don't want to do this kind of work at the expense of turning our children into guinea pigs," Marvin L. "Doc" Cheatham Sr., president of the Baltimore chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, said at a news conference.

The study, conducted by researchers from the Kennedy Krieger Institute and the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, involved spreading compost, made from human and industrial wastes, on nine yards in a predominantly poor black neighborhood in East Baltimore to see whether it reduced the risks of exposure to lead in the soil.

The compost was applied, and participants in the study were given food coupons as an incentive.

At the news conference at an Upton church, other speakers said Hopkins officials have been reluc- tant to come forward with details of the study, including the specific neighborhood where the study was conducted and the names of the residents affected.

"Why did they pick this area? Why are the poor always being picked on for these kinds of tests? We just need more information," said Michael Eugene Johnson, state director of the Black United Fund.

The news conference also included Gerald Stansbury, state president of the NAACP, and Sen. Nathaniel J. McFadden, whose district includes the area where the study was conducted.

Stansbury questioned why researchers used a residential neighborhood. "Why didn't they just perform the test in a sandbox or a laboratory?" he asked.

Stansbury asked that anyone who lived at properties where the study was conducted call his office or e-mail him.

The study has turned into a public relations nightmare for the institutions. The problems began with an Associated Press article published last week in The Sun and elsewhere, and led to criminal investigations and U.S. Senate hearings.

In response, officials at Kennedy Krieger and the Bloomberg school released a five-page description of the study this week, made the schools' top administrators available to the news media, and discussed the launch of advertising and lobbying campaigns to promote their case to the public.

Officials at both institutions emphasized that community leaders were consulted before the study, that participants were fully informed and that compost material is safe and widely used. Officials said there was no reason to monitor the health of residents because the compost posed no risk.

The cost of replacing soil is prohibitive in all but the most contaminated areas, they said. Confidentiality rules prohibit releasing the identities of the residents who lived in the homes.

They also noted that most of the work on the study was conducted in 2000 - when lead poisoning was a severe problem - and that work at Kennedy Krieger and Bloomberg has been instrumental in reducing the incidence of lead poisoning in Baltimore over the past decade.

California Sen. Barbara Boxer's Environment and Public Works Committee had planned hearings on the safety of government-funded studies in which scientists put fertilizers and compost materials into soils before the East Baltimore story appeared, but now will include a review of the Hopkins study.

A similar study was conducted in poor neighborhoods in East St. Louis, Ill., but officials there say there have been no health problems reported, according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

The Southwestern Illinois Resource Conservation & Development Inc., the nonprofit organization that conducted the East St. Louis project, stood by its study methods last week and said there were no reports of health problems in the seven years since its completion.

"We used the best science available at the time," Dave Eustis, executive director of the organization, told the newspaper.

East St. Louis Mayor Alvin Parks told the newspaper he would go to the site to investigate and that he will ask the EPA to test the soil for any effects.

"This hit me completely out of the blue," Parks said.

dennis.obrien@baltsun.com

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