Hopkins' hands clean

'Sludge' accusation unfair to researchers who used compost to fight lead poisoning

April 28, 2008|By Gary W. Goldstein and Michael J. Klag

Researchers used compost on Baltimore yards to demonstrate a technique for fighting the city's tragic lead-poisoning problem. Why is it OK to accuse them of using "sludge"?

It's not.

The compost that was used in this 2000 study is called Orgro. It's used and sold all around Baltimore. In fact, it's been made since 1988 at a composting facility owned by the city.

It's labeled "Class A," meeting the highest federal and state standards for compost.

Yes, this compost is made in part from what are properly called "biosolids," which come from a Baltimore wastewater treatment plant. The biosolids are composted with wood chips and sawdust. The composting process creates enough heat to kill any germs.

When the process is done, it's not sludge anymore. It's compost. It's a product that is used on lawns and gardens all over the region. It has been used at Camden Yards. It has been used at the White House.

This stuff is government-approved for unlimited use. There is no evidence that it is harmful.

What has been lost in the furor over the use of this product is why it was used. Lead poisoning of children in Baltimore has been a problem of epidemic proportions. Ingestion of lead - largely from old paint, but also from other sources, such as contaminated soil - can cause incurable neurological damage and other health problems.

At the height of the epidemic, physicians at the Kennedy Krieger Institute were treating thousands of East Baltimore children in their lead-poisoning clinic. Those doctors wanted not just to treat lead poisoning but also to help find ways to prevent it.

Researchers knew that iron and phosphorus in compost can bind with lead. From work in industrial settings, they knew that binding lead to iron and phosphorus reduces the possibility that children can be contaminated. The question was: How well would using compost work in a real neighborhood?

So the Kennedy Krieger researchers, working with colleagues from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, found nine Baltimore properties with high lead levels in the soil. They thoroughly explained the proposed study to the homeowners, covering how the compost was made and what it contained.

The researchers also did appropriate consultation with the local community, including local leaders such as Lucille Gorham, Bea Gaddy and Jeff Thompson. And they secured formal approval from the Historic East Baltimore Community Action Coalition.

After all the preliminary work was properly completed, the researchers tilled the ground and mixed compost with the soil. They also planted grass, so that less dirt would be tracked into people's homes.

And it worked. Beautifully. A year later, researchers found that the amount of "bioaccessible" lead in the soil - that is, lead that could poison kids - was down about two-thirds. The grass cover was healthy, meaning that less lead, bioaccessible or not, could get into homes in the first place.

The results were later published in a scientific paper. The paper is now available to policymakers and communities around the country - and around the world - who are looking for strategies to fight lead poisoning in their neighborhoods.

This completely ethical, highly successful research is only one of the many fronts in the war against lead poisoning of Baltimore's children. And it's a war that, thank goodness, Baltimore is winning. We're winning because of the work of many people, people in the community, people from the city and state and, yes, people from Kennedy Krieger and Johns Hopkins.

Thanks to all their efforts, there was from 1993 to 2005 a 93 percent decline in the number of city children whose blood tested positive for what the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention consider unsafe levels of lead.

It's important to remember those numbers. It's also important to remember that in this particular effort to combat lead, the researchers' hands are clean - unfortunate comments about "sludge" notwithstanding.

Dr. Gary W. Goldstein is president and chief executive officer of the Kennedy Krieger Institute. His e-mail is goldsteing@kennedykrieger.org. Dr. Michael J. Klag is dean of the Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health. His e-mail is deansoffice@jhsph.edu.

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