Researcher faces outcry

Scientist fights claim he put city kids at risk in lead poison studies

May 01, 2008|By Jonathan Bor and David Kohn | Jonathan Bor and David Kohn,Sun reporters

While pursuing a public health degree in the 1980s, Mark R. Farfel visited a clinic at the Kennedy Krieger Institute where scores of lead-poisoned boys and girls spilled into the hallways awaiting treatment.

There, he reached the central epiphany of his career: Youngsters already harmed by deteriorating lead paint were receiving world-class care. But who was "treating" the inner-city rowhouses that were sickening kids in the first place?

"All we were doing was waiting for children to be poisoned," said Farfel, who then spent two decades at Kennedy Krieger and the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health studying ways to reduce the hazard posed by lead in and around homes.

A self-described "shy guy," Farfel now finds himself in a predicament he would never have expected during a career in which he won praise tackling one of the city's most persistent public health problems. For the second time in the past decade, he faces criticism that he exposed poor black children to environmental hazards in the name of science.

The current outcry concerns the spreading of compost on the lawns of nine Baltimore homes in 2000 - a study he said protected children by chemically binding up lead in the soil but that black leaders say may have exposed youngsters to hidden contaminants.

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 last week: "We don't want to do this kind of work at the expense of turning our children into guinea pigs."

The issue has spilled over into Congress, where Sen. Barbara Boxer, a California Democrat, plans to investigate the experiment as part of a wider look into the health impact of using sludge and compost as fertilizers.

For Farfel, hired three years ago to run New York City's registry of people exposed to environmental fallout from the World Trade Center attacks, the criticism flies in the face of everything he's tried to accomplish.

"I've really dedicated my career to public health, to the health of children," Farfel, 50, said in a phone interview. "I feel very hurt by the things being said, and I certainly never would do anything that would hurt children or families."

The "things" people are saying started in 2001 when the Maryland Court of Appeals likened an earlier study of Farfel's to Nazi experiments and to the Tuskegee study in which government researchers in Alabama purposely left black syphilis patients untreated to study the disease's progression.

The court sent back for trial a series of lawsuits on behalf of children who lived in houses that had received varying degrees of lead abatement.

Three of those suits were settled confidentially, while at least four others are pending. Now, in the controversy over the compost studies, some black leaders allege that Farfel again subjected children to risks and didn't adequately inform the community beforehand.

"My concern is, how much do we hand to this person to study?" said Michael Johnson, state director of the Black United Fund. "I'd have suspicions of anyone who's been lambasted by the court in reference to his previous work."

The criticism has drawn words of exasperation and support from many lead experts, who consider Farfel's work seminal.

"This researcher has helped reduce lead exposure for hundreds of thousands of children," said Dr. Bruce Lanphear, director of the Environmental Health Center at Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center.

Raised in a family that championed progressive causes, Farfel said his upbringing prepared him to understand the social divides prevalent in Baltimore.

His father, pediatrician Harold S. Farfel, upset the city's racial conventions when he admitted the first black baby to Sinai Hospital while a resident there in the early 1950s. His mother, Mary, was a social worker with the old Baltimore League for Crippled Children.

The family moved from Randallstown to Mount Washington in the 1960s - against the tide of white families fleeing the city for the suburbs. He attended the predominantly black Pimlico Junior High School, where he said he learned what it was like to be in a racial minority, as well as Polytechnic Institute, where he did well enough to skip his senior year.

Later, after graduating from McGill University in Montreal, he decided to pursue a doctorate in public health because "it seemed like a great way to wed science and socially meaningful work." At Hopkins, however, he was struck by the contrast between the wealthy institution and the impoverished neighborhood that surrounded it.

"It's the way I'm wired," he said. "I wanted to bridge that gap."

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