'Sludge' story missteps

Our view: Controversy over Hopkins study could have been avoided

June 20, 2008

A chain of missteps and misunderstandings was set in motion two months ago when an Associated Press article seemed to suggest that nine East Baltimore families were duped into letting Johns Hopkins University researchers spread "sewage sludge" on their property and were "never told about any harmful ingredients." It turns out that the material was commercially available compost placed on lawns as part of a lead-abatement experiment.

Still, Marvin L. "Doc" Cheatham Sr., president of the Baltimore branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, is not satisfied with the answers Hopkins has provided so far. From a historical perspective, such suspicion is understandable; scientific institutions have, to say the least, not always had the best interests of poor black people in mind.

The NAACP says it will continue to gather information, but it's not altogether evident what remains to be investigated. As the facts in this case have emerged, it has become clear that Hopkins officials' good intentions cannot be seriously doubted - although their communication skills may need some work.

The AP in April reported ominously about "possible harmful effects" from sludge but failed to make a crucial distinction between Class A compost - which has many commercial and residential applications and has been widely deemed to be harmless - and Class B compost, about which legitimate health questions remain. The Hopkins study employed Class A compost, and the experiment worked: Lead in the soil was reduced by about 70 percent. Indeed, such levels continue to drop citywide, thanks in no small part to the leadership of Hopkins and the Kennedy Krieger Institute.

This controversy need not have occurred. It resulted from a combination of flawed reporting by AP, inadequate public relations at Hopkins, and overreaction in a community that is sometimes quick to assume the worst. The result was a mixture more poisonous than anything found on an East Baltimore lawn.

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