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Arsenic in Swann Park

Arsenic in Swann Park

Arsenic in Swann Park (continued)

By Mat Edelson

The goal, says Burke, is to create models that show "how we can redevelop these valuable pieces of real estate while at the same time making sure that any kind of environmental and public health hazards are appropriately evaluated and controlled."

The tragic part is that it's almost impossible for the little guy to get those wheels rolling by himself. Or, for that matter, to know where to turn once the clean up has come and gone but individual health problems linger. The science on chronic long-term exposures is still evolving, and the psychosocial costs to communities affected by hazardous waste sites are just beginning to be understood.

Jim Steadman was barely inside his Brooklyn Park front door that early evening last April when he heard an incredulous voice.

"You see the paper?"

How could he? He and Sally had just crawled in off their busy 12-hour shifts at Good Samaritan Hospital.

"No."

"You'd better look," said Phyllis, a longtime friend of the family.

Wearily, Jim glanced at the Baltimore Sun's front page for April 20, 2007, and felt his world collapse. Moments later, Sally was by his side in the kitchen, eyes glued to the same headline. Side by side, they devoured the story, then looked at each other, simultaneously speaking the one word from the piece that encapsulated their horror:

"Arsenic?"

It's a word they'd never associated with Swann Park, their former home just 5 miles away. Sure, they had concerns in the past, knowing they were moving near the former site of a pesticide plant, but they had laid those fears to rest eons ago. Before they bought the little row house next to the park, they had asked the owner if she had heard of any problems. She mentioned the 1976 Kepone scare from the old Allied plant but added that the park quickly reopened. What's more, by 1984, when the Steadmans moved in, the Allied plant had been torn down. In its place was a giant patch of asphalt.

But now the site's chemical legacy was back with a vengeance, sending the Steadmans scurrying for information on arsenic. What they found out about arsenic exposure from respected sources frightened them. Increased risk of cancer. Stomach distress. Circulatory and peripheral nervous disorders. Birth defects. Affected pregnancies.

The 1970s environmental disaster of Love Canal forced the nation to respond to the dangers of defunct industrial sites.

Some problems related to acute arsenic toxicity, others from chronic exposure, but to Jim and Sally it didn't matter, as all paths led to home. The numb, tingling sensation Sally had in her hands and feet going on 10 years. She'd always assumed that was just par for the course for a nurse who worked with her hands and was on her feet a dozen hours a day. The CDC's Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR), the federal government's environmental public health assessment and information arm, reports that a "pins and needles" sensation in the hands and feet can be signs of arsenic ingestion.

Sally wondered if other health problems the family had experienced were connected to the old chemical plant.

What have I done to myself? Jim asked himself that night. What have I done to my family?

Soon after the park's gates were shut last April, health commissioner Sharfstein asked Goldman and her colleagues to analyze Allied's data surrounding the park and offer insight on everything from proper testing procedures to the effects of arsenic exposure and clean-up recommendations.

For Goldman, Genevieve Matanoski's 1970s arsenic studies were an invaluable window into Swann Park. Matanoski had developed a working hypothesis that took into account that Allied had produced and stored large quantities of chemicals in the plant from 1955, when the plant was rebuilt, with production maxing out in the early 1960s. "You were looking at something of a timeline," she says, of a potential chronic arsenic exposure, which "gave cancer about 10 years to develop. That's exactly what you'd expect for a cancer, as opposed to what you'd expect—diarrhea or something G.I. —if it was an acute exposure."

At a community meeting in June, the CDC's ATSDR experts did not recommend testing of individuals for arsenic. To some in the audience who had long-term exposures at Swann Park, ATSDR's message appeared to conflict with its website, which noted that arsenic exposure could come from wind, water or food. Arsenic was also described as a particularly noxious substance: "Because it targets a number of metabolic processes," notes ATSDR, "arsenic affects nearly all organ systems of the body." Matanoski points out, however, that the Swann Park scenario does not match with the standard exposure routes because arsenic tends to reside lower in the soil (making it less likely to be carried on the wind as it had been when the pesticide factory was open). Nor were water and food likely routes of exposure, Matanoski says.

Still, neighbors and coaches and athletes who played at Swann Park felt their concerns were not being addressed. "If they tested us and we had tested negative, fine," one Swann Park resident told the Sun. "But they didn't test us, and they didn't even test the air quality... I'm so angry, I feel like I'm going to blow up."

Heather Moore, president of the nearby Federal Hill South Neighborhood Association, and the community liaison to Sharfstein's task force, was also at the public meetings. Moore empathized with her neighbors' discontent. Already feeling deceived by 30 years of undisclosed records, now many in the community felt they were being ignored, especially those right next to the park. "No one was forming a task force to look at houses on [McComas] Street," says Moore. "They were addressing issues of the park. No one said, 'You live 5 feet away from the park; you're probably seriously affected, too.'"

Goldman agrees that it's not enough to remediate the park; the community's health must be taken into account as well. "What does this mean for the people who live there?" she asks. "So far, the evidence would not indicate a need for a medical approach. At the same time, any unacceptable levels of arsenic will need to be cleaned up. Of course, as the situation progresses we may learn more, which could change my opinion."

On July 17, 2007, the Swann Park Task Force delivered its first report to Baltimore Mayor Sheila Dixon. The report focused solely on what Allied knew about arsenic contamination at Swann Park and when they knew it. The report's conclusions were damning. Regarding the city's 1976 Kepone Task Force (on which no Hopkins faculty served), the current Swann Park Task Force found that Allied did not reveal its arsenic data. The company believed attorney-client privilege protected distribution of the information, though Allied, according to the report, was "aware of the concern over arsenic in the park."

In all, Goldman and the task force reviewed hundreds of Allied documents dating back to the 1960s. Some were quite revealing: "From what I can tell, arsenic and other pesticides were blowing in the wind," says Goldman, pointing to one document that indicated a containment bag full of arsenic had blown apart in 1962. A handwritten note on the internal memo, presumably from an Allied official or worker at the time, said that the breakage had coated Swann Park with arsenic that "looked like snow."

"What surprised me wasn't that [leaks] happened, but that Swann Park wasn't shut down and fully remediated," says Goldman. Other documents showed that every place in Swann Park that was tested by Allied for Kepone in 1976—45 sites—was also tested for arsenic.

Goldman says that what the site was missing was an environmental champion with pull, the kind of veteran officials she worked with in California. "It doesn't seem like there was anybody working for the city, or the state, or the EPA, who kept this issue alive by going in and demanding more samples. Somehow, it was all forgotten," she says. Such an advocate, even on a neighborhood level, might have stepped in when the city and the state abandoned attempts to ensure continued environmental testing of the demolished plant site. This monitoring was essential, given that the highway construction and traffic above had caused previous asphalt caps over the site to crack, potentially releasing contaminants.

What Goldman and the task force hope to provide are recommendations to prevent future Swann Parks from occurring. Despite the fact that Matanoski had published and presented her Swann Park arsenic findings, the task force recommended more formal communications between academic researchers and the Baltimore City Health Department. In early October, Baltimore Health Commissioner Sharfstein responded by establishing regular meetings with academic researchers so important public health findings can be presented directly to health department officials.

The Task Force is expected to issue several more reports, focusing on Swann Park testing subsequent to 1976; reviews of legal requirements for reporting, disclosure and remediation from 1976 to the present; and potential legislative or enforcement actions. As for testing individuals who played in the park, the final ATSDR report released on October 26 recommended against urine or other testing because arsenic is quickly expelled by the body. More significantly, the ATSDR report revised its estimates of exposure risk and now considers Swann Park a "public health hazard," projecting a slightly increased lifetime cancer risk for someone who "ingested 100 mg of Swann Park soil for more than 182 days per year." Sharfstein, the city health commissioner, said in a statement that "The report both justifies closing the park, and it explains why extensive remediation is needed." He plans to work with Bloomberg School and state experts to do an overall cancer assessment for the communities in the area of Swann Park. "The point is to assess cancer generally," says Sharfstein. "It will not answer questions about Swann Park, but it will help people understand their overall cancer risk and what they can do to lower it."

Sally and Jim Steadman devoured the newspaper story, looked at each other and said, "Arsenic?"

For its part, the state is investigating options for the Swann Park clean up. A work plan created and paid for by Honeywell with Baltimore City input was approved by the Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE) on June 12. The plan resulted in four types of soil testing and the installation of eight monitoring wells in Swann Park. MDE is now analyzing those test results and expects to shortly announce its "evaluation of remedial alternatives." On October 5, 2007, Honeywell and Baltimore City submitted a plan that would remediate Swann Park by removing soil only from areas of higher contamination, after which 2 feet of clean dirt would be laid down over the entire park. If approved by the state, the timetable calls for Swann Park to reopen in less than a year. (A Honeywell spokesperson says, "Where we have legacy responsibilities, or when evidence of damage from past or outdated practices is found, Honeywell acts with responsible remediation, practical solutions and sophisticated technological capabilities.")

As for the residents of the Steadmans' old block, McComas Street, MDE testing in June on the outside of three homes showed arsenic levels roughly 3 to 7 times background levels. The state ordered Honeywell to remove 3 inches of soil from the homes' yards and then put new patios over the yards, sealing the arsenic underneath. Honeywell made plans to comply, but the plans were put on hold when the McComas Street residents became part of a potential lawsuit led by Baltimore lawyer Peter Angelos. (His firm declined to comment for this article.)

Though Angelos's representatives asked residents not to speak to the press, one longtime homeowner says the potential health impact wasn't the only reason to sue someone over Swann Park. "Look at my house," he says, pointing in frustration at the brick row home. "It appraised last year for $300,000. Now who's gonna buy it?"

However, Swann Park's true legacy will likely be more than just financial. Long after remediation to the park has come and gone, the folks on McComas Street may find peace of mind elusive.

"It can be a real blow to a community to have one of these toxic waste problems," says Goldman, "even if nobody's ever exposed to a molecule of the waste. In terms of what happens to the property values, the integrity of community and the rifts that develop between people."

The rifts that no remediation can reach.

While the Steadmans are part of the proposed lawsuit, the fact that it took Sally more than two months to send the medical paperwork to the lawyers gives you some idea that she's not real keen on the idea.

"We're not people who are lawsuit oriented," she says, as her husband nods in agreement.

Clearly tired and frustrated, Jim looks like the unwilling recipient of a riddle book with the answer page ripped out.

"I didn't intentionally move my family into a waste plant," he says. "But now it's like, 'Damn...what have we subjected all of ourselves to?'"

On a recent visit to their old block, the Steadmans stand at the end of McComas Street. A chain-link fence stretches across the end of the asphalt. A metal sign warns that Swann Park is closed by order of the health department. Behind the fence, weeds and grass sprout hip-high on the old baseball diamonds and the football field. The occasional beer can and discarded trash are evidence that not everyone respects the health department sign.

The Steadmans do.

Jim recalls when they first moved into their house. "It was not the most aesthetically pleasing place," he says, pointing to the dilapidated cinderblock building across the street and the factory behind the houses. "And then, you realized this was a little oasis that nobody knew about. It's a cul de sac and there's no through-traffic so it was safe for the kids. The best thing was, you looked down there [to the park] and there was all this green and the water. And the sunsets. It was very pretty... For me, the memories are still here and still positive. You can't change that. It's just disappointing to find out that you were living in a fantasy world of 'this is a beautiful park'—but don't play in the park."

He stares for a moment at the park, which looks abandoned and bedraggled. "It's nasty looking right now. It used to be green," Jim says finally.

The family returns to their memories of life next to the park. The ball games on weekends. The vegetable garden in the backyard. The neighbors who became their extended family. The way they looked out for each other. Playing in the park every day. Making mudpies...

And Jim's whistle.

Shannon, Samantha and Kevin were free to roam the park for as long and as far as they wanted—provided they could still hear Jim whistle when it was time to come home. For old time's sake, Jim takes a deep breath, pulls his fingers to his mouth and looses an ear-splitting wail.

Sharp and shrill, the sound bounces off the row houses, pierces the chain-link fence and carries across the expanse of weeds and dirt beyond.

Then silence returns to Swann Park.

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