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Arsenic in Swann Park

Arsenic in Swann Park

Arsenic in Swann Park

How a beloved South Baltimore greenspace became one of America's 450,000 brownfields

By Mat Edelson

As he sat at his kitchen table one August afternoon, Jim Steadman contemplated the cruel irony of his dilemma. For three decades, the respiratory therapist had made it his business to learn about the environment in which his patients lived and worked.

At Johns Hopkins Home Care, at Good Samaritan Hospital, and in homes across Baltimore, he used his clients' awareness of their physical surroundings as a window into their pulmonary difficulties.

Manipulating that environment, lessening or eliminating toxic exposures, making people aware of what they inhaled, what they ingested, and where, and when... to Jim Steadman, such thinking was as reflexive as, well, breathing. Each day he saw the results of living and working around industrial pollutants—asbestosis, cancer, asthma, allergies... Steadman believed that his accumulated knowledge and experience would keep him and his family safe, in a community free from environmental harm. For 17 years, from 1984 until they moved in 2001, he and his wife Sally raised their three children in what they believed to be just such a place—a spot they serendipitously discovered in an isolated South Baltimore blue-collar nook. It even had a pretty name:

Swann Park.

Within yards of their front door was that lovely park, 11 open acres bordered by the Patapsco River. The ball fields drew high school athletes, weekend warriors and families like the Steadmans who lived in the half-dozen narrow row homes next to the park. The Steadman kids—Shannon, Samantha and Kevin—practically made the park a second home, slinging mudpies, playing pickup football, watching the stars. From their marble-stepped front stoop, as they enjoyed the sunsets over the fields, Jim and Sally had watched the kids and smiled: In their mind, Swann Park was heaven on earth.

Lynn Goldman had never heard of Swann Park before her phone rang one day last April. On the other end of the line was Baltimore City's health commissioner, Joshua Sharfstein, MD. He told her the news: Swann Park was being closed.

The state of Maryland had just received stunning, decades-old documents showing that Allied Chemical, which operated its South Baltimore Race Street insecticide plant right next to Swann Park from 1955 until the plant's closing in 1976, had known that their plastic containment bags and sheds containing arsenic had failed miserably, contaminating the park. The records included tests done and not disclosed by Allied in 1976 that showed Swann Park's soil arsenic levels were 100 times greater than federal health guidelines.

As Sharfstein talked, Goldman, chair of the School's Interdepartmental Program in Applied Public Health and a professor of Environmental Health Sciences, experienced deja vu. "This was like being in a time machine and going back 10, 20, 30 years. These were the kinds of situations I heard about in the early stages of my career," she says, recalling her experiences in the mid-1980s with a Central Valley, California, pesticide manufacturer whose antiquated containment facilities poisoned groundwater at a nearby school.

While the state was ordering Honeywell (which merged with Allied Chemical's successor, AlliedSignal in 1999) to conduct new testing to determine current arsenic levels, Sharfstein turned to Goldman, MD, MPH '81, and her colleagues for assistance. He asked Goldman and Thomas Burke, a professor of Health Policy and Management, to join a Swann Park Task Force to figure out exactly what had happened while the park was under Allied's control. A pediatrician and adjunct assistant professor in Health Policy and Management at the Bloomberg School, Sharfstein also sought out Epidemiology professor Genevieve Matanoski for her input on Swann Park: He called the Hopkins trio of experts his "dream team" of public health consultants.

For Matanoski, MD, DrPH, the new task force was both a flashback and a vindication of sorts. Back in 1976, Matanoski had done pioneering arsenic studies around the Allied plant, and found alarming rates of cancer in some of the adjacent neighborhoods. But her calls for more investigation went unheeded, as the Race Street plant was demolished in 1977 and paved over to make way for the I-95 overpass into Baltimore's new Fort McHenry tunnel. With the plant gone and the site capped by a layer of clay and asphalt, officials forgot about the site despite the fact that the neighborhood residents and possible contamination remained.

Now, Honeywell's disclosures—which came as the result of the Maryland Department of the Environment's stepped-up monitoring of defunct toxic sites—put the arsenic problem squarely into the public light.

As it turns out, Swann Park is just one of 450,000 "brownfields" in the United States. As defined by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), brownfields are properties whose "expansion, redevelopment or reuse... may be complicated by the presence or potential presence... of a hazardous substance, pollutant or contaminant." Studies by Burke, PhD, MPH, and a dissertation by Jill Litt, PhD '00, estimate that in Baltimore alone 1,000 such brownfields exist—homage to the city's storied industrial past.

Allied Chemical itself can trace its lineage back to Isaac Tyson Jr., who in 1828 became the country's first commercial miner of chrome ore. From his first small plant in Baltimore that supplied chrome pigments to England, Tyson's Baltimore Chrome Works built a manufacturing empire.

Lung cancer deaths clustered along the railroad tracks that carried chemicals like arsenic to the pesticide plant.

In 1908, Baltimore Chrome Works became Mutual Chemical Company. Mutual operated the world's biggest bichromate factory on Block Street in East Baltimore (across town from where the Race Street plant would later be established next to Swann Park). Bichromate was used for everything from tanning leather to providing the pigment for the bright yellow paint that covers school buses and highways. But bichromate production was also extremely toxic—something few recognized at the time.

It would take an inquisitive Johns Hopkins industrial hygienist to reignite interest in the link. In 1950, Anna Baetjer, ScD '24, using Mutual's bichromate plant as part of her research, published a groundbreaking study that linked chromate exposure and workers' lung cancer. Her work in removing or lessening toxic exposures was the birth of modern-day industrial remediation.

By 1954, Mutual had been acquired by Allied Chromium and Dye. At its height, 200,000 tons of chromium chemicals came out of the Block Street plant each year. Baetjer's research culminated in a 1955 study on how chromium compounds interact with body tissues. These studies helped convince Allied to install filtration systems to protect workers from chromium dust.

Baetjer's work later proved vital when the 1960s environmental movement pushed the U.S. government to create the EPA to look at how industry disposed of toxic waste. Before the EPA, the industry had essentially policed itself. "The old approach would be dump [toxic waste] in the nearest water body without pre-treatment, dump it in the sewer system, or dump it out back," says Thomas Burke, director of the Johns Hopkins Risk Sciences and Public Policy Institute and a former environmental regulator who acquired experience in early hazardous waste investigations in New Jersey. As the EPA ramped up regulatory efforts in the 1970s, Burke says federal and state regulators turned to the work of Anna Baetjer and one of her occupational health protegees, Genevieve Matanoski, to get a handle on the exposure problem. Whereas Baetjer made her mark studying chromium toxicities at the Block Street plant, Matanoski looked at arsenic exposures emanating from Allied's Race Street facility next to Swann Park.

Matanoski's innovative 1976 report, "Pilot Study of Cancer Mortality near an Arsenical Pesticide Plant in Baltimore," was one of the first to show how disease levels could rise outside of a chemical facility. Originally, one of Matanoski's colleagues—noted Hopkins epidemiologist Abraham M. Lilienfeld—had been invited by Allied into their Race Street plant in the early 1970s because of concern over worker exposure to Kepone and arsenic. Kepone was a pesticide ingredient that had caused a brief scare and closing of adjacent Swann Park in May 1976. (A task force of city and state officials, working with what would later prove to be incomplete data supplied by Allied, deemed the park safe after the Baltimore City Health Department tested 19 nearby residents and baseball coaches who used the park. The blood tests showed "no detectable" Kepone levels.)

While Kepone—which had been linked to the destruction of oysters in the Chesapeake Bay—drew the attention of area officials, Lilienfeld was also concerned about the plant's use of arsenic. Lilienfeld told Matanoski that he had seen workers with nasal septum perforations, a possible sign of arsenic exposure. Matanoski investigated how arsenic traveled to and from the plant and saw dust billowing from hopper train cars as they were filled and emptied of chemicals. She theorized that the dust could be problematic to the nearby community. Over several years, Matanoski documented both arsenic soil levels and lung cancer deaths on a map of the area. What she found was alarming: a three- to four-fold increase in lung cancer among men living in the area nearest the plant. The lung cancer deaths clustered along the railroad tracks that carried chemicals—most notably arsenic—to and from the site. "The probability of [increased cancer] happening based on [random] statistics was 2 in 10,000," she says. Still, it's very difficult to link an exposure to a chronic disease, Matanoski says. "We very often cannot prove cause and effect," she says. "I can't tell you, 'Here's a case of lung cancer from arsenic exposure.' [But] the probability is very high."

Building on the results from the 1976 pilot study, Matanoski published a final study in 1981 in Environmental Research. It found that lung cancer death rates from 1970 to 1972 had jumped to "excessive" levels compared to 1960 cancer rates in the same neighborhoods closest to Allied's site. She also had presented her findings at a conference of the American Public Health Association and reported them to the EPA and state officials. An article on the pilot study was published on the Baltimore Sun's front page on February 15, 1976.

The study was revolutionary in its methods—applying industrial hygiene techniques to environmental exposure assessment—and its findings. "From what I remember of the time, most scientists would have been very resistant to the idea that environmental levels of arsenic, even under these conditions, would be associated with cancer," says Goldman. "What's interesting to me is that in many regards, this study is still state-of-the-art."

But this potent information was ignored, as the mindset of health officials at the time was to keep the lid on pollution issues. Consider that the Kepone Task Force's chairman, State Health Director Donald H. Noren, had, according to confidential Allied memos uncovered by the Baltimore Sun in 2007, allowed "no press or public attendance" at task force meetings, and had placed a gag order on members of the task force because "public release of the information could change the entire atmosphere."

Such approaches to environmental hazards didn't last long. Just two years later, Love Canal made nationwide headlines, illustrating the danger posed by polluted, defunct industrial sites. In 1978, a deluge of rain washed up steel drums filled with toxins from Hooker Chemical Company—waste that the company had buried when it left Niagara Falls back in 1953, after selling the site for a buck to the city. The barrels burst right in the heart of a new residential community called Love Canal. Birth defects and other illnesses suddenly appeared at an alarming rate.

"The [community's] school was on the hazardous waste dump," recalls Lynn Goldman. Over the years, Goldman has investigated dozens of industrial waste sites. She's worked as an epidemiologist and risk assessor for the California State Health Department and developed regulatory policy governing childhood environmental exposures while at the EPA. Still, Love Canal remains unforgettable. "It was one of the worst things I've ever seen in my career. We saw impacts on birth weights of kids and on their growth," she says.

Love Canal galvanized the nation, forcing policymakers to acknowledge that in order to move our cities forward, we first had to look back. Toxic wastes reached across both time and space, utilizing wind and water to move away from original production sites and into neighborhoods. These sites turned out to be more numerous than anyone could have guessed. Since President Jimmy Carter set up the EPA's 1980 Superfund clean-up program in the wake of Love Canal, the fund has remediated more than 750 hazardous waste sites.

Superfund administrators work closely with local health and science experts to determine which sites get placed on Superfund's National Priority List (NPL) for further investigation and remediation recommendations. (As of October 31, 2007, there were 1,245 active and 66 proposed sites on EPA's NPL list.) Much of the research is coordinated and funded through both the EPA and NIH's National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS). A $5.2 million EPA grant to Hopkins in 2001 helped establish the EPA Center for Hazardous Substances in Urban Environments, while other funding created the NIEHS/EPA Children's Environmental Health Center under the auspices of the School's Department of Environmental Health Sciences. In the last few years, however, such funding has been cut. After Congress refused in 1996 to extend the tax on industry that created the Superfund, federal support began drying up and the states could not take up the slack, says Goldman.

Finding the cash for costly remediation is especially difficult. "There's a principle that the polluter pays" for testing and remediation, says Goldman. However, figuring out financial responsibility for NPL sites is complex and time consuming. (Many sites have been on the list for years.) Because so many brownfields sit in revitalized downtown areas, many states, including Maryland, are giving tax incentives to entice potential developers to pay for the clean up of contaminated sites.

Fortunately, most contaminants can be remediated. Ed Bouwer, an expert on waste site remediation and director of Hopkins' Hazardous Substances Research Center, says the three-pronged approach to remediation is to "eliminate the source, eliminate the pathway or eliminate the receptor." Since eliminating the receptor—people—isn't the long-term goal of most remediation efforts, the focus has to shift to the source and pathways. "It's pretty hard to completely eliminate the source," says Bouwer, PhD, noting the high cost of carting away acres of contaminated soil. "If there are some [small] 'hot spots'—localized areas where you can dig out a few truck- loads—that might make sense, but with the more diffuse or wider contamination, you cap it and bury it, entombed in a deep layer of clay or concrete to prevent leaching, and that way you prevent exposure and eliminate the pathway." However, as Genevieve Matanoski points out, capping doesn't eliminate the problem. "When you put concrete down, then what are you going to do with it?" she says, noting that a concrete expanse doesn't make an ideal park or site for housing. "The issue is always, can you make the site usable again?"

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