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Arsenic forces closing of park

The Baltimore Sun

Baltimore officials closed a city park yesterday that is used regularly by children's sports teams, after tests showed arsenic levels more than 100 times higher than is considered safe.

The city Health Department locked the gates of Swann Park, south of Federal Hill, and passed out fliers warning neighbors of the risks of arsenic, a cancer-causing agent.

"We are well past the threshold of being concerned, and that's why we are shutting the park," said Dr. Joshua Sharfstein, the city health commissioner. "But it's too soon to assess the risk to human health."

Swann Park sits next to an industrial site in South Baltimore where the former Allied Chemical Corp. used arsenic to manufacture pesticides until 1976.

For decades, the park on the Middle Branch of the Patapsco River has been used by Southern High School - now Digital Harbor - football and baseball teams, as well as local sports leagues. It is legendary as a place where baseball stars Al Kaline and Reggie Jackson once played as youths.

The park was closed in 1976 when a pesticide called kepone, a nerve-damaging agent once manufactured by Allied, was found in the dirt of the ballfields.

But a panel of federal, state and local health officials allowed the park to be reopened that year - even though tests by the company showed high levels of arsenic there, according to reports obtained by The Sun. The results of the tests were unknown to residents.

Yesterday's closure was prompted after Honeywell International Inc. turned over records to the state on April 3. In 1999, Honeywell merged with the chemical company's successor, Allied-Signal.

The New Jersey-based Honeywell was reviewing its files as it negotiated with Maryland over a cleanup plan for a neighboring factory site. The records showed that Allied officials knew about elevated arsenic levels in the park for more than 30 years, records show.

Neighbors said yesterday that they were startled to hear that the popular waterfront fields were contaminated, and some said they were frustrated to hear that the problems were ignored for years.

"It's a little unnerving to learn that my next-door neighbor is a field of arsenic," said Catherine Dubravo, 21, who moved Wednesday from Little Rock, Ark., to the street leading to the park. "It just raises so many more questions. ... If they've known it was an area that once had trouble, why would they ignore it?"

Cory Leichling, 12, said he plays on Swann Park's fields almost every weekend, often for four and five hours at a time.

"Every week, we're always doing something. Football or baseball," said Cory, who grew up next to the park. He said the tackle football games sometimes get rough and dirt from the park gets into his cuts.

"I've had scratches, blood, and dirt has been all up in my sores. I'll show you my arm," he said, pulling up a sleeve to show a cluster of white scars.

Cory's father, Harvey Leichling Jr., 46, a 15-year resident of the block, said he plans to take Cory and his 16-year-old brother to the doctor for tests.

Baltimore's Health Department has asked an agency of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to examine the site and determine whether the health of neighbors and others who use the park is at risk, Sharfstein said.

Arsenic is a naturally occurring element that is poisonous when consumed in high doses, and in lesser amounts it can cause cancer, abnormal heart rhythms and lower IQ scores in children with prolonged exposure, according to the federal health agency.

Arsenic in dirt is less dangerous, said Dr. Laura Herrera, chief medical officer for the city Health Department.

"The risk is very, very low ... for someone playing ball in the park, unless they were actually eating dirt," she said.

More than a decade ago, Allied placed an asphalt cap over the site of the former pesticide factory on Race Street, which is just north of the park and under Interstate 95. But the cap cracked and pollutants might have leaked, according to the Maryland Department of the Environment.

Although the state agency in recent years has been after the company to fix the cap and test the industrial site, nobody has tested the adjacent park since 1976, said Horacio Tablada, director of waste management for the Maryland Department of the Environment.

Tablada said the state assumed that the park was safe because a panel of experts called the Kepone Task Force, led by Donald H. Noren, former director of the state health department, said that it was in 1976.

"The task force decided the park was good to go, and nobody else thought to test it," Tablada said. "Nobody ever thought about the park having a problem until this recent data came out ... so we decided to act expeditiously."

Tests performed by Honeywell and turned over to the state April 19 show arsenic levels in the park of 23 parts per million to 2,200 parts per million, records show.

That is significantly higher than the 2 ppm to 4 ppm that experts consider a level of possible concern for homes or playgrounds, Tablada said. It is also higher than the 20 ppm that environmental officials often require as a standard for cleanup of industrial sites, he said.

"These were extremely high levels that are of great concern to us," Tablada said.

The state agency will require Honeywell to pay for cleanup of the park and the factory site, Tablada said. Researchers will test for contaminants in the Middle Branch of the Patapsco River, which is immediately west.

Victoria Streitfeld, a spokeswoman for Honeywell, said the testing at the park in the 1970s and the capping of the factory site were deemed adequate according to the standards of the time.

"In 1976, remediation activities directed and overseen by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the Maryland Department of the Environment, the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, and Baltimore's Department of Health were undertaken at Swann Park," Streitfeld said. "The remediation work was consistent with best practices and existing science at the time."

Honeywell recently has been discussing a new factory site cleanup agreement with the state environmental agency.

The agreement should make the company replace the asphalt cap over the former factory site, Tablada said. Rain pouring off I-95 damaged the cap and caused leaks, he said.

"The cap wasn't working, and everything was cracked," Tablada said. "So we ordered them to fix the cap."

During the company's review of documents as part of the recent discussion over this consent order, Honeywell found records showing high arsenic levels in the park dating to the 1970s, Tablada said.

A Johns Hopkins University public health study in 1976 found that men living within a half-mile of the Allied pesticide plant died of lung cancer at a rate four times that of men in similar urban areas.

The doctor who led the study, Dr. Genevieve Matanoski, said in news reports then that she could not pinpoint arsenic as the cause of the cancer, but the high death rates suggested "an exhaustive inquiry into arsenic hazards needs to be done," according to a 1976 article in The Sun.

An assessment of the risk may finally be conducted more than 30 years later, according to the city Health Department.

tom.pelton@baltsun.com

Sun reporter Rona Marech contributed to this article.

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